Since the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the United States has steadily grown its military presence in the Middle East. The policy was articulated and justified in the Carter Doctrine of early 1980 whereby the United States would “use military force, if necessary, to defend its national interests in the Persian Gulf.” This doctrine generated a separate military command to oversee operations, the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force, which became CENTCOM three years later.
The current U.S. military footprint is immense. CENTCOM forces, both civilian and military, numbered over ninety-thousand in March 2020, with less than 20 percent of that force in Iraq and Afghanistan. CENTCOM executes over $2 billion annually in Security Assistance funds (another $3.1 billion goes to Israel) and maintains dozens of bases, airfields, training missions and headquarters in a region stretching from Egypt to Pakistan. The size and expanse of the presence has overwhelmed other more conventional forms of engagement—diplomatic, commercial, cultural, foreign assistance, etc. One U.S. ambassador lamented that at least one CENTCOM general visited him every month, while the State Department had not sent an assistant secretary for consultations in over a year. This begs the question of whether the enormous military presence has achieved much beyond security, and whether America’s reliance on the U.S. military as the most significant element in pursuing its foreign policy objectives in the Middle East is flawed.
To many, the answer is self-evident. To others, the strategy is counterproductive. In some views, the United States has masterminded coups, conducted invasions, supported rebellions, deployed troops for too long and dangerously sold advanced weaponry. Today, as thousands of American troops depart their bases in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, they leave behind failed states, metastasized terror groups, rampant poverty, and an unprecedented number of refugees. Notions of declining U.S. influence coincide with rising involvement by the Chinese and Russians, along with increased attempts by Iran to capitalize on a series of unfortunate American unforced errors and blunders.
Yet, many in the United States do not share that concern. Robert Manning of the Atlantic Council argued that “there is no obvious replacement, no nation with the economic and military power and comparable values to which to pass the baton.” Henry J. Barkey, adjunct senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, shared these sentiments late last year: “There is no substitute for American soft power, however damaged one may think it is today. America in particular and the West, in general, are what the region’s people aspire to emulate.”
While this may not be a problem today, other powers are attempting to compete against U.S. influence using different and likely more effective models. While the U.S. administration remains anchored on a menu of military forces, military assistance and sanctions-based coercion, arch-rivals Russia and China have moved in alongside a still-ambitious Iran to expand their roles in a changing Middle East.
America Demolishes, Russia Rebuilds
While U.S.-supported operations have resulted in destroyed homes and cities across the region, Russia has gained influence and leverage by routinely offering to rebuild critical infrastructure, buildings and pipelines.
Though the Kremlin’s role in the carnage and destruction in Syria is unquestioned, it is often eclipsed by Russia’s skillful use of soft power to promote an image of a “superpower with a conscience,” one that extends humanitarian assistance and respects Syria’s culture by pledging to restore ancient heritage sites destroyed in the war. While the United States is criticized for supporting armed extremist groups against Bashar Al-Assad, Russia has positioned itself “as the main actor in the Syrian reconstruction process.”
In late 2019, as America came under fire for turning its back on Kurdish allies in Syria in a bid to salvage frayed relations with Turkey, Moscow announced plans for Syria’s reconstruction, including $500 million for the development of the Tartus seaport, the exploration of oil and gas, and the allocation of $200 million to restore a fertilizer plant in Homs. This is in addition to delivering tons of Russian grain as humanitarian aid and $17 million for UN relief efforts in Syria.
In Iraq, Russia has made sizeable investments in the country’s energy industry (more than $10 billion), security infrastructure, media landscape, and government. In 2008, Moscow wrote off the bulk of Iraq’s Soviet-era $12.9 billion of debt in exchange for access to one of the world’s largest oil fields.
The Kremlin has also raised its profile among Gulf Arab states. President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Riyadh and Dubai in 2019 resulted in $3.4 billion worth of agreements. Another notable development has been the blossoming relationship between Russia and Israel.
One other factor weighs heavily in the mind of regional leaders—Russia’s espoused policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. While this principle is being sorely tested in Syria, it stands in stark contrast to the U.S. record of coups, regime change, “freedom agendas” and other policies seen regionally in a harsh light.
In sum, while Russia offers to rebuild the war-ravaged states of the Arab world along with lucrative trade and investment deals, America’s leadership speaks of using Iraq as a springboard to spy on and attack neighboring Iran, offending the Arab sense of sovereignty, and praises the Israeli prime minister to a bemused and baffled audience at the American University in Cairo. Moscow is also showing the region’s rulers that it can be a reliable partner, unlike the United States, which cut ties with former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak at the first sign of trouble. Assad may be a regional pariah, but Russia’s fidelity to him over the years—especially in the worst of times—is not lost on other regional leaders.
U.S. Security vs Chinese Prosperity
If the United States has touted stability and democracy to justify its military campaigns in the Middle East, China has quietly entered the battle for influence under the slogan of prosperity and economic cooperation—with no strings attached. Having observed the pitfalls of American interventionism, China instead adopted a narrative of neutral engagement with all countries—including those that are at odds with each other—on the basis of mutually beneficial agreements, as a European Council on Foreign Relations report puts it. Additionally, like Russia, China’s policy of non-interference (and non-intervention) in the internal affairs of other countries contrasts sharply with the U.S. record of problematic activism.
Indeed, China has now become the largest investor in the Middle East region. In 2018, China committed $20 billion in loans for reconstruction in the Arab world, as well as $3 billion in loans for the banking sector. China has also provided a mixture of concessional, preferred, and commercial loans, as well as currency swaps, to support central banks and fund infrastructure projects which use Chinese companies and Chinese labor.
Pivotal to China’s growing presence in the Middle East is the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), which seeks to create greater connectivity between Asia, Africa and Europe as a means of boosting China’s economic growth. The Middle East is especially important to the maritime element of the initiative due to China’s dependency on energy imports by sea as well as the region’s strategic location at the crossroads between Asia, Europe and Africa.
In Yemen, Chinese diplomats hold routine meetings with all parties in the war-torn country given China's long-term ambition to benefit from Yemen’s geostrategic position straddling international shipping lanes and Chinese trade with Europe.
In Syria, not unlike Russia, China has supported Bashar al-Assad’s government against ISIS and armed opposition groups. Beijing’s anti-ISIS position and cooperation with Damascus over counter-terrorism issues stem from its problems with Uighur militants. From an economic perspective, however, the port city of Tartus and Damascus represent alternative trade routes to the Suez Canal.
In Iraq, while the United States remains focused on the growing influence of Iran, some analysts warn that China is the more “menacing” power to watch. Iraqi oil exports to China jumped to approximately $20 billion in 2018, making Iraq the country’s fourth-largest supplier, and the volume of trade between the two countries now exceeds $30 billion annually.
Beijing has also deepened its presence in the Gulf Arab countries. Chinese foreign direct investment into the GCC is substantial, at nearly $90 billion between 2005 and 2018.
Throughout the region, analysts point to a “growing interest among the region’s states to pursue the ‘China Model’ at the expense of the ‘Washington Consensus’ that has traditionally defined foreign economic presence in the region.”
“The Washington Consensus, defined by Western value-oriented free-market economic ideals… is losing traction among Middle Eastern regimes due to the ideological and political baggage that accompanies it,” argues Jordan-based China researcher Nicholas Lyall.
U.S. Invaders vs Iranian Neighbors
No discussion would be complete without noting the role of Iran. From the outset of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, its goal remains an Islamist revival across the Muslim world. While seen as a threat among Arab leaders, Iran often speaks of “brotherhood” when referencing regional countries or politicians, and emphasizes the centuries of cultural ties which bind the people of the region and transcend modern-day borders.