Saudi Arabia alone spends well over five times as much on defense as the Islamic Republic, while the United Arab Emirates nearly doubles Tehran’s expenditures by itself. Indeed, even prior to the implementation of crippling multilateral sanctions, Iran only boasted an unimpressive 9 percent of the region’s military outlays . Qualitatively, the military edge shared by the Gulf States over Iran is pronounced. While Iran is often forced to rely on Shah-era weaponry procured before the 1979 revolution, the Saudis and friends deploy highly advanced Western hardware, such as F-16s, Abrams battle tanks, Predator drones, and Patriot (and in the near future THAAD and Russian S-400) missile defense systems. As Justin Logan explains , the Gulf States possess what amounts to a half-century qualitative technological advantage over Iran. The scope of the anti-Iran coalition’s qualitative edge is almost laughable when one factors in Israel’s forces.
But what about Iran’s ballistic-missile program that Washington’s Iran hawks constantly express alarm over? Conveniently, they leave out the fact that Iran is held at risk by the missile arsenals of the likes of Israel and Saudi Arabia, the former, of course, being capable of delivering nuclear payloads. This mutual missile vulnerability and its conventional weaknesses have led Tehran to create a military posture assessed by the Pentagon as being defensive in nature; quite the opposite of the expansionist beast that Iran hawks describe. Indeed, the antipathy towards Iran displayed by the hawks seems to be less about hard-headed calculations concerning the Gulf’s strategic balance and more about their outright refusal to accept that Iran has legitimate security interests of its own.
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.
Despite the empirical reality that terrorism poses a minor nuisance to American lives and geostrategic interests, the United States has waged an indefinite and open-ended global war on terrorism (GWT) since 9/11 that has essentially spanned the globe, albeit with the greater Middle East representing the war’s epicenter. Not only has the war been redundant given hardheaded threat assessments, it has also been largely counterproductive given the GWT’s emphasis on kinetic counterinsurgency tactics and the blowback that has caused. As the Cato Institute’s Trevor Thrall and Erik Goepner aptly point out , “When does 32,200 – 60,000 = 109,000? That seemingly inaccurate equation represents the estimated number of Islamist-inspired terrorists when the war on terror began, how many the United States has killed since 2015, and the number that fight today.” Polls indicate that this blowback gives jihadi recruiters a propaganda win and bolsters their ranks, leading to an indefinite counterinsurgency campaign tantamount to playing whack-a-mole against a constantly replenishing enemy with nary the means to inflict serious damage against the United States. If Washington is serious about decreasing the already low terrorism threat, then perhaps it should heed the advice of the robust field of academic literature that finds that terrorist groups are more likely to thrive thanks to the opportunity model and stop assisting in the creation of failed states.