The Case for Strategic Withdrawal from the Middle East
By Ben Brodt
The US has had a long, tumultuous, and often violent relationship with the Middle East. Its relationship first began soon after independence, fighting pirates in Tripoli, and has continued to evolve with more complex and deeper involvement. Today, the US has severely overextended itself in regions such as the Middle East which, while they have many important security and economic interests, are not worth the substantial investment. Among these are Central Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, though the Middle East will be the focus of this article. The US has too many dilemmas to solve that are much more important than foreign policy in the Middle East, from competition with China and Russia to domestic issues such as COVID relief. In order to achieve long term strategic priorities, the US must be willing to leave its non-critical security interests to others, even its adversaries.
The US’s main motivation for involvement in the Middle East is to ensure a stable flow of oil and natural gas. Apart from this, its interests in the region are security based. These include combating Islamic extremism, competing with near peer competitors such as Russia and China, and pursuing nuclear nonproliferation from rogue states like Iran, among many others. This policy proposal will attempt to solve or at least mitigate these challenges with minimum effort from the US and its allies.
During the Cold War, the Middle East was a key strategic battlefield for the US and USSR. The US poured $346 billion dollars in direct payments to allied governments and potential allies to try and win them over. It attempted to craft multiple mutual defense agreements, including the Baghdad Pact which turned into the Central Treaty Organization, and expanding NATO to include Turkey. The US vigorously backed pro-Western actors in Egypt, Iran, and Iraq, which were often key battlegrounds during the Cold War.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the US stopped propping up regimes in nearly every region except the Middle East. Reliance on oil and the growing problem of terrorism led to the continuation of massive direct payments and a behemoth of a military presence to support various Middle Eastern states who the US relied on for stable streams of resources and cooperation in security challenges. In a world dominated by the US, there seemed to be no need to continue massive security spending in other regions, but reliance on oil led to hesitancy to withdraw support from Gulf suppliers. After historical precedence of oil states using oil flows as a weapon, US policymakers realized the need to appease these oil suppliers. Additionally, the threat of global terrorism was on the rise after the bombings of embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, the attack on the USS Cole, and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and, sharing similar interests with the US, the Gulf oil partners were natural allies in the fight against terrorism. Furthermore, the US’s Cold War allies in the region were more than willing to cooperate in the fight against terrorism if it meant they would still receive US financial support.
After 2001, the US doubled its global foreign spending, exponentially increasing support of Middle Eastern governments who joined the fight against terrorism. Since that time, the US has spent roughly $50-55 billion a year on global foreign aid, most of which is economic aid, but which surpasses even the height of Cold War Era spending when the US only spent at most $40 billion annually on these same projects, and usually significantly less. Since 2001, the US has never spent less than $46 billion on foreign aid annually, while there were multiple times during the Cold War when the US only spent $26 billion dollars.
Today in 2021, the US provides more foreign aid to the Middle East than Europe and East Asia combined, and more than twice as much as is spent on South and Central Asia. In 2020, the US spent $5.7 billion in direct foreign assistance to the Middle East, a very small fraction of the total federal expenditures, but the largest proportional share for the amount of countries in the region. Involvement in the Middle East does not end at expenditures, but also in diplomatic, military, and intelligence effort. The US foreign policy community is continually trying to counter adversarial influence in the region and increase the reach of the US in the Middle East, supporting many initiatives designed to maintain US and Western influence, and keep competing powers at bay. This is reflected in spending patterns: after the Cold War, defense and security spending has only increased in every region without cutbacks. Now, spending is up more than ever trying to counter adversarial influences, much more than during the state of conflict with the USSR.
During the entire Cold War, the US only spent $6.3 trillion on defense adjusted for inflation, much of which went to Vietnam and Korea, and only a sliver of which was allocated to the Middle East. This is in stark contrast to the post-Cold War environment, in which the US was not competing with any other great power. Today, the Middle East is not as important of a battleground for the competition between the US and China. Despite this, the US has spent a total of $6.4 trillion on war alone in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan since 2001. This does not even reflect the myriad of other recipients of US dollars, including support for allies, support for military bases in the region, aid and development, arms sales, intelligence collection, and other conflicts such as Yemen. For reference, the US federal budget for the 2020 fiscal year was only $4.7 trillion dollars. Estimating conservatively, the US has spent at least a year and half of the entire budget in support of interests in the Middle East, not including every other region in the world. It cannot be denied that the US is overspending in the Middle East.
The US fight against terrorism has had a terrible cost ratio for the results it has achieved. This conflict does not need to continue indefinitely as there are many other nations who are committed to fighting terrorism, some even more committed than the US. The US is no longer the biggest enemy of radical Islamic networks; that privilege goes to its adversaries: Russia, China, and Iran (RCI). Unlike these three states, the US does not have a native Muslim ethnic or religious minority which it has clashed with over independence in the past. RCI’s suppression of dissidents in Chechnya, Xinjiang, and Khuzestan, respectively, have led to domestic terrorist groups in the past, requiring large-scale military and police mobilization to stop. The only reason the US is seen as public enemy number one to Sunni terrorist groups is because of perceptions as an imperialist power, supporting secular regimes, stationing non-Muslim troops in the holy land, and combating other “Mujahideen.”
If the US were to stop these practices, it would cease to become a major target for these organizations. Instead, Iran, who has been exporting Shiite revolutions since 1979, would become a target. Russia, who has fought two costly wars to suppress their Chechen separatist groups, would become a target. China, with its ongoing situation with the Uyghurs, would also be a target. In fact, during Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s, leader of the Islamic state, Ramadan address in 2014 he called for Muslims in these countries to take up arms against their government. After the diaspora following the collapse of the Islamic State, RCI is very worried about their Sunni, disenfranchised minorities, especially because these are areas where there have been security concerns before. These states have been relying on continued US counterterrorism operations in the Middle East to serve their own domestic security interests. If the US were to cease these operations, its adversaries would be swift to continue combating extremism because it is even more critical to their national security. Someone would fill the security void left by the US, and it would likely be one of its adversaries.
This does not need to be a withdrawal of practicality, but it can also have the added benefit of draining the treasuries of the US’s adversaries. Since 2001, the US has poured $2.8 trillion into counterterrorism (not including nation building efforts which aided this mission) in the Middle East. If Russia, China, and Iran (all states with significantly more constrained budgets) were to spend the same, this would be a massive blow to their economies and military and severely impede their ability to fund other military expeditions which might have more strategic importance to the US, such as cyber-attacks and intellectual property theft. The US could knock out two birds with one stone- a stone that it doesn't even have to pay for, creating a quagmire for its adversaries to entrap themselves in. The US could have its adversaries fight its fights for it and prevent them from continuing attacks and sabotages against America and its allies, while also spending less money and energy.
If all three states got involved in the fight against terrorism post-US withdrawal (which is highly likely considering their domestic terrorism issues), they would certainly all compete with each other over differing interests. As they stand now, the Sino-Russian and Perso-Russian partnerships are flimsy, based on semi-solid mutual interests. If these relationships were put to any sort of strenuous test, they would crumble. Creating this arena of competition would do the US’s dirty work without any effort on America’s part. Instead of competing directly with all three states, Russia, China, and Iran would compete with each other, draining their national treasuries and military capabilities. These states often cooperate together based solely on weak shared interests: namely defeating the US. If the American boogeyman were taken away, chaos would ensue between these three hopeful regional powers. Each would scramble to etch out as much influence in key domains throughout the Middle East, inevitably putting them in conflict with each other, and removing the possibility of a future unified front opposed to the US led system of partnerships.
The US does not need to remove itself completely from influencing events in the region. After disengaging from the fight on terrorism, the US would still retain the capabilities necessary to subvert its adversaries’ operations in the region. As these adversaries are quickly grabbing power, filling voids left by the US, and beginning a campaign against extremism, they will likely overextend themselves. At this point, the US can and should facilitate this overextension by creating new security challenges that they must handle, fostering domestic popular opinion within their respective country to increase involvement in the region, and even cooperating with them to encourage them to become even more involved. As they become deeper and deeper entrenched and overextended, the US can subvert their efforts and operations. It can fund proxies, support domestic separatist groups, divide their constituencies, and provide propaganda to those who have the potential to oppose them.
This policy proposal comes with two very important caveats. First, this is not a case for abandonment of the region. The US still has critical interests in the region which it cannot leave to its adversaries. Maintaining oil and natural gas flows will likely be necessary for the foreseeable future, though a threat to these critical flows would encourage a rushed solution to the problem of oil dependency. Until other sources of energy are found domestically, US naval presence in the Persian Gulf is still essential to energy security. The US must maintain the ability to project force in the region when necessary, and it can do this by selectively establishing red lined “no-go zones'' in areas where interests are still too great to forfeit. This can include drawing a firm line around Saudi oil fields, signaling to adversaries that the US is willing to defend its oil interests. Another decisive factor is keeping naval bases in Qatar and Bahrain, and so the US must again signal that these areas are off limits to adversarial influence and meddling. The US can still exercise global leadership on issues which have a low cost and low risk to itself and its mission to stay away from quagmires in the Middle East. Diplomatically promoting human rights or fighting piracy are examples. These are not quagmires in which RCI would likely drain resources into, and so the US can continue these small, inexpensive objectives, even potentially cooperating with China, Russia, and Iran in these arenas.
The second caveat is that this withdrawal cannot be perceived as an abandonment of important allies. Recently, signals from the US have made key allies such as Germany, France, Japan, South Korea, and Australia question if the US is truly committed to defending them. One of President Biden’s first priorities was to attempt to reassure them that the US is, in fact, still invested in its allies. This strategic withdrawal cannot be perceived as an abandonment of many strong allies in this region, as this would certainly lead allies in other parts of the world to worry if they are next. To ensure this is not perceived as abandonment, the US should employ rhetoric promoting new focuses on values over interests, so that it can distance itself from major allies who have also proven to be headaches and liabilities: Saudi Arabia, Turkey, UAE, and Egypt. The Biden administration’s recent distancing from Saudi Arabia is a perfect case study. A rejuvenated emphasis on the “pivot towards Asia” and a focus on consolidating gains in East Asia and Europe would create more faith in the alliance with strategic partners in Asia and Europe. Additionally, future administrations can claim to no longer have any interest in expanding the liberal order, finally listening to the strategy that many security experts and academics have long advocated for. With a surplus of defense dollars from this withdrawal, the US could afford to invest more in allies in Europe and Asia, further reassuring them that US support is unwavering.
The upcoming US withdrawal from Afghanistan is a major step in the right direction, showing that the US is willing to allow events to unfold on their own, even though they may not be advantageous to its immediate interests, the long term benefits will outweigh any downsides. If the Biden administration, and subsequent ones, can seize this opportunity it can even use this situation to the US’s advantage. Already, Russia, China, and Iran are beginning to seek out opportunities to profit off of the new Afghanistan. The US can use this to entice these countries to invest more in a lost cause, compete with each other, and drain precious money and energy which they would otherwise spend in conflict with the US and its allies. With less American involvement shaping conditions in Afghanistan, terrorist organizations will look to new enemies who they believe are ruining Afghanistan: RCI. Hopefully, the US will learn its lesson from the war in Afghanistan and be able to exploit these lessons to entrap its adversaries in similar (or even the same) conflicts.
The Cold War thinking of “whoever spends the most money will come out on top” has led the US to seriously overextend itself internationally. In order to advance its interests in a world of Thucydidean rise, the US needs to dramatically reorient its thinking and prioritize the sustainability of its expenses, operational tempo, and public morale. It is foolish to continue risking blood and treasure in areas where its adversaries would be more than willing to fill the voids and deplete their own resources, all while allowing the US to reap the consequences. China, Russia, and Iran all have significant interests in countering terrorism, preserving free and open oil trade, and developing economies, all projects that the US would also reap the rewards from, in addition to driving a wedge between adversaries (albeit narrow) cooperation and force them to compete with each other, negating the need for so much energy countering powerful rivals. The US can expose and exploit their overextension and create quagmires for them to sink endless resources into, weakening their capabilities where it matters most. In an era of great power competition, it is unnecessary to take on multiple giants with a heavy and expensive sling, rather than just as easily adopting Goliath’s playbook, subverting and entangling, all the while playing nations off of each other.
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