US foreign policy has been consumed by hawkish obsessions in the Middle East for the last thirty years, and the next decade promises more of the same. Despite repeated claims over the last decade that the US is "retreating" from the region, one administration after another keeps our country mired in its conflicts and rivalries. There is a conventional view that every president since George W. Bush has sought to extricate the US from Middle Eastern conflicts, but the record shows that each one has recommitted the US to fighting and supporting unnecessary and illegal wars. Each one has gone out of his way to "reassure" US clients that nothing is changing. The Biden administration is proving to be no different than its predecessors on both counts.
For all their talk of focusing US attention on East Asia, the Biden administration refuses to reduce US involvement in the Middle East. Brett McGurk, the official responsible for coordinating Biden administration policy for the Middle East and North Africa, said as much in a recent speech at a security conference in Bahrain: "The United States is not going anywhere. This region is too important, too volatile, too interwoven with American interests to contemplate otherwise." The first part of his statement may be true, but the reasons he gave for it are not.
The Middle East’s importance to the United States has diminished over time, and it is arguably less important for US security today than at any other point since WWII. To the extent that the region is "volatile," that has often been because of destabilizing US and client policies. The US could afford to greatly reduce or even end its military footprint in the region with no significant adverse effects on our security. Doing that could finally free the US from the obsessions with Iran, Israel, and terrorism that have warped our foreign policy for decades. More important, it could reduce our exposure to regional rivalries and end our complicity in the appalling abuses of despotic clients.
Real retrenchment would allow the US to have more balanced relations with all states and more normal relationships with states that have taken automatic US backing for granted. The region would likely be less volatile once it is no longer the locus of the obsessions of a superpower, and the US would no longer automatically treat the enemies of its clients as its own. US military withdrawal from the Middle East is almost certain to mean a more peaceful and stable Middle East, or at least one no less stable than any other part of the world. It will all but guarantee that the US fights no more Middle Eastern wars.
The obstacles to withdrawal are considerable, and perhaps the biggest one is the unwillingness of any president to commit to it. The New York Times published a story last week that carried the same message as McGurk’s speech: the Biden administration is trying to convince Arab "allies" that it isn’t abandoning them. The clients need not have bothered to feign worry, since it appears that Biden was never serious about reducing the US role in the region. Almost everything Biden has done this year has been to embrace and shore up the status quo, and the latest professions of support from McGurk and Defense Secretary Austin are more proof that bankrupt US policies in the Middle East will stay the same. "America is back" to its same old tricks.
US clients periodically pretend to worry that the US will end its support for them, but they usually do this in order to extract promises of additional support. Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates all made lots of noise during the Obama years that they were feeling neglected by Washington, and to quiet them down Obama showered them with record-setting supplies of weapons. Worse still, Obama backed the Saudi-led war on Yemen to demonstrate that they could still rely on US backing. More than six years and several hundred thousand dead Yemenis later, the Saudi coalition is losing their war and the US remains complicit in the destruction of Yemen. That is what "reassuring" bad clients gets you.
Trump fully embraced these clients and gave them practically anything they wanted, including reneging on the nuclear deal and ratcheting up tensions with Iran. Now that Biden is in office, the clients have reverted to their predictable song and dance about abandonment fears, and it seems that the administration is only too eager to "reassure" them that the US still backs them to the hilt. That is why there has been no meaningful pressure on the Saudi and Emirati governments over Yemen or any of their other abuses, and that is why the flow of weapons to both governments continues. It is also why the Biden administration has been so stubborn in refusing to offer Iran even token sanctions relief. Biden is more concerned to keep US clients happy than he is to salvage the nuclear deal.
There are powerful vested interests that want to keep the US mired in the Middle East indefinitely, including weapons manufacturers, lobbyists working on behalf of client states, and domestic ideological factions that want the US to take their preferred side in regional quarrels. Unless a president is prepared to challenge them and take some political risks, they will prevail in making sure that nothing changes. Biden has signaled throughout the year that he has no intention of seriously challenging these interests on any issue, and now administration officials are delivering that message to the client governments.
As long as the US remains entangled in the affairs of the Middle East, it is just a matter of time before another president embarks on new ruinous military interventions there. The US military presence enables the waging of unnecessary wars by American forces and support for the reckless wars of US clients. That presence is a destabilizing force that invites hostility and generates new threats. The illusion that the region is "too important" to leave keeps the US trapped in a prison of its own making. Accepting that illusion as the truth dooms the US to pursue irrational policies in the service of other countries’ interests at our expense. Americans need to recognize that the US does not need to be ensnared in the conflicts of the Middle East, and if we choose to leave it will make our country more secure.
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.