The Pentagon is denying reporting that the Trump Administration is considering deploying an additional 14,000 troops to the Middle East. The Wall Street Journal had reported on Dec. 4 that the major potential deployment was being mulled in order to push back against Iran. The United States has shipped key missile defense systems and thousands of troops to defend Saudi Arabia in the past few months, with a focus on curtailing Iran’s influence across the region, but the question remains: what is America’s next move in the Middle East and what should the next decision be to avoid a 2020 being even worse for the region than 2019? As it sinks further into $23 trillion in debt, why exactly is the United States’ military extended to every reach of the globe and particularly the Middle East, and what are its precise objectives?
New War On The Horizon?
Nearly half of all US troops polled last October believed a major war involving the United States was on the horizon within the next year. Particularly strong concern existed around potential showdowns between the United States and Russia or China—concerns that have not gone away, to say the least. Should we be relieved that the pessimists appear to have been wrong or worried they may just have been slightly off about the date? While foreign policy “experts” pompously discuss the US-Israel relationship and the “new Great Game” in the Middle East and the fallback of the US dialing down its presence in the region, there is good reason for reasonable people who don’t live at 1 Ivory Tower Think Tank Lane to slow down, reassess and consider all the ways in which the ongoing great power struggles in the Middle East are a nightmare scenario that should not be entered lightly and are very hard to extricate from the further you get in.
Establishment Foreign Policy Experts And Their Repulsive Hubris
It is absurd to hear Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations talk recently about a drawdown in interest in human rights and democracy under the Trump Administration when he himself was a senior official for the George W. Bush Administration which launched the disastrous military invasion of Iraq. Trump’s own foreign policy reactivity and imbecility is only allowed to flourish in a climate in which foreign policy experts like Haass refuse to see that their time is up and continue to talk to an echo chamber in which they have the gall to imply that the post Cold War era of US primacy was a “plateau of stability” which is desirable to reattain in some form. Haass is certainly correct that it would take an optimist to think a US withdrawal from the Middle East will result in peace or lovely harmony, but his hypocrisy comes in not seeing how individuals like himself helped contribute to the much-worsened Middle East of today in which both leaving and staying have their own pile of negatives for the United States.
You cannot both help create a problem and then argue its existence is what justified your initial and ongoing presence unless you are a true blowhard and ideologue such as Haass or, for example, former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright who famous argued that starving hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children to death under Clinton Administration sanctions in the 1990s was “worth it” and then performed all over social media and her recent book tour about the need for compassion and asylum to refugees (that her and her colleagues’ policies helped create). People like Albright and Haass should be speaking with mental health professionals and possibly being institutionalized as a danger to others, not influencing US military or governmental policy.
US And Gulf State Focus: Iran
Iran, Russia and China are holding their first cooperative military drills in defiance of NATO and Western pressures. Iran is seeking to counter Israel and Saudi Arabia and keep a foothold in the wider Middle East from Iraq to Syria and Yemen. The reapplication of punishing sanctions in late 2018 sent the Iranian currency into a spiraling nosedive, and the leadership structure is seeking to shore up strategic power through deployment, consolidation of alliances and military cooperation with proxy groups and militias from Hezbollah to the Houthis, though granted the Houthis were fighting for years independently before being considered an Iran proxy by Western nations.
Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani has indicated Iran would be amenable to reopening negotiations if the US first ends sanctions, but that is clearly not going to happen. Rouhani walked away from speaking to Trump in early October after failing to receive agreement of waiving sanctions prior to any resumption of talks.
What About America’s Favorite Dictatorship?
Bolstering Saudi Arabia is certainly a key locus point of American military decision-making. Following the rhetoric and the military hardware leads to the inescapable conclusion that supporting and protecting Saudi Arabia is an integral plank of America’s ongoing, bipartisan foreign policy. Commenting last month, the head of US Central Command General Kenneth McKenzie made it clear that Saudi Arabia is a priority for US Middle Eastern military decisions, emphasizing that the United States has not stepped back from the region and has “reinforced Saudi Arabia” by having an aircraft carrier in theater.
While Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies like to highlight Iran’s considerable proxy aggression, they never mention their own war crimes and slaughter in Yemen, lack of coordinating in preventing 9/11 (at the very least), fomenting civil war in Iraq, occupying Bahrain, fleecing its own people from oil wealth, killing American resident and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and much more.
Current US Military Presence In The Middle East
With upwards of 60,000 US military members in the Middle Eastern theater currently and a number of ships, there certainly is still a significant footprint, albeit much less than 2003 and the recent past. Only five of America’s 11 aircraft carriers are currently battle ready, and some are worried about Russia or China encroaching in strategic zones, but that just goes to show the unwinnable task of global empire-building and maintenance. The US has spent more than $8 trillion in the Middle East on military-related expenditures since 2001: that’s a staggering figure.
Troops Remaining To Guard Key Sites In Syria ‘Only For The Oil’
As Trump has previously said, troops remaining in Syria are there “only for the oil.” While Turkish troops ethnically cleanse Kurdish areas, American forces have a mainly economic mission around resource control. While this could be interpreted as hard-nosed realism, it is more clear-eyed to see it as mission creep: a mission and conflict is never truly “over” when the nature of conflict becomes nation-building, long-term stability and propping up nations with poorly trained armies, lack of regional control, faltering infrastructure and systemic corruption. Watching the 2010 The Battle for Marjah about coordinated American efforts to unseat the Taliban in the city of Marjah is a case-in-point. While the combat was successful, troops ended up in civil roles after the battle, trying to maintain the peace in the town and bazaar. With resources stretched thin, US command authorized paying cash to local youth to act as municipal security even while knowing some of them had been trying to kill them the day before. War and nation-building are two different things, and expecting troops to do both is foolhardy.
Prevention Is The Best Cure
Realist foreign policy thinking should be tending towards prevention of an all-out war in the Middle East as it lurches closer to a disastrous, world-shaking 1914 moment. The bluster of Trump and dismantling of the Iran nuclear deal coupled with an aggressive posture between Iran and its regional allies and Saudi Arabia and its allies could ultimately unravel into all-out chaos. The situation in the Middle East is ripe for wide-ranging, regional war and the last thing that is needed is more belligerence and cynical opportunism from the United States, Russia or any other large power. The United States should be pursuing modest goals in the Middle East, rather than trying to run the region or become more involved. America’s military leadership is far from a monolith and there are officials who recognize the foolhardiness of the United States always siding with Saudi Arabia.
The Sanctions Powderkeg
The United States should resist smaller actors trying to utilize American military might for their own goals and maintain a balanced, more detached position as Middle East power shifts continue. This includes on sanctions, where Trump’s policies have the potential to ignite a powderkeg, and already may have done so. Indeed, there are some indications that US sanctions are part of what is driving the uprisings and protests across the Middle East as the economies and governments of Lebanon, Iraq and others shudder under corruption and instability, but it is far from a sure thing that these upheavals will lead to any more positive results than the last Arab Spring considering they have no cohesive alternative or leadership structure in place to present instead of those who are being protested. The American military should resist being dragged further into the Middle East unless it is prepared to go to the lengths of global war to back it up, which would be a disaster. The current Trump Administration position of being reflexively obsessed with supporting Israeli interests and backing Saudi Arabia is not in the national interest of the United States and should be reassessed the next time a major deployment decision must be made. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the upheaval and suffering wracking the region, but America should focus on at least not adding to the already significant problems.