Conventional wisdom holds that the presence of United States forces in the Middle East makes America and the region more secure. To the contrary, the U.S. military’s large footprint in the region, combined with voluminous U.S. arms sales and support for repressive regimes, drives instability and exacerbates grievances and conditions that threaten the United States. This presence has made Americans less safe and undermined U.S. standing abroad; it also leaves America less prepared to address more dangerous nonmilitary challenges such as pandemics and climate change, as the Covid–19 crisis makes clear.
Given the manifest failure of the current strategy, growing calls for a demilitarized approach to the region should come as no surprise. However, translating concepts of military restraint into practical policy requires sustained effort. This paper is intended to move the debate forward by operationalizing a holistic approach to the region based on a narrow definition of vital U.S. interests, in accordance with a foreign policy centered on military restraint and responsible statecraft.
U.S. policy toward the Middle East should be guided by two core interests: Protect the United States from attack; and facilitate the free flow of global commerce.
While these objectives require the U.S. to prevent hostile states from establishing hegemony in the region, they are best served by enhancing peace and security within a framework of international law. Neither warrants a major U.S. military presence in the Middle East, let alone regional military dominance.
“Preventing hostile hegemony in the Middle East does not mean the United States must play the role of hegemon itself.“
A basic reorientation of U.S. policy is long overdue. Rather than allowing bilateral friends and adversaries define regional policy, the U.S. should center policy decisions across the region on their direct implications for U.S. interests, rigorously defined. Bilateral relations should be adjusted to this regionwide policy, not the other way around. A new approach based on responsible statecraft would not disengage from the Middle East, but would instead prioritize diplomatic and economic involvement over military domination, military interventions, and arms sales. This paper explains what such a shift would entail in practice and makes the following recommendations:
- Time to come home: To preserve Americans’ physical and economic well-being more effectively, the U.S. should significantly draw down its military presence in the region over a period of five to ten years. Preventing hostile hegemony in the Middle East does not mean the United States must play the role of hegemon itself, nor does it require the current level of U.S. arms sales in the region. Instead, Washington should recognize multipolarity as a reality, appreciate that it precludes regional domination by any other state, and exploit it to protect U.S. interests.
- A deliberative drawdown… The United States should immediately begin discussions with regional powers currently hosting U.S. troops to allow them to prepare for the U.S. drawdown. This decision may not be popular among some U.S. partners, but it is the course that best serves U.S. interests and regional stability.
- …regardless of stability milestones: The United States should convincingly signal that rightsizing its military presence will proceed regardless of any potential stability milestones. If the drawdown is made contingent upon regional stability first being achieved, the United States will risk giving countries that enjoy U.S. protection an incentive to destabilize the Middle East to prevent American troops from ever going home.
- Support a new security architecture… The United States should instead encourage the development of a new regional security architecture for the Persian Gulf based on the models of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, while maintaining an offshore military presence that allows for intervention if necessary to protect the United States. Consequently, the U.S. must cease its maintenance of an artificial power balance predicated on a permanent U.S. military presence, military assistance, and massive arms sales.
- …but don’t lead it: For such a security architecture to be successful and durable, it needs regional buy-in and ownership. Regional states should lead and drive this process themselves. They cannot own the process if the U.S. controls it.
- Talk to everyone: The United States has isolated itself from important players in the Middle East. It has become a belligerent in many conflicts and lacks relations with key states and actors, effectively ceding diplomatic maneuverability to Russia and others. U.S. policy toward the Middle East must entail active engagement with all players in the region—friends and foes alike. The United States should abandon the objective of regime change due to its immorality, counterproductivity, and destabilizing effect.
- Normalize relations with Iran: The prevailing policy of isolating Iran lacks a strategic rationale and has failed on all fronts. It fuels tensions in the Middle East and leaves the United States and Iran unnecessarily close to military confrontation. To maximize U.S. diplomatic maneuverability, the United States should seek to normalize relations with Iran and find constructive ways to manage differences, beginning with a return to full compliance, on both sides, with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
- Do not make Iraq into a battlefield with Iran: Iraq should not be turned into one more front in an obsessive campaign to isolate and weaken Iran. While the U.S. should continue to provide security assistance to Iraq, Washington should draw down its military presence, as the Iraqi government has requested.
- Participate in diplomatic efforts to end the wars in Syria and Yemen: America should be part of the solution in Syria and Yemen by taking part in efforts to find political settlements to these two civil wars. In Syria, the U.S. should withdraw all troops, given that the original reason for their dispatch—to defeat ISIS—is now obsolete. The U.S. should declare a moratorium on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE until they cut off all support to parties to the Yemen conflict.
- No more cartes blanches for partners: Unconditional U.S. support for regional security partners has tended to disincentivize them from diplomatic efforts to peacefully resolve tensions with neighbors. For instance, overt U.S. backing of the Saudi regime has often encouraged greater belligerence than when the Saudis have been less sure that the U.S. would intervene on their behalf. Unquestioned U.S. support for Israel has facilitated its continued occupation of Palestinian territory and reduced incentives to pursue a peaceful resolution of the conflict. A significant reduction of U.S. troops in the Middle East will help instill greater restraint and reduce the tendency toward destabilizing behavior among partner governments.
- On human rights, lead by example: U.S. policy should reflect strong commitments to human and political rights in the Middle East while recognizing that intervention cannot be the principal means of achieving respect for those rights. U.S. policy must apply standards consistently to all parties in the region and must be based on the U.S. itself demonstrating respect for human rights at home and abroad, for multilateral cooperation, and for international law.
Introduction: America’s Failed Strategy in the Middle East
Covid–19 now demonstrates the necessity of reorienting the priorities of the U.S. government. The coronavirus pandemic and subsequent economic crisis underscore the folly of the post–9/11 national security agenda, which has focused primarily on foreign threats, many of which originated in the Middle East, while insufficiently addressing hazards to the health and well-being of people in the United States. Indeed, much of America’s overseas expenditure and military action during the past 20 years has been concentrated in this region, following the 9/11 attacks and subsequent declaration of the war on terror. Unfortunately, the vast sums the U.S. has spent in the region have had the opposite of their intended effect: They have made Americans less safe, undermined U.S. standing abroad, and rendered the country less prepared to respond to domestic threats to Americans’ well-being. The region has been the epicenter of the overreach of U.S. power, the unwarranted taking of sides in local and regional conflicts, and the loss of vision as to where U.S. interests lie. This is not a phenomenon limited to any specific administration; it has been a systemic problem in U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East since at least the end of the Cold War.
To date, the U.S. has spent $6.4 trillion on military operations designated as part of the war on terror. The single costliest instance of U.S. overreach in the region—the war in Iraq that began in 2003—incurred hundreds of thousands of Iraqi casualties, thousands of American casualties, and trillions of dollars in expenditures, to say nothing of the political harm the invasion caused. This intervention and its associated costs did not produce even remotely comparable benefits. The lauded military “surge” in Iraq in 2007–8 contributed to a short-term reduction in violence but failed to give Iraqi political factions space to make necessary accommodations for longer-term peace and stability. The negative longer-term consequences of the U.S.–led invasion include triggering an extended civil war, stimulating sectarian conflict inside and outside Iraq, and producing the conditions for the emergence of the so-called Islamic State.
The invasion of Iraq underscored how U.S. foreign policy undermines U.S. national security as well as stability across the region, and yet developments since then indicate that appropriate lessons have not been learned. The military intervention, with U.S. support and involvement, that led to the overthrow of Muammar al–Gaddafi in 2011 has left Libya in chaos. The continuing civil war has had a destabilizing effect beyond Libya’s borders, including a notable increase in terrorist groups operating in the Sahel and West and Central Africa. Furthermore, the involvement of Turkey and European governments in support of opposed Libyan factions has deepened rifts within the E.U. and NATO. U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen has resulted in the world’s worst ongoing humanitarian catastrophe. U.S. policy toward Iran, especially the assassination of Qassem Soleimani on Iraqi soil in January 2020, effectively favors military confrontation over diplomacy. U.S. military engagement in the region has routinely raised tensions, heightened the risk of wider war, and entrapped the U.S. in a region that is no longer vital to U.S. national security.
Persistent U.S. support for governments sometimes given to violent and abusive methods elevates, rather than diminishes, the threat of violent extremism. U.S. military assistance—most prominently to Israel, Egypt, and Jordan, but also to armed proxy groups in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya—exacerbates abuses that contribute to instability. Coupled with massive arms sales in the region, especially to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, these military relationships have entangled and implicated the U.S. in a variety of regional conflicts. Unconditional U.S. military support for Israel has facilitated its continued occupation of Palestinian territory (potentially culminating in the annexation of the West Bank) and reduced incentives to pursue a peaceful resolution to the conflict. In Egypt, aid has tied the U.S. to a government that is notorious for its abuse of human rights and due process.
The 2011 uprisings that eventually led to the civil wars in Syria, Libya, and Yemen reflected the absence of economic opportunities and political freedoms for the majority of the region’s inhabitants. Such factors have grown only more acute over the subsequent decade, and massive unrest could break out again, threatening even greater violence and forced displacement. Yet the U.S. did not alter its approach to the region in the wake of the 2011 uprisings.
A new approach based on responsible statecraft would not require the U.S. to abandon the Middle East but would prioritize diplomatic and economic involvement over military assistance, arms sales, and intervention. All policies toward the region should derive from a careful and measured articulation of expectations and the application of means to ends. The means should consist of multiple tools, with military force the tool of last resort. The ends should derive directly from U.S. interests, rigorously defined.
U.S. interests in the Middle East are not as extensive as existing policy implies. True U.S. interests in this region, as in any other region abroad, ultimately derive from the core national principles of preserving and advancing the security and well-being of the American people. Few developments in the Middle East genuinely threaten these interests. Moving forward, U.S. policy toward the Middle East should be guided by two core objectives: protect people in the United States from attack and facilitate the free flow of global commerce. Given the Middle East’s importance to the global economy, this latter objective has a direct impact on the welfare of the American people. Both of these objectives are best served by enhancing regional peace and security and preventing a hostile power from taking control of the region’s resources or blocking the flow of commerce.
The need for stability also generates second-order interests. The first is respect for human rights, both because it is a central value espoused by most Americans and because massive human rights abuses by authoritarian states can be destabilizing and a source of extremism. Second, the U.S. has a second-order interest in containing destabilizing refugee flows and terrorism arising from the region’s many conflicts. This objective requires greater humanitarian and diplomatic engagement; we note that many of these conflicts were borne out of foreign military interventions in the first place.
“Few developments in the Middle East genuinely threaten America’s core interests.“
The first section of this report addresses the core interests of the United States in greater detail, arguing for the need to define U.S. interests in narrow terms to avoid inflating perceived threats to national security. To truly safeguard the security of the United States, any proposed use of military force must be carefully assessed to determine the anticipated costs and benefits. Too frequently, U.S. military actions are undertaken in the region without a clear justification for their relevance to Americans’ safety and economic well-being, or without an assessment of anticipated costs and consequences, such as creating fronts for further confrontation and provoking more attacks. A threat to a U.S. security partner is not equivalent to an attack on American soil.
The U.S. should adopt a holistic approach toward the Middle East. Rather than allowing bilateral relations to define regional policy, the U.S. should adopt a regionwide policy that prioritizes the safety of the U.S. homeland and the free flow of commerce. Bilateral relations should be adjusted to that regional policy, not the other way around. The current approach of treating some countries as perpetual adversaries and others as perpetual friends, regardless of these countries’ policies and conduct, does not afford Washington the flexibility necessary for policymakers to pursue America’s best interests.
U.S. policy in the Middle East is often justified by the need to protect the status quo to preserve stability, but current policies clearly undermine regional stability and U.S. security. The second section of this report explains how the U.S. has relied too heavily on its military to address the threat of terrorism and protect the free flow of oil, while neither of these interests requires the current U.S. military commitment to the region. The third and final section reimagines the U.S. role in the Middle East, specifically by accepting the emergence of a regional balance of power that reflects local realities and by encouraging regional states to negotiate a new security architecture for the Persian Gulf—and by extension the rest of the region. The U.S. should significantly reduce its military footprint while retaining the readiness to redeploy if its core interests are threatened and pursuing diplomatic and commercial engagement with all states in the region. By no longer attempting to play the role of regional hegemon, the U.S. could instead rely on core American interests to determine policy. With greater diplomatic flexibility, the U.S. would no longer feel compelled to support abusive regimes. A forthcoming report from the Quincy Institute will provide specifics on the scope of the recommended drawdown of troops; this paper makes the broader case for why such a reduction is necessary to protect U.S. interests. As such, it is focused solely on how U.S. policy should be crafted rather than the policies of other states.