In May 2003, then-President George W. Bush unfurled a now-infamous banner aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln declaring the U.S. military mission in Iraq “Mission Accomplished.” The action, which in hindsight marked only the beginning (not the end) of the U.S. military mission in the region, illustrated, in grand and bombastic American fashion, the absurdity of American efforts to simply will policy results into existence. Today, almost two decades later, there are increasing calls for the U.S. military to end or curtail its military mission in the Middle East.
Far from representing the wishful triumphalism of Bush’s 2003 rationale, today’s banner advocating for military disengagement from the region would not read “Mission Accomplished” but rather “Mission Conceded.” Mired in stalemates that have brought America’s “forever wars“ into sharp focus and perceiving new (and decidedly more existential) threats from great power competition (GPC), experts continually advance arguments advocating for severe drawdowns in the region to rebalance American strategic efforts towards GPC threats. While there is much merit and wisdom in analyzing, prioritizing, and aligning U.S. military contributions against GPC threats as the potentially defining American challenge of the twenty-first century, neither the efficacy of military-led efforts in GPC nor the inefficacy of military efforts in the Middle East should be taken for granted. In fact, once detangled from popular myths regarding U.S. military contributions in the Middle East, preserving a strong military presence in the Middle East not only represents the best use of military power to secure and protect Americans and American sovereignty, but it also provides the most appropriate means to compete with and maintain military advantages against great-power competitors.
One of the most consistent and damning arguments for withdrawing American military forces from the Middle East rests on the dual assertion that American forces are both grossly ineffective and that such forces, without adding any security benefits to Americans, represent expensive commitments and inviting targets for enemy forces seeking to physically degrade American military capabilities and symbolically erode American prestige. However, these arguments, seemingly impenetrable, are as correct as they are incomplete.
Dealing first with the contention that American military forces in the Middle East are wastefully ineffective, it is true that military-led nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan have been dismally ineffective. Unfortunately, these massive (and expensive) failures of military-led nation-building efforts in the Middle East (and beyond) conflate and mask the highly successful counterterrorism (CT) operations that have consistently decapitated the leadership of terrorist organizations, smashed terrorist strongholds throughout the region, and limited the ability of terrorist groups to conduct external operations on U.S. soil. Bluntly, the failures of the American military’s nation-building efforts in the Middle East are exceeded only by the successes of its CT efforts. Recognizing the stark and monumental outcome differences between military-led nation-building operations and CT operations allows for a more balanced and accurate assessment of the American footprint (and its true costs) in the Middle East. While American military forces may be susceptible to enemy attacks from their forward positions in the Middle East, they also prosecute operations that disrupt terrorism in tangible ways that continue to keep Americans safe. In short, in the conduct of its CT mission, forward-deployed troops are more often the predator (on America’s behalf) than the prey. Arguments advocating for the wholesale withdrawal of American forces from the Middle East jeopardize American lives to exactly the extent that they fail to distinguish the difference between successful (and still required) CT operations and failed nation-building efforts.
If a failure to recognize the security imperatives of a persistent American military presence in the Middle East represents the strongest myth perpetuating calls for American disengagement, a dogmatic belief in the “zero-sum” resource ledger for GPC efforts represents the loudest. According to this position, military commitments in the Middle East automatically decrease military readiness for GPC threats in a “zero-sum” relationship and thus threats from great power competitors require the American military to rebalance towards competition with China and Russia. Given the stakes of GPC, certainly a reprioritization of resources is prudent and necessary. But how much and from what elements of national power?
For those who take the increasingly old-fashioned view that the job of the U.S. military is to fight and win the nation’s wars in armed conflict, there are plenty of reasons to doubt the logic of removing American forces from the Middle East in exchange for GPC contributions. The obtuse belief that the military exists to fight and win in armed conflict establishes that the further away the military gets from conducting tasks associated with combat, the less useful and effective such military operations become (this is why military-led nation-building fails). But in GPC, operations short of armed conflict will, by design, be the norm. In fact, given the established role of nuclear deterrence that has prevented “hot war” between great powers since World War II, it is reasonable to conclude that “hot war” (featuring the kinds of activities that the U.S. military is best suited for) will not occur until/unless a great power nation solves the second-strike equation of nuclear deterrence. Notice, at issue here is not whether or not GPC nations pose critical threats to the United States—they do—but what instruments of national power are best suited to deal with them in the current and projected environment. Thus, empowering the diplomatic, information, and economic elements of national power (i.e., those elements explicitly designed to compete in alternate arenas apart from armed conflict) to assume a leading role in addressing GPC threats makes more sense than “militarizing“ American foreign policy in areas where it need not be militarized and at the expense of areas where it must remain “militarized“ (i.e., the Middle East). Plainly, if GPC requires competitive actions short of war, and if credible security threats to the American people persist in the Middle East requiring war-like combat capabilities, then it makes little sense to shift the military from tasks that it is best suited for and align it against tasks for which it is less suited (compared to other elements of national power).
Not only does “zero-sum” thinking misalign military resources away from its core and essential purpose, but it discounts and undermines the enduring advantages of the American military vis-à-vis GPC nations. One of the most striking attributes of the modern Chinese military is its inexperience in projecting combat force outside of the Chinese mainland. What, for instance, does China know about deploying, sustaining, and fighting with large combat forces far from home, in different environments, and for long periods of time? The answer is not nearly as much as the American military that has been doing precisely that for over twenty continuous years. To be sure, this is not to suggest unending commitments to American “forever wars” or that the American military should keep its forces in the Middle East simply to outpace the Chinese military in combat experience. Rather, it is to highlight that as the U.S. military performs its critical and still-required CT mission in the Middle East, it simultaneously and naturally (out-) competes with China in significant ways that help preserve military advantages in GPC. Re-framed this way, any hasty “realignment” of forces away from the Middle East to support GPC efforts elsewhere (for activities short of war) automatically represents an erosion of the American military competitive advantage against China.
Because the above arguments are perhaps unconventional and outside mainstream narratives regarding the American military presence in the Middle East, it is worth clarifying their intent and limitations. First, keeping American forces in the Middle East to address ongoing security threats does not imply that no changes to the American footprint are necessary or desirable. Rather, detangling the CT and nation-building activities distills the sustainable capabilities that should remain and those capabilities (and resultant costs) that perhaps require reexamination. Likewise, preserving the American military presence in the Middle East to (militarily) address GPC threats does not imply that such actions represent the only contributions from the U.S. military in GPC or that competitive gains in GPC should wholly justify the military presence in the region. It is not that American military efforts in the Middle East represent the only contributions, but rather that, given the stated purpose of the military, they may represent the most appropriate—a point that “zero-sum” thinking misses.
Certainly, the world would be a safer place if no security threats compelled an American military presence in the Middle East. Military contributions to GPC threats should take on more dimensions than simply honing combat capabilities and should include the critical domains of capability development, rediscovering the unique Special Operations Forces (SOF) capabilities for competition, and force modernization. Nevertheless, if GPC will exist primarily at competitive levels beneath armed conflict, then the tools best suited for that challenge should come primarily from other elements of national power and should certainly not divert military resources from executing its primary purpose (armed conflict) on behalf of the American people. As a concluding warning, it is perhaps worth mentioning that a hasty withdrawal from the region has been tried before and it contributed to the rise of a terrorist organization arguably more ruthless and powerful at its zenith than Al Qaeda while also empowering GPC nations and rogue regimes in the region. In short, when America left the Middle East prematurely, both its CT and GPC efforts suffered dramatic setbacks.