Why America Needs to Pull Its Troops Out of the Middle East

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks to troops in a hangar at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan

If policymakers are serious about decreasing the already low terrorism threat, then they should heed the advice of experts.

Luckily, the strategic balance in the Gulf lends itself to mutual deterrence, as both sides are too weak to meaningfully project power at the other’s existential expense (nonetheless rule over a population that is overwhelmingly the opposite sect of Islam), which renders offense prohibitively costly. If it is determined that it is still in the United States’ vital interest to prevent the rise of a Gulf hegemon, then the United States would be wise to move offshore and adopt an over-the-horizon posture and allow local actors to uphold the balance of power themselves. Doing so would save Washington considerable treasure and free up strategic attention that can be focused elsewhere in more pertinent strategic theatres (such as actually pivoting to Asia). In the exceedingly unlikely instance that the Gulf’s power balance breaks down, the United States can quickly project power from its carrier strike groups and long-range strategic bombers, move onshore to help restore the status quo, and leave. It is also worth noting that America’s onshore presence (in liberal democratic stalwarts like Qatar and Bahrain) inflames anti-American sentiment, exacerbating the threat posed by terrorists (more on that below).

The elephant in the room when discussing supposed U.S. interests warranting kinetic action in the Middle East, of course, is terrorism. As scholars such as John Mueller have aptly documented, the United States spends a wildly disproportionate amount of money combatting Salafi-jihadist terrorism given the negligible threat that it poses to American lives and interests. Since 1970, the odds of an American being killed in a terrorist attack is one in four million per year, an exceedingly low risk by any reasonable risk assessment barometer. Since 9/11, a horrifying attack that is nonetheless an extreme statistical outlier in terms of death and destruction, the odds of an American being killed in a terrorist attack drop to an astronomical one in fifty million per year. Indeed, the six Americans per year since 9/11 that have perished in terrorist attacks were significantly more statistically likely to be killed in freak accidents such as lightning strikes or by drowning in their bathtubs. Notwithstanding these empirical realities, the United States spends roughly $100 billion per year (along with the cost in human life and diverted geostrategic attention) combatting the miniscule threat posed by jihadists as part of its global war on terrorism. If one assumes that $14 million per life saved is an acceptable cost burden to regulators (this number is significantly higher than the $1 million per life saved that regulators tend to follow), there would have to be six thousand to seven thousand American lives saved per year from jihadists in order for this expenditure to be cost effective.