The Biden administration is determined to keep the US ensnared in the conflicts and rivalries of the Middle East, and "great power competition" has become the latest excuse for our government’s continued intervention and meddling in the affairs of the region. During his recent trip to Saudi Arabia, Biden said, "We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran." It is doubtful that any of these other states would or could fill the "vacuum" if the US reduced or ended its military presence in the region, but "preventing" this is an absurd reason for the US to continue to accept the costs and burdens of military involvement and meddling in this part of the world. Both the US and the countries of the region would be better off if our government no longer obsessed over the Middle East and its problems, since it is clear from the record that the US has usually made any problems that it focused on worse than it was before.
Stoking fear of a Russian, Chinese, or Iranian takeover of the region is just a desperate ploy to justify a terrible set of policies that keep the US closely linked to some of the most abusive governments in the world. There is no compelling reason for the US to be so committed to its reckless Middle Eastern clients. That is why Biden has to hide behind "great power competition" and standard anti-Iranian hostility to maintain the bankrupt status quo.
There is no good reason for the US to have tens of thousands of troops in a region where it has few important interests. US entanglement in the region’s conflicts have only made the United States less secure while further destabilizing the countries where our government uses force and sanctions. The more that our government has involved itself in the region’s problems, the more that US policies have been bent to serve the interests of client states at our country’s expense. Thanks to US backing and an implicit promise of protection, those clients have been able to attack their neighbors and intensify their repressive policies with impunity. The US has also contributed to the regional arms race by arming these states to the teeth in the name of "reassuring" them. Now the clients can also invoke the specter of Russia or China to frighten the US into giving them even more support, and Washington has signaled repeatedly that it will give them whatever they want.
The rhetoric of "great power competition" has become a convenient crutch for defenders of current US policies in the Middle East. Max Boot defended Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia in part by casting it as necessary to keep the Saudis on "our" side. He wrote, "If the United States won’t support the Saudis, Russia and China will." The only sensible reply to this should be: so what?
The US does not benefit from the Saudi relationship, and it has paid a steep price for supporting and protecting the Saudis both in the form of terrorist attacks against our country and through our government’s involvement in their disgraceful war on Yemen. Normally the prospect of losing a client state to a rival power might be cause for concern in some quarters, but in the case of Saudi Arabia it would be a boon for the US to be free of them. Biden supporters have sought to spin his reconciliation with Mohammed bin Salman as a matter of putting "interests" ahead of "values," but one looks in vain for any American interests that are being served by the current relationship. The despotic governments in the Persian Gulf and the apartheid government in Israel all have much to gain by keeping the US stuck in the Middle East, but for the United States there are only costs and risks to be borne.
"Great power competition" is becoming the ready-made excuse for interventionists to promote meddling in virtually every part of the world. The more peripheral and less important to US security a country is, the more heavily interventionists will lean on the bogeymen of Russia and China to sell policymakers on the "need" for US involvement there. By focusing on the "need" to deny another state influence somewhere, interventionists can skip past the questions about what the US stands to gain or what it will cost to "win" the so-called competition. Because "great power competition" is so poorly defined and malleable, it can be used to promote any militaristic and hardline policy, and because the emphasis is on competition it all but rules out pursuing constructive diplomatic engagement with the supposed "great power" rivals. This can only lead to more proxy wars and an increased risk of direct conflict between nuclear-armed states, and in such a conflict the entire world will lose. The US is going to have disagreements with Russia and China, but it needs to manage those disagreements and maintain diplomatic channels to ensure that they do not spiral into a new great power conflict that would be ruinous for all parties.
Whatever value US client relationships in the Middle East might have had in the past, they do not advance US interests or make the US more secure today. The US would be wiser to disentangle itself from them as quickly as possible. Americans shouldn’t fear "losing" such unreliable and reckless clients to a rival power, and we shouldn’t allow our foreign policy to be defined by constant antagonism towards the major powers of Eurasia. If the US stays on the path it is following right now, it will find itself fighting many more unnecessary wars in parts of the world where the US has little or nothing at stake.
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.