New Report Offers Fix for US Failures in the Middle East


July 20, 2020

CONTACT: Jessica Rosenblum, Quincy Institute, 202.800.4662/ [email protected]

WASHINGTON, DC — Three decades of U.S. military domination of the Middle East has left the region more unstable, ravaged by more extremism, and with more failed or failing states, according to a new report that puts forward a radically different approach for U.S. relations with the region.

The report — A New U.S. Paradigm for the Middle East: Ending America’s Misguided Policy of Domination — released today by the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, calls for a review of U.S. interests in the region and for the establishment of a regional approach that assesses all bilateral relationships against promotion of those interests. 

The paper is written by former U.S. intelligence officer Paul Pillar, a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute; Andrew Bacevich, president of the Quincy Institute; Annelle Sheline, research fellow for QI’s Middle East Program; and Trita Parsi, QI’s executive vice president. 

“American efforts to put our stamp on the Mideast have yielded numerous endless wars, while troublesome security partnerships pull us into yet more conflicts. Whatever your definition of “mission accomplished,” the current approach holds no prospect of getting us there.  Mere persistence is a prescription for more of the same:  violence, destruction, and damage to core U.S. interests ” said Andrew Bacevich. “This is not a time for tinkering, but for fundamentally changing our approach to the region.”

While the prevailing consensus, including among much of the foreign policy establishment, is that the U.S. presence is an essential force for security and stability in the Middle East, this report asserts that the U.S. policy of dominance in the region sows conflict and instability and has reduced the willingness of several regional actors to seek compromise and accommodation, dragging the United States into wars and into support for security partners with egregious human rights records. 

The Trump administration’s erratic policies have increased divisions within the Middle East, but the problems predate it. The quest for U.S. hegemony originated in the aftermath of World War II out of a presumed need to protect U.S. and allied access to Persian Gulf oil. The U.S. military presence in the region increased dramatically post 9/11. The United States currently has 55,000 American troops and 53 bases or shared military installations in the region, and according to Brown University, has spent more than $6.4 trillion on the war on terror.  

The report posits that this heavy U.S. footprint is unnecessary for maintaining U.S. access to oil and counter productive for countering terrorism. The main role of this expensive policy now seems to be to prevent any other nation from gaining dominance in the region.   

The report challenges the veracity of this assumption, noting that Iran is outclassed militarily by numerous rivals and represents a sectarian and ethnic minority amid more numerous Sunni Arabs. And China and Russia have shown no interest or willingness in diverting anything like the level of resources the United States has to military domination of the region as they pursue their commercial and strategic interests.

“In the face of the coronavirus pandemic and massive economic needs, the administration and Congress must reassess the cost effectiveness of our policies in the Middle East against the American people’s interests and needs,” said co-author, Paul Pillar.    

Conventional political wisdom has long been that the U.S. presence is necessary to protect human rights, despite the United States’ equally long track record of forsaking human rights for political convenience, noted co-author Annelle Sheline. “The notion that the U.S. military is a force for human rights in the region is false. The American habit of unconditionally supporting certain governments, regardless of their treatment of their own citizens, reinforces the notion that America’s concern for human rights is selective. The benefit to human rights of the military presence has been far outweighed by the persistent threat it poses to the lives of people in the region. U.S. policymakers consistently desist from leveraging American influence to meaningfully affect human rights-related policies.”

The report proposes that the United States lead with diplomatic and economic involvement over troops based in the region, military interventions, military assistance, and arms sales. It puts forward concrete steps for getting out of the post-9/11 national security morass, which has overemphasized foreign threats while neglecting the health and security of Americans at home. Among its recommendations:

• Notify regional partners of a significant drawdown of U.S. troops from the Middle East over the next 5-10 years 

• Provide strong diplomatic support for development of a new multilateral security architecture in the Middle East, led by regional actors

• Seek normal diplomatic relations with all key parties in the region, including Iran

• Participate constructively in diplomatic efforts to end the wars in Yemen and Syria, including cessation of all support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen

• End unconditional support for regional partners, such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel, and Egypt

“Most importantly, this framework for the Middle East enables other diplomacy-focused and peace and stability seeking policies to be successful. Experience has shown that within a strategy of military domination, good policies are rarely enacted, and when they are, they seldom endure. The main contribution of this paper is to provide a framework that allows for and sustains policies that truly serve U.S. interests and benefit the peoples of the region,” said co-author Trita Parsi.