The U.S. has no compelling reason to keep tens of thousands of troops in the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Syria, and it should follow the withdrawal from Afghanistan with complete withdrawals of the forces currently located in these countries. There is a growing body of arguments advocating for ending the US military presence in the Middle East in recognition of the fact that there are no vital interests that require keeping American forces deployed there. Many of these forces are essentially sitting ducks, and in some countries they are not authorized to be there and they are not wanted. The Biden administration’s latest airstrikes against Iraqi militias and the retaliatory rocket attacks on an American base in Syria remind us that our government’s continued military presence in Iraq and Syria puts Americans in danger for nothing. The rest of our military presence in the region is redundant and potentially destabilizing.
Robert Manning and Christopher Preble have spelled out in a new report at The Atlantic Council why the old assumptions behind a US military presence in the region are no longer relevant: "The core assumptions underpinning US policy – ensuring oil flows, maintaining Israel’s security, preventing the rise of a dominant hegemon, and countering terrorism – have been upended by new realities." In short, the region is not as important to the US as it once was, and US interests are not so great or so seriously threatened that a military presence would be required to secure them.
Eugene Gholz made a similar case in a recent paper for The Quincy Institute: "There are no plausible paths for an adversary, regional or extra-regional, to achieve a situation that would harm these core US interests. No country can plausibly establish hegemony in the Middle East, nor can a regional power close the Strait of Hormuz and strangle the flow of oil. To the extent that the United States might need to intervene militarily, it would not need a permanent military presence in the region to do so."
Defenders of the status quo insist that the US has to maintain a military presence to counter Iran and combat terrorism, but Iran lacks the ability to dominate the region even if it wished to do so and militarized counterterrorism is a proven failure. William Wechsler asserts that Iran has "hegemonic goals" for the region, but this misreads Iranian intentions while also wildly exaggerating their power. Even if Iran were intent on regional hegemony, it could not achieve it. Far from countering terrorism, maintaining an unwelcome military presence on foreign soil can provoke more terrorism.
Wechsler also claims that the US supports a "delicate balance of power that promotes regional stability and protects American allies," but the truth is that the US has no allies that it is obliged to protect. Our indulgence and arming of regional clients has served to destabilize the region by fueling conflicts in Yemen and Syria. The record shows that the US used its armed forces to destroy the regional balance of power when it invaded Iraq in 2003, and a continued military presence has done nothing to promote regional stability since then.
Withdrawals from both Iraq and Syria are long overdue. In Iraq, we have worn out our welcome, and in Syria we were never welcomed in the first place. The Iraqi government routinely objects to our violations of their sovereignty when our military attacks militias that belong to their security forces. That is one reason why the Iraqi government wants our forces out of the country. The American military presence is there ostensibly to combat the remnants of ISIS, but this is something that Iraqi forces can now do without US assistance and the US has no reason to remain involved in this conflict. Our military presence in Syria is illegal and a flagrant violation of their sovereignty, and it has nothing to do with the security of the United States or even that of our allies.
The Biden administration’s airstrikes on Iraqi militia targets are illegal, and they demonstrate what can happen when the president is permitted to deploy and keep troops into another country without authorization. Once the troops are there, the president claims the authority to act in their defense, and this effectively gives him a license to order attacks against any target he wishes. Like Trump, Biden orders escalatory reprisal attacks and then calls it "restoring deterrence," and then he does it again when these actions fail to deter further attacks on bases in Iraq. The longer that the US keeps troops in these countries, the more likely it is that they will end up triggering a larger conflict that could have been avoided. Even if the larger conflict never comes, the ceaseless tit-for-tat attacks put lives at risk for no good reason.
Our military presence in the Middle East invites more conflict and enables unnecessary interventions. The US derives little or no security benefit from keeping its forces in the region, and the costs are considerable and continue to grow. The risk of sparking a new war with Iran is ever-present so long as our military remains in such close proximity to Iranian forces and proxies, and the destabilizing effects of that war would likely dwarf the damage done by the Iraq war. Full US military withdrawal from the Middle East would not be a panacea for the region’s problems and conflicts, but it would likely reduce tensions and remove one of the drivers of regional instability. The US would be free of an unnecessary and costly burden, and the US would be much less likely to meddle in the affairs of the countries in the region.
Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.