May 22, 2024
Fight the closest alligator to the boat. A useful maxim in the tactical realm but never a prudent method of prioritization at the strategic level. While Russia wages war in Ukraine and China continues its expansion in the Indo-Pacific theater, many argue it's time for the United States to divest itself of its involvement in the Middle East. Brennan Deveraux makes the case that there are far more reasons to maintain focus in the region than not. Despite recently ending decades of major military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are basing and overflight rights, trade considerations, and, of course, oil that the global economy is still dependent upon that are all necessary to defend against other newly arisen threats.

While the United States has recently shifted its efforts to the Indo-Pacific region and increased its military presence in Europe, the Middle East continues to demand attention.

The Middle East problem is not going away. The region has become a proverbial Hotel California; the United States can check out anytime it likes, but it can never leave.

With a rising China and a major land war in Europe, many analysts have called for the United States to move on from the Middle East, penning articles like “The Middle East Isn’t Worth It Anymore,” “The Middle East Just Doesn’t Matter as Much Any Longer,” and “The End of America’s Middle East.” While the United States has recently shifted its efforts to the Indo-Pacific region and increased its military presence in Europe, the Middle East continues to demand attention. From the ongoing clash between Israel and Hamas to an uptick of terrorist attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea and U.S. military bases in Iraq and Syria, actions in the Middle East are drawing the United States back to the region because instability or degraded U.S. influence comes with strategic consequences. Although the Middle East may no longer be the nation’s top priority, the U.S. military cannot afford to lose focus on a region that is historically ingrained into foreign policy, remains vital to national interests, and has become a competitive space for the great powers.

Enduring Policy: A Willingness to Use Military Force

The United States commitment to the Middle East extends well beyond the Global War on Terror operations that have consumed the attention of the U.S. military for roughly two decades. Presidents have publicly declared support for the strategically important region for generations and included a willingness to commit military force in their policies. While many of these Cold War policies were linked to an existential Soviet threat, they were still fundamentally about protecting U.S. interests abroad.

In January 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower gave a special message to Congress regarding the Middle East. He warned that “a threat to the territorial integrity or political independence” of nations in the region must “be viewed by the United States with the utmost gravity.” He asked Congress for certain authorities to help strengthen the Middle East and promote stability. This included proposals to develop economic packages and conduct military assistance and cooperation, similar to how the United States operates in the region today. More importantly, his proposal included the authority to employ the armed forces to maintain this stability “against overt armed aggression from any nation controlled by International Communism.” While defeating communism remained the focus in the years to come, stability in the Middle East and access to natural resources became recurring themes.

Facing an energy crisis, President Jimmy Carter outlined his policy for the region in his 1980 State of the Union Address: “Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” This broader policy did not focus on any individual threat. Instead, the president made it clear that access to the Middle East is critical to national interests, something emphasized through the actions of the following two presidents.

When war broke out in the region between Iran and Iraq in 1980, the United States was once again drawn to the region. In early 1987, President Ronald Reagan expressed his concern with the instability the war had brought to the Middle East. Additionally, he stated that the United States remains “strongly committed to ensuring the free flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz.” U.S. warships have continually been used to accomplish this very task.

These historical policies finally culminated when Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990. President George H.W. Bush committed the U.S. military to restore stability and addressed the United States to explain his decision. He highlighted Iraq’s role in the world as an oil producer and invoked the same historical argument made in this piece, outlining as one of his guiding principles that his “administration, as has been the case with every President from President Roosevelt to President Reagan, is committed to the security and stability of the Persian Gulf.”

For roughly seventy years, the precedent was set to support national interests in the region, many of which remain relevant today.

National Interests in the Region

U.S. policy has historically focused on the Middle East because of its value to national interests. However, for many reasons, from the fall of the Soviet Union to the United States becoming more energy-independent, some have argued that these interests are no longer as relevant. For example, Martin Indyk, the former U.S. Ambassador to Israel, argues that “with few vital American interests still at stake there, the U.S. should finally set aside its grandiose ambitions for the chaotic region.” Similarly, Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace fellows, contend that the Middle East “has become decidedly less important to American foreign policy and … interests.”

Although these interests may not be as essential to the United States as they were during the Cold War, they are nonetheless enough to potentially warrant U.S. military action. The strikes against Yemen in January serve as an easy reminder of this fact. In 2020, the Middle East Institute identified five specific economic and security interests that serve as a simple framework for understanding the continued importance of the region.

The first is arguably the most enduring: the need to maintain “the free flow of energy and trade to world markets.” While many anti-war protestors chanted “no blood for oil” in the lead up to the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 Iraq invasion, it cannot be discounted that the Middle East contains nearly half of the world’s oil reserves, and roughly one-fifth of the world’s oil and liquefied natural gas pass through the Strait of Hormuz. Additionally, nearly twelve percent of global trade transits the Suez Canal, the shortest sea route from Europe to Southeast Asia. Consequently, stability and access to the region are prerequisites for economic prosperity.

The second and third interests the Middle East Institute identified focus on keeping the region stable. The second interest is “countering the spread of nuclear weapons,” and the third is “combating terrorism groups.” Realistically, these are more general challenges the United States faces globally and can be categorized as critical requirements to a broader interest of global stability and status quo security.

The fourth national interest is allies and partners. Appearing nearly fifty times in the 2022 National Security Strategy, strengthening relationships with allies and partners globally is foundational for U.S. strategy and policy. However, like stability, this objective does not differentiate the Middle East from any other region. Instead, this national interest in the Middle East revolves around a special ally in Israel.

While America’s primary adversaries may be located in the European and Indo-Pacific theaters, the Middle East is likely to be a competitive space.

The U.S. special relationship with Israel has been embedded in U.S. policy since the end of World War II, a linking of common nations based on shared values and beliefs. In modern times, President Joseph Biden called the relationship “just simply unbreakable” and “ironclad.” Even with increased tensions from the Israeli military’s actions against Hamas, the president said to the Israeli Prime Minister, “I am a Zionist,” and pledged his continued support to Israel. Just before the new year, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin reinforced this relationship, adding that “the United States will remain Israel’s closest friend in the world. And as I’ve said repeatedly, our support for Israel’s security remains unshakable, and it always will.” While the greatest threat to the United States does not reside in the Middle East, it is unlikely that the nation will abandon this critical ally that has been in a near-perpetual state of conflict since coming into existence.

The final national interest the Middle East Institute identified is the inherent competition in the region with other great powers, as the United States is not the only global power tied to this chaotic area.

Great Power Competition in the Middle East

While it does not garner the same attention as the tensions in the South China Sea or the war in Ukraine, great power competition is ongoing in the Middle East. Russia continues to have a presence in numerous countries in the region and works to improve its influence. As is the case for most nations outside the region, the driver for much of this is economics. As a major oil producer, Russia benefits from its ties to members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, particularly in managing oil prices. Similarly, Russia seeks to maintain relevance as a global arms supplier, leveraging the periodic chaos of the Middle East to be the nation of choice for Middle East countries investing in their military.

China has taken a similar interest in the Middle East. While an aspect of this may be to demonstrate its prestige as a world power, Chinese actions point more to economic growth. China needs access to regional resources and markets and has worked to develop long-term strategic relationships to accomplish that goal. In late 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping gave the keynote address at the China-Arab States Summit held in Saudi Arabia, aiming at “Building a China-Arab Community with a Shared Future in the New Era.” China’s regional investments have continued to increase, with nearly a quarter of its Belt-and-Road Initiative funds going to the Middle East in 2022.

Russia and China are building relationships in the Middle East and vying for essential markets and resources. Consequently, while America’s primary adversaries may be located in the European and Indo-Pacific theaters, the Middle East is likely to be a competitive space. If the United States is not careful, the nation may find its influence in the region severely degraded.

Conclusion

It is nearly impossible to predict the next place the United States will commit its military forces. While the U.S. military must prepare for the threats posed by Russia and China, it would be a mistake not to recognize the Middle East as a central strategic area that has historically been critical to U.S. national interests. This means maintaining relationships for access, basing, and overflight. It requires leveraging the Defense Department’s new Defense Security Cooperation Service to strengthen partnerships with influential nations in the region and remain the arms dealer of choice for the Arab world. Finally, it means committing critical military resources—time, equipment, and personnel—to a region that many see as a problem of the past. Instead of pivoting away from the Middle East, the U.S. military should embrace the region’s historical importance for U.S. security to better understand how this piece of the puzzle fits into the broader competition with Russia and China.

Brennan Deveraux is a major in the U.S. Army currently serving at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute. He is an Army strategist and an Art of War scholar specializing in rocket artillery and missile warfare. He has completed combat deployments to Iraq and the Horn of Africa and has three defense-related master’s degrees, focusing his research on military adaptation and emerging technology management.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.

Photo Description: President Eisenhower (L) and Vice President Richard Nixon (R) are shown with their host, King Saud of Saudi Arabia (C), as they attended the regally-arranged dinner given by the Arabian monarch at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington D.C. in 1957.

Photo Credit: Hank Walker via Wikimedia Commons

2 thoughts on “DON’T FORGET ABOUT THE MIDDLE EAST

  1. One certainly cannot “forget the Middle East;” this, especially, when one considers that — post-the Cold War and even today —

    a. The Middle East was/is one of the important places where the U.S./the West has sought to (and still seeks to?) achieve political, economic, social and/or value change more along modern western lines. Where:

    b. The political, economic, social and/or value orientation of the populations was/is most different from the U.S./the West and, thus, most challenging. And, accordingly, where:

    c. The Middle East became the first (civilization?) to formally resist/rebel (see 9/11, etc.) against this such U.S./Western attempt — to achieve “transformation” of the Middle East more along (alien and profane from certain of their perspectives?) U.S./Western political, economic, social and/or value lines?

    Thus, we cannot forget the Middle East; this, because the dynamics of (a) the determination of the U.S./the West to achieve transformation there and (b) determination of certain populations in the Middle East to not be so transformed, these such dynamics have not changed?

    1. Stated another way:

      Let us look at the Middle East from the perspective of a New/Reverse Cold War; one in which, this time, it has been the U.S./the West (rather than the Soviets/the communists as in the Old Cold War) who have sought to achieve “revolutionary” political, economic, social and value “change” more throughout the world. And one in which, this time, it has been such nations as Russia, China, Iran and N. Korea (rather than the U.S./the West as in the Old Cold War) who — thus existentially threatened — have sought to “contain” and/or to “roll back” the gains made by this such U.S./Western initiative.

      Thus, from the New/Reverse Cold War perspective that I describe above — and considering such things as the oil reserves in the Middle East — can the U.S./the West simply “write off” — and/or “forget” — the Middle East? (This, in the New/Reverse Cold War that I describe above?)

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