June 19, 2024
The United States and its allies have options when it comes to the Middle East. In between the extremes of total disengagement and guaranteed security in the region surely there is some sort of moderate position that ensure U.S. national security while not over committing crucial resources. WAR ROOM welcomes Alec Jackson to examine what selective engagement looks like in the near future for the U.S. Alec is confident that the measured approach of selective engagement can keep interested stakeholders happy, while managing Russian engagement in the region all the while freeing the necessary forces and material to meet the responsibilities of the nation in the INDOPACOM theater.

Selective engagement entails prudent resource management, whether tangible or conceptual.

As Washington rebalances its force posture to meet rising challenges in the Indo-Pacific and European theaters, U.S. policymakers must adjust existing Middle Eastern policy options. At one end of their spectrum of choices is for the United States to unreservedly guarantee the security of Gulf Cooperation Council states and other U.S. allies in the region. At the other end, America could withdraw and potentially cede its current influence in the region to Russia or China. Between these extremes lies a third choice: selective engagement. It offers a measured approach, focused on supporting U.S. engagement when it has direct implications for great power competition outside the region.

Selective engagement entails prudent resource management, whether tangible or conceptual. For example, supporting Turkey’s continued membership within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and preventing nuclear proliferation are goals worthy of U.S. engagement in the Middle East. Each would promote U.S. foreign policy interests without diverting limited U.S. resources from pressing challenges in other theaters. Before considering selective engagement’s merits, it is worth reviewing its alternatives, such as doubling down on current Mideast policy or withdrawing from the region.

Doubling down on the current U.S. presence and engagement in the Middle East would maintain the U.S.’ regional troop presence and its arms sales to selected local states. Of the three policies considered here, this policy undermines the institutional interests of the fewest number of entrenched players in Washington, D.C. The U.S. Central Command and the U.S. Army, key players within the Pentagon bureaucracy which would be most threatened by a “pivot to Asia,” would support this approach. Many members of Congress, particularly Senate Republicans who oppose any hint of normalized relations with Iran, would also endorse this policy. However, it carries the greatest strategic risks. It would keep a disproportionate amount of U.S. attention and resources focused on a region of declining importance to U.S. interests.

In an era of reduced U.S. dependence on Mideast energy resources, American access to Saudi Arabian oil, for example, is no longer vital. Correspondingly, sustaining a policy of countering Russian influence on the region’s states wherever it appears would mean not prioritizing and applying limited U.S. resources where they are most needed.

If it is assumed that any U.S. withdrawal from the region would severely affect U.S. arms sales to Middle Eastern countries, or that Russia would become their primary arms supplier, such an assumption is mistaken. The United States’ traditional allies in the Middle East are unlikely to substantively alter their mix of military equipment, even if America stepped back from the region. U.S. and Russian weapon systems are not interoperable, and the cost of replacing American-made arsenals with Russian ones and then retraining their users would be prohibitive, even for the smaller but wealthy Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Small-scale non-U.S. purchases or rhetorical flourishes about shopping elsewhere are likely just ploys to keep the United States directly involved in the region, not evidence of a dissolving arms market.

Another fear may be that Russia would develop a standing troop presence in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, for example, to operate an air defense system there if the United States were to withdraw its current troops and Patriot missile batteries. However, this too is unlikely, given Russia’s Middle East policy for the last two decades. With the exception of radical Islamists, Russia has focused on cultivating good relations with all relevant players, even with states which are at odds or in conflict with each other. If Russia were to operate air defense systems in the Gulf, it would mean choosing a side in the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, a choice Moscow has thus far refused to make, not least because it depends in large part on Iran-backed militias to fight in Syria.

Without suggesting that a U.S. withdrawal would be completely problem-free, it can be safely assumed that: (1) Russia values geopolitical stability in the Middle East too; (2) it does not want the current cold war between Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to heat up; and (3) it would not expend political capital at the United Nations Security Council to defend Iran, for example, if Iran acted openly against its rivals following a U.S. withdrawal.

The United States can also assume that its withdrawal could precipitate Iran’s rivals to act to protect their own interests, but that Russia would not want to replace the United States as the Middle East’s security guarantor, even if it had the logistical tail to support a more robust military presence in the region. Russia has been able to keep low the costs of its increased involvement in the Middle East over the last decade because the region’s security architecture, guaranteed by U.S. military power, limits conflict. If the U.S. were to withdraw, Russia would have to assume much greater costs to maintain or expand its regional presence.

Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system serves as a warning of the consequences of taking for granted Turkish alignment with NATO.

A further assumption may be that a U.S. disengagement from the region could put Turkey’s continuing membership in NATO in doubt. There is substantial friction between Turkey and Russia over the former’s increasing encroachment into the post-Soviet space, such as Turkey’s provision of the Bayraktar TB2 to Azerbaijan, which Azerbaijan used to great effect against Armenia in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War. Both Russia and NATO greatly value Turkey’s geostrategic location and Turkey maintains important ties to both entities. However, should the United States choose a wholesale withdrawal from the Middle East, Turkey – with one foot in Europe and a bigger one in the Mideast — may choose to align more closely with Russia out of a sense of abandonment by the West. Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system serves as a warning of the consequences of taking for granted Turkish alignment with NATO. This policy would amount to jettisoning the U.S.-Turkish strategic relationship, just as the Black Sea region is becoming increasingly important to the larger U.S.-Russian competition. Without Turkish cooperation, competing with Russia’s increased naval presence in the Black Sea would be impossible for the United States. This policy would also limit U.S. access into Southern and Central Europe, as China attempts to increase its own influence there.

While U.S. disengagement from the Mideast would have some support among avowed noninterventionists and progressive leftists in the United States, it is extremely unlikely to ensue, considering broadly held attitudes in the U.S. Congress that oppose America’s global retrenchment or any perceived capitulation to Russia, China, or Iran. It also would be strongly opposed by U.S. Central Command and the U.S. Army, which would lose funding and prestige under such a policy. Implementation would also be logistically and diplomatically difficult and could complicate U.S. strategic deterrence.

Instead of either of the above extremes, the United States should adopt a selective engagement policy toward the Mideast, focused only on those challenges which could threaten U.S. vital interests elsewhere, such as keeping the NATO Alliance (and Europe in general) “whole, free, and at peace.” The bilateral U.S.-Turkey relationship is of vital importance to the United States and NATO’s power projection capabilities. It is therefore paramount that the United States works to keep Turkey within the NATO fold, given the force multipliers it offers, such as its control of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles straits; its large, competent, and well-equipped ground forces; and its innovative, indigenous, unmanned aerial vehicle industry. Despite these, a policy of strong support for the U.S.-NATO-Turkey relationship is not without controversy.

The U.S. Congress has opposed Turkish policies towards the Kurdish people, whose tribe inhabits areas within and adjacent to Turkey. In addition, there was widespread anger towards Turkey for the alleged use of indirect fire munitions by Turkish-backed militias against U.S. Special Forces embedded with Kurdish People’s Defense Units during Turkey’s 2019 offensive into northeastern Syria. There is also a strong desire in Congress to punish Turkey for its purchase of the S-400.

While there may be less straightforward institutional resistance to adopting a Turkey-focused selective engagement policy within the Pentagon than in Congress, one factor which could undermine implementing this policy is the organizational seam between U.S. Central Command and U.S. European Command. Turkey is a country with strategic importance for both the Middle East and the European theater, but it technically falls under U.S. European Command’s (USEUCOM) area of responsibility. In addition, the typical geographic framing for USEUCOM places Turkey at the very bottom edge of that area of responsibility. Retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, former commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe, told the House Armed Services Committee in 2020 that this leads U.S. European Command to treat Turkey with insufficient emphasis.

A second vital U.S. interest which touches upon the Middle East is preventing nuclear technology from falling into the wrong hands, globally. Expanding U.S. technical cooperation on nuclear energy with Middle Eastern states will have a more significant impact on U.S. strategic interests than increasing U.S. arms sales to Middle Eastern states. The United States, once the undisputed world leader in nuclear technology, now faces increasing competition from Russia’s Rosatom, whose reactors are “inexpensive and rapidly delivered,” according to scholars  Danny Citrinowicz and Roie Yellinek. Rosatom and other non-U.S. nuclear exporters are not bound by the same nuclear non-proliferation commitments as U.S. companies, including the so-called “gold standard” of foregoing any plans to enrich uranium. If the United States were to step back from engagement in this area, collaboration between Russia and Middle Eastern states on nuclear energy could create proliferation risks. On this basis, former Secretary of Energy Rick Perry defended authorizing the sale of nuclear technology by U.S. companies to Saudi Arabia, despite the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s orders. Complicating matters, Chinese companies are competing with both the United States and Russia in this area. Given China’s similarly questionable commitment to nuclear nonproliferation norms, increased Chinese market share in the nuclear realm at Russia’s expense would increase, not decrease, nuclear proliferation.

For all these reasons, despite a U.S. rebalancing of its foreign policy priorities, America’s future Mideast policy should not take an all or nothing approach. A policy of selective engagement on issues, such as strong U.S. and NATO relations with Turkey and the responsible use of nuclear energy technology in the Middle East, will not only enhance U.S. national security, but will also free U.S. resources to counter increasing military threats to U.S. vital interests in other parts of the world.

Alec Jackson currently works as an analyst in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

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, the Department of Defense, or the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Photo Credit: Map courtesy of MapSof, Seals courtesy of Russian Federation and U.S. Government via Wikimedia Commons

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