RECENT PRESIDENTS of both parties have agreed that the United States has vital interests in the Middle East. But the region has become extraordinarily turbulent. Civil wars rage in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya, where central authority and state structures have broken apart. Various regional powers are intervening in these wars, many of which serve as proxy contests between Iran and Saudi Arabia. America is fighting a war against ISIS in Iraq, Syria and, increasingly, Libya. Russia has intervened in the Syrian Civil War.
The chaos convulsing the Middle East concerns the United States but is deeply rooted in local factors—in the failure of Arab governance, regional rivalries, and sectarianism and identity politics run amok. Alas, the last fifteen years have demonstrated the limited ability of the United States to bend these historical forces to achieve its preferred outcomes of peace, prosperity, security and better governance in the region.
Confronted with this clear mismatch between American aspirations and capabilities, some experts are calling for a partial U.S. disengagement from the region, while others want to double down on existing U.S. commitments. Most agree that nonmilitary tools of statecraft are important to protecting American interests and that the United States should continue to use them to address the political, economic and social drivers of instability. The main fault line in this debate focuses heavily on the role of military force in U.S. strategy for the region.
One school of thought contends that America’s credibility and reliability have suffered as a result of the Obama administration’s weak and indecisive leadership and its risk-averse policies, in particular its caution in employing U.S. military force. Members of this camp call for more interventionist U.S. policies and greater reliance on force: destroy the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria; bolster the opposition to the Assad regime by establishing a no-fly zone under U.S. military protection; more aggressively challenge Iranian adventurism.
A second camp argues that the United States can better protect its core interests by pursuing less ambitious goals in the region and minimizing the role of U.S. military power. In light of the nature of the problems, the limits on American power and resources, the costs and risks of large-scale military operations, and competing global priorities, advocates of this view argue that the United States should manage threats to core U.S. interests in the Middle East rather than try to solve intractable local problems.
Against the backdrop of these debates, we address the following questions: How well are America’s core interests in the Middle East being safeguarded? Would the United States be able to protect these interests if it assumed a more minimalist military presence in the region and, in general, more limited involvement? We conclude that, despite the intervention of other outside powers, the humanitarian disasters pouring out of Syria and the instability in the region, the most important U.S. interests are well protected. Given the high costs of a U.S. military presence in the region, we argue for a strategy of “minimum essential U.S. engagement.”
WHAT CONSTITUTES America’s core interests in the Middle East, and are they currently at risk? Are an increased military presence and more liberal use of military force necessary to protect and advance these interests? Republican and Democratic administrations have broadly delineated U.S. core interests in the Middle East, and with a fair amount of consistency. In his September 2013 speech to the UN General Assembly, President Obama described them as: confronting external aggression against U.S. allies and partners; maintaining a free flow of energy; dismantling terrorist networks that threaten the American people; and preventing the development or use of weapons of mass destruction.
Experts argue, of course, that these are not the correct interests—that they either understate or overstate the degree of U.S. concern with the region or fail to account for the domestic U.S. political context in which U.S. policy toward the region is formulated. To be sure, domestic politics make the quest for a consistent, interest-based policy somewhat quixotic. But the important question is whether core interests are being satisfied and to project into the future what needs to be done to protect them. If these are not the correct interests then that case should be made to U.S. leaders and the American public directly. Advocating policies that entail increased risks and greater resources than necessary to protect an undeclared interest only adds to conceptual confusion.
Many experts and some government officials believe that spreading democracy and protecting human rights are core U.S. interests in the Middle East. But U.S. leaders have only asserted these interests inconsistently. President Obama has said that the defense of human rights is a secondary interest that should only be protected with U.S. military force in partnership with other countries, if the costs and risks of intervention are low and the mission is feasible. Moreover, because it is not a core interest it should not drive force planning.
With these distinctions in mind, we analyze each of the four core interests the president outlined. The main challenges facing the Middle East are the rise of ISIS; the civil wars in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya; terrorism in Egypt; and Iran’s aggressive posture that threatens Israel and stokes Sunni extremism. All are serious threats to internal and regional order, but they do not constitute threats of external aggression. To the contrary, they all stem from problems of domestic governance—even the threat of Iranian subversion—and all require solutions that attack that root problem.
The distinction is important because U.S. interests, as articulated by the president, do not require solving internal governance problems. In fact, significant U.S. military involvement in any of these situations could make them worse. U.S. military forces in the Middle East have proven effective at defeating external aggression, overthrowing regimes and confronting organized military forces. They have not been effective at addressing or even improving domestic governance problems. Indeed, a large and long-term U.S. military presence encourages America’s local partners to misbehave, motivates extremists’ efforts to attack U.S. interests and undermines the legitimacy of the people most favorably disposed toward the United States.
THE UNITED STATES has, informally, committed to protecting two sets of regional partners from external aggression: Israel and the Gulf states. (The United States also has a NATO treaty commitment to defend Turkey, but Turkey is widely considered able to defend itself and in any case its defense is not part of the U.S. domestic debate.)
Israel currently enjoys unprecedented security from external aggression by Arab states. The risk of a new Arab-Israeli war has all but disappeared, and the United States should continue U.S. military assistance at current levels to help ensure that Israel maintains its vast qualitative military edge over other Arab countries. Hezbollah poses a potential threat but it has been largely contained. It is hemorrhaging money and men in Syria and a resumption of the missile war with Israel would undermine its domestic political standing in Lebanon while unleashing a ferocious Israeli response against its military assets. In any case, Israel is capable of handling any resumption of Hezbollah missile attacks without U.S. help. Iran has no incentive to attack Israel with conventional military force and lacks the capacity for anything beyond limited and inaccurate missile attacks.
Iran does not now and will not soon pose a serious threat of conventional attack against the Saudis or its Gulf state partners. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) enjoys overwhelming conventional military superiority over Iran. Although Iran may increase defense spending now that it has gained partial relief from sanctions, it will remain far behind the GCC states in conventional military capabilities. U.S. security assurances to the GCC and the continued supply of advanced U.S. weapons and equipment will deter Tehran from large-scale, overt attacks. The Iranians pose a much greater threat of asymmetrical warfare, including cyber and missile attacks against energy-related targets and other critical infrastructure. But a large peacetime U.S. military presence in the Gulf, on land or at sea, is neither necessary nor helpful for deterring these hybrid threats.
Some might argue that ISIS has recently become an external threat to Israel and the Gulf states. ISIS and similar organizations do pose yet another threat of domestic subversion and terrorism directed at the GCC states. But with numerous enemies and relative conventional weakness, they have little capacity to externally threaten either the GCC states or Israel. Moreover, ameliorating the internal conditions that give rise to Islamic extremism in countries like Saudi Arabia offers the best protection against terrorist attacks by ISIS.
THE NEED to maintain a free flow of oil from the Persian Gulf prompted the United States to expand its military presence in the region in the 1970s and again in the 1990s. And even though the GCC’s share of world oil production is decreasing—as the United States taps into vast new energy sources—oil production in the Gulf still accounts for more than 25 percent of world output and continues to have an enormous impact on global oil prices. Maintaining a stable oil price still clearly requires the free flow of oil from the Persian Gulf, regardless of U.S. oil production. Indeed, 20 percent of the oil traded worldwide passes through the Strait of Hormuz.
But the core U.S. interest is preventing sudden price spikes, rather than preventing increases generally. The U.S. and other economies have prospered at oil prices above $100 or $150 a barrel, showing they can adjust to high prices if they rise gradually. Rapid price increases (or decreases), however, can endanger the international economy. Saudi Arabia has traditionally played a role in helping to avoid such spikes. During the first Gulf War, the Saudis ramped up their production capacity to offset the loss of Kuwaiti and Iraqi oil in the market. In 2011, the Saudis upped their production to over ten million barrels per day, a thirty-year high, to compensate for the Libya conflict.
Two developments, however, have made Saudi Arabia’s role as a “swing producer” less important for maintaining a steady oil price. First, the United States has emerged as the new swing producer, capable of responding rapidly to price swings through market mechanisms in ways that rival Saudi Arabia’s central pricing model. Second, Middle Eastern crises don’t have the impact on oil prices that is commonly supposed. This is in part because of America’s new role as a swing producer, but also because the market has recognized that instability in oil-producing regions does not automatically lead to long-term production decreases.
The result has been that oil markets have largely stopped responding to political crises in the region, even when they involve oil-producing states. Leaders of these states (or those who control the oil fields within them) tend to sell the oil. Today, even with large oil producers such as Libya and Iraq engulfed in civil war, the price of oil has fallen sharply. Thus, while protecting the free flow of Persian Gulf oil is still necessary, significant onshore military resources are not needed to do so. Indeed, maintaining U.S. military assets already on-shore in the Gulf, particularly the naval base in Bahrain, might someday not be worth the political cost.
WHAT MOST motivates the use of U.S. military force in the Middle East today is, broadly, terrorism. The president set the goal of degrading and ultimately destroying ISIS and denying terrorist networks safe haven from which to plot and carry out attacks against the U.S. homeland.
Currently, the breakdown of state authority in Yemen, Libya, Syria and Iraq has opened up large territories that are controlled by, or at risk of coming under the control of, extremist Islamist organizations. Many of these organizations, such as ISIS (Iraq/Syria) or Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Yemen), are more insurgent than terrorist, but they often resort to the tactic of terrorism. Many U.S. security officials and outside observers worry about another 9/11-style attack on the U.S. homeland, especially in light of recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels. The failure of American train-and-equip programs to build partner capacity to deal with terrorists and Islamic insurgencies—in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya and Yemen—will stoke these fears and generate louder calls for the deployment of U.S. combat forces.
Fortunately, this fear is largely misplaced. U.S. military forces in the region are neither necessary nor even useful for avoiding terrorist attacks on the U.S. homeland. It is no longer 2001. The United States has become extremely effective at preventing terrorist attacks that emanate from abroad. Despite the endless predictions of such attacks, there has not been another 9/11-type attack in over fourteen years. Terrorist safe havens have existed throughout this period, but as Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations has pointed out, safe havens have little to do with America’s terrorism problem or with the reason the United States has enjoyed relative immunity from foreign terrorist attacks since 9/11.
Instead, more effective U.S. intelligence and border controls have been the keys to ensuring that planned, organized, multiple-person attacks are extremely difficult to carry out undetected—particularly from abroad. The terrorist groups have gotten the message and have largely devoted themselves to their own very pressing problems in defending their positions in areas under their control rather than planning and executing terrorist attacks against the United States. The U.S. homeland-security system, in short, is working. Of course, there can always be lone-wolf or small-scale terrorist attacks in the United States, such as the two-person attack in San Bernardino, California in December 2015. But U.S. military deployments in the Middle East would not prevent such self-starters—and, arguably, would encourage more attacks.
U.S. military forces in the Middle East are also not useful for destroying terrorist safe havens. All experts agree that groups like ISIS and AQAP are symptoms of the political and sectarian struggles in the region. U.S. military forces can continue to inflict military defeats on such groups, but to what end? The U.S.-led multiyear drone and special-operations campaign against AQAP in Yemen killed many key AQAP leaders. But the group continues to thrive and is expanding into the governance vacuums created by the Yemeni Civil War. In Iraq, even a nine-year U.S. occupation was fruitless in creating an inclusive political order in Baghdad, and in the process it inspired the creation of ISIS. In Afghanistan, a similar occupation is extending into its fifteenth year, yet the amount of territory under Taliban control is expanding.
Without progress by local actors on the political front, killing leaders or defeating such groups militarily will do little to reduce the terrorist threat to the United States. Another, perhaps worse, group will simply arise. The United States has proven extraordinarily bad at promoting this kind of local political progress in the Middle East. Moreover, taking the lead against such groups is probably the course of action most likely to draw their attention toward attacks on the U.S. homeland.
U.S. failures to transform political orders in the Middle East are not just a question of the people in charge, political will, strategy or policy implementation. The dismal record of U.S. efforts at political and social engineering in the Middle East also reflects the reality that the U.S. government is not adept at playing regional politics or reforming governing institutions. The United States does not come to these countries without baggage. To the contrary, it has a long and troubled history with the region. The United States has invaded, occupied or bombed twelve Muslim-majority countries in the broader region since 1980 with precious little goodwill to show for it.
And while some regional politicians may act like allies when they want U.S. help, one of the few issues that unites nearly the entire political spectrum of the Arab Middle East is antipathy toward the United States. So, for example, Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi—whom the U.S. helped bring to power last year—said, of reintroducing U.S. ground troops into Iraq, “We don’t want them. We won’t allow them. Full Stop.” To another outlet, he reiterated, “Any foreign ground troops on Iraqi soil will be treated as enemy troops.”
That is the perspective of a U.S. ally. America’s enemies, and they are legion, will probably be even less hospitable. The inevitable mistakes and collateral damage caused by U.S. forces, as always happens during conflict, are unlikely to improve America’s image in the Arab world and may increase the desire to commit terrorism against the United States. In short, as Donald Rumsfeld once put it, the use of U.S. military force against terrorist safe havens unnecessarily risks creating more terrorists than it kills, while failing to improve the political conditions that can actually eliminate terrorist safe havens.
THE U.S. GOVERNMENT has had considerable success in preventing the development and use of WMD in the Middle East. Although the Obama administration failed to deter the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons, Syria’s chemical-weapons disarmament and the Iranian nuclear agreement were major triumphs for American diplomacy and multilateral cooperation. In the short-to-medium term, the nuclear agreement with Iran has probably forestalled Arab countries (and Turkey) from seeking nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, the risk that Iran could cheat, sneak out or break out over the next ten to fifteen years remains a concern.
Crucially, U.S. success on the WMD front in the Middle East has been the result of effective multilateral cooperation and other nonkinetic tools, including military assistance, security assurances, multilateral sanctions and cyber operations. In the event that Saudi Arabia, Egypt or any other Arab country threatened to develop a nuclear weapons program, the United States would retain a powerful capacity to deter, prevent and respond to acquisition.
In addition to organizing international sanctions and diplomatic isolation, the United States could tighten export controls, step up interdiction efforts and cut off security-force assistance to Arab partners. The United States could also, in extremis, cut off diplomatic relations with any Arab country that was in material breach of its NPT obligations or conduct its own counter-WMD attacks. America could also offer positive incentives to deter WMD proliferation, including extending the U.S. nuclear umbrella and increasing military assistance and intelligence cooperation.
Iran’s main incentive to acquire nuclear weapons is to deter U.S. conventional attacks. To the extent that a lower U.S. military presence in the region diminishes those fears, Iran would be less likely to resume its bid for nuclear weapons once the restrictions on its program expire.
The idea that significant U.S. military forces need to be maintained in the region to deter Iranian violations of the agreement misconstrues what likely brought Iran to the negotiating table. It was not primarily the fear of a U.S. military attack against its nuclear program; rather, it was the economic damage wrought by multilateral sanctions. Accordingly, deterring Iran from cheating will require a credible threat to reimpose those sanctions, not a relatively less meaningful threat to bomb some nuclear facilities.
In sum, the United States will have a broad array of effective nonkinetic options to handle the WMD proliferation problem in the Middle East. Even if selective military strikes were necessary to destroy nuclear infrastructure, these operations would not require a large peacetime U.S. military presence in the region, but rather the ability to rapidly project conventional force from the United States or other theaters, American sea-based assets or facilities in and around the Arabian Sea—that is, with the kind of military posture the United States maintained in the region between 1983 and 1991.
CORE U.S. INTERESTS in the Middle East are well protected and could remain so with even fewer U.S. military forces stationed in the region. Additional applications of military might are not required or even useful for protecting these interests.
Instead of increased military interventionism, the United States should adopt the principle of “minimum essential engagement” in the Middle East. As in any area where the United States has interests, it should remain engaged and retain sufficient military and nonmilitary tools to defend them. But because the United States is broadly disliked and ineffective at improving governance in the region, because major U.S. efforts there often backfire, and because U.S. resources are scarce and needed elsewhere, the United States should limit that engagement to what is absolutely necessary to protect core interests. This principle would allow a gradual decrease in the current onshore presence of U.S. military forces in the region, including in the Persian Gulf. It would certainly counsel against involvement in the various Middle Eastern civil wars or new transformational initiatives to reform Arab domestic governance or other forms of social engineering.
Any U.S. strategy that avoids deeper involvement in Middle Eastern civil wars or reduces U.S. military deployments in the region will irritate U.S. partners. Many of them have long relied on Washington to assume defense commitments that they would rather not. They have asserted, like many voices in the United States, that U.S. caution and lack of leadership, which are usually code words for a refusal to use military force, will create an impression of weakness and open up a vacuum that other powers—particularly Russia or Iran—will exploit. In this view, Russia’s intervention in Syria as well as Iran’s meddling in the civil wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen prove the point.
Such arguments resonate in the United States because they tap into a deeply held view that Washington has the power and the responsibility to order the world. This has never really been true and is even less the case today with new powers rising. Under such circumstances, the United States will need to limit its commitments to what is truly important. Better governance in places like Syria and Iraq is important to regional states, but it is not easy to achieve, especially for outside powers—and even if achieved, it yields no geopolitical prize. The U.S. invasion of Iraq made the United States more influential in Iraqi governance than it was when Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq. But it did not make the United States stronger. The United States does not need control of Iraq to protect its core interests in the region. In Syria, Russia will likely find that the game is not worth the candle.
This conclusion is not reflected in the current U.S. presidential campaign and in the views expressed by the two presumptive nominees. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have proposed increasing U.S. military activity in the Middle East. As political scientist Stephen Walt has noted, the tendency in the U.S. domestic political debate to equate any aversion to the use of military force with weakness and indecisive leadership is one reason the military instrument features so prominently in these discussions. The failure to solve the region’s humanitarian problems, reflected on a daily basis in heartrending detail on various news outlets, presents a golden opportunity for the two leading presidential candidates to offer a more assertive policy toward the region backed by superior American military power. There are only two problems with the remedies the American public will be hearing for Middle Eastern problems between now and November 2016. First, they aren’t necessary and, second, they will probably make things worse instead of better.
Jeremy Shapiro is director of research at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Richard Sokolsky is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Both are former members of the secretary of state’s policy planning staff.
Image: President Barack Obama waves as he departs King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh. Flickr/The White House.