Washington Doubles Down on Middle East Ties

Reducing US commitments in the Middle East and pivoting to Asia has been a hot topic among foreign policy analysts and Middle East experts since the idea was put forward in former President Barack Obama’s first term. The moment seemed right for a change. With the formal end of the US combat mission in Iraq in 2011, the defeat of the so-called Islamic State’s “caliphate” in 2017, and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, the United States was no longer engaged in major combat operations anywhere in the broader Middle East and North Africa. The rise of a more aggressive China and the growing economic importance of the Indo-Pacific region seemed to demand greater involvement by the United States. The apparently intractable problems of the Middle East, from the Arab-Israeli conflict to the threat of Iran, seemed impervious to decades of US diplomatic or military attention. The United States would be better off, many in the policy community thought, by shifting resources, paying less attention to the problems of the Middle East, and focusing on more critical challenges elsewhere.

However, Russia’s war in Ukraine has radically transformed US diplomatic and security priorities. And as great power competition in the Middle East intensified, President Joe Biden’s initial impulse to reduce US involvement in the region and chastise its leaders for their egregious abuses of human rights was transformed into a new policy of outcompeting Russia and China while countering Iran. This meant, in part, taking on new and increasingly burdensome political and security commitments.

Today, the US appears poised to assume even more responsibilities for its partners’ defense, including security guarantees that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. These new obligations are reinforced by a massive, longstanding American military presence in the region that shows every indication of being permanent. As the United States’ latest moves to protect its interests in the Middle East take shape, it seems that if there was ever a moment when Washington could draw back from the Middle East, that moment has passed.

Mixed Signals on US Commitment

This was not always the case. During the first year of President Biden’s term, discussion within the administration and the Washington foreign policy establishment centered on the decreasing importance of the Middle East to US strategic calculations and the rising necessity of shifting resources away from the region to focus more intently on the Indo-Pacific region.

Obama’s signaling about reducing the US footprint in the region caused alarm among the United States’ closest partners, particularly Saudi Arabia.

The debate is not new, of course; the Obama administration aired a proposal for a “pivot to Asia” from the Middle East in late 2011. But it did not go as planned. Obama’s signaling about reducing the US footprint in the region—along with his successful efforts to conclude a nuclear deal with Iran—caused alarm among the United States’ closest partners, particularly Saudi Arabia, and was one reason the kingdom and other Arab states sought to hedge their bets on Washington by building closer ties with Moscow and Beijing.

For all his vehement disagreements with Obama, former President Donald Trump shared his aversion to getting entangled in commitments in the region; but his attempts to express that in policy terms left a legacy of confusion among regional partners. Trump floated plans to pull US troops out of the Middle East and Afghanistan several times, and his sudden announcement that he was withdrawing all US forces from Syria in 2018 surprised the military and precipitated the resignation of then Defense Secretary James Mattis. Trump occasionally criticized Saudi Arabia and other states for not being sufficiently committed to their own defense, but touted his success in selling them arms while also protecting them from congressional efforts to cut off weapons sales. At the end of his term in office, Trump had succeeded in reducing the overall US force presence in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, against the advice of military leadership. But a substantial US presence nonetheless remained embedded throughout the region.

A Little Changed US Military Footprint

It is this massive presence that successive presidents have contemplated reducing, without notable effect. The United States currently maintains between 40,000 and 60,000 troops in the 21 countries in the US Central Command area of responsibility (CENTCOM AOR), a number that varies depending on regional exigencies and troop rotations. These forces are mainly stationed at bases in Jordan, Iraq, and the Arabian Peninsula. US troop missions in the CENTCOM AOR are broadly focused on counterterrorism, as well as on what can be broadly described as “regional security and stability” activities, including exercises, training, and other forms of security cooperation, the need for which has hardly diminished.

The United States currently maintains between 40,000 and 60,000 troops in the 21 countries in the US Central Command area of responsibility.

All this amounts to a massive and, to all appearances, permanent US presence in the Middle East. As political scientist Marc Lynch has stated, “The United States’ network of bases and deployments may be low when compared with the mid-2000s, but it is rather more extensive than it was during the peak of the 1990s US unipolar moment.” In fact, as Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl told the Manama Dialogue last November, “The United States remains committed to the region. We’re here and we’re not going anywhere.”

Policy Debate in Washington: Less is More

Amid the churn and mixed messages of the last few years, leading Middle East analysts were making a strong case for a thorough re-evaluation of the US presence in the region. Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky argued that, “The turbulent Middle East—where more often than not American ideas go to die—has become decidedly less important to American foreign policy and to our interests.…American leadership and exceptionalism cannot fix a broken Middle East or play a major role in leading it to a better future.” They advocated a much smaller US military presence, with special forces and over-the-horizon capabilities employed as needed to respond to terrorism and military contingencies.

Others, including Biden’s former campaign advisor and now National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, advocated a policy that would be “less ambitious in terms of the military ends the United States seeks and in its efforts to remake nations from within, but more ambitious in using US leverage and diplomacy to press for a de-escalation in tensions and eventually a new modus vivendi among the key regional actors.” Vigorous diplomacy and re-sizing the US military presence to reflect a “more modest regional engagement,” as Tamara Cofman Wittes put it, were seen by Sullivan and others as the future of American regional policy.

Biden’s enthusiastic embrace of the Abraham Accords, became the foundation of his Middle East policy.

As president, Joe Biden was more than happy to adopt this approach. He revived Obama’s concept of a pivot to the Indo-Pacific region, promising to redirect America’s strategic efforts to meet the challenge of a more aggressive China while simultaneously de-emphasizing the Middle East. With Sullivan in the National Security Advisor’s office, the Biden administration presumed that creative US diplomacy could encourage regional actors to negotiate their differences and find new ways to cooperate, obviating the need for either a significant US military presence or frequent diplomatic intervention to deal with regional conflicts. Biden’s enthusiastic embrace of the Trump administration’s singular Middle East diplomatic triumph, the Abraham Accords—which normalized relations between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain (soon followed by Morocco and Sudan)—became the foundation of his Middle East policy.

Ukraine Redirects US Strategy

If any serious consideration of paring back US involvement in the Middle East were contemplated, however, the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 changed both the narrative and the thinking in Washington. The disruption to global oil markets forced Biden to abandon his earlier hard line on both Saudi Arabia (even if it was mostly rhetorical) and its controversial crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). In July 2022 Biden found it necessary to visit the kingdom and importune MBS to increase oil production in an effort to curb energy prices. While the effort was unsuccessful, the Biden visit was crucial for another reason: it marked the end of any immediate plans to extricate the United States from its commitments in the region and the start of a process to deepen American political and security ties to regional autocracies.

During his trip, Biden announced that the United States “will not walk away [from the Middle East] and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran,” and promised to demonstrate “active, principled American leadership.” While this statement emerged naturally from his rhetoric about defending global democracy against autocratic advances, it was also an acknowledgment that the war in Ukraine and continually rising US-China tensions had suddenly vaulted this issue to the top of the US foreign policy agenda. In Jeddah, Biden met with the leaders of the GCC+3 (the additional three states being Egypt, Iraq and Jordan), where, according to a White House fact sheet, he underscored the “centrality” of the Middle East to the United States and highlighted America’s “enduring commitment to the security and territorial defense of US partners.”

What this meant was becoming clear even before Biden’s Middle East trip. The United States indicated that it is backing a so-called “Middle East Air Defense Alliance,” which Israel is actively organizing with its Abraham Accords partner, the United Arab Emirates, with potential Saudi involvement. Legislation recently introduced into Congress would require the Pentagon to develop a plan for an “integrated air and missile defense system” that is primarily intended to protect the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq, from Iranian attacks and also be used for “other purposes.” The integrated air defense scheme might only be the tip of the iceberg: the United States is reportedly considering a formal commitment to defend the Gulf states—possibly starting with the UAE—against outside threats.

In addition to the behind-the-scenes maneuvering to deepen regional security partnerships, Biden has been careful to show Saudi Arabia signs of respect.

In addition to the behind-the-scenes maneuvering to deepen regional security partnerships, Biden has been careful to show Saudi Arabia signs of respect. During his Saudi visit, the White House announced a “new bilateral framework for cooperation” on 5G/6G telecommunications networks that is intended to rival the Chinese firm Huawei’s investments in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. A separate communiqué reaffirmed Washington’s “strategic partnership” with Saudi Arabia, touting US-Saudi cooperation in diverse fields.

The Ties That Bind

With these latest moves to strengthen ties to the Gulf and other regional partners and allies, the United States seems to be implicitly acknowledging that it sees no way out of the Middle East for now. The current international situation, as well as the gravitational pull of Washington’s political and military infrastructure in the region, will not permit a disentanglement. This infrastructure of course includes the complicated diplomatic relationships that the United States has spent decades developing. But it also comprises the vast and lucrative web of trade connections, business ties, and economic interests—particularly energy and arms sales—that bind the US and the region. In addition, the network of military bases and basing rights that the US enjoys not only furnish the United States with an invaluable forward presence in a strategic region, but its very existence is vital to maintaining those close political ties and the trust of host nations. Any major changes to this presence would not be easy, and perhaps are not possible without provoking a crisis of confidence.

While the current US approach helps strengthen the ability of regional states to cooperate in their own defense, the elaborate diplomatic architecture required to bring this about only deepens said states’ dependence on Washington’s leadership role. And developments over the last year have reinforced regional leaders’ willingness to play the Russia or China card to extract new concessions from the United States, concessions that the administration has been quick to offer. For now, the United States seems to be more firmly mired in the region than ever before, and content to make the best of it while leveraging old ties to confront current threats. Any hoped-for US retrenchment from the Middle East will therefore have to wait.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: US DoD