Mission Creep in the Middle East: Why Can’t America Quit?

The United States and the Middle East: has there ever existed a more iconic duo? Since the end of World War II, philosopher Noam Chomsky argued America had begun to consider the region “the most strategically important area of the world,” predominantly due to its oil reserves and concordant with the American mission to prevent the spread of Russian influence. 

Fast forward to the modern era and the US has reduced its oil imports from the region to under 1 million barrels per day, yet Washington continues to be entangled in military engagements in the Middle East. Why is the US unable to disengage from conflict in the region? 

Mission Creep

US policy toward the Middle East since 2001 has been largely, and understandably, shaped by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The war in Afghanistan, commonly referred to as the War on Terror, was an unprecedented conflict as the US rallied against a non-state actor within the country. Consequently, determining an end goal and measure of victory was muddled. 

Was it eliminating terror mastermind Osama bin Laden or eliminating the Taliban and al-Qaeda entirely? Former President George W. Bush achieved neither, and less than 2 years later, deployed the US military to Iraq over false claims of weapons of mass destruction and an approaching doomsday on American soil if the United States did not act.

In March 2003, troops landed in Iraq. Two months later, Bush landed on an aircraft carrier with the now infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner and declared the end of major combat operations. Obviously, his word choice did not effectively convey the reality of the situation since US troops are still in Iraq today.

Obama’s Failure to End the Wars

Former President Barack Obama tried to remove the US from Iraq, but failed. American soldiers left at the end of 2011, but were sent back with the rise of the Islamic State in 2014. Even so, the withdrawal took 3 years to complete. Why was the process so lengthy?

With the rise of the Arab Spring protests, many of which the US encouraged, more chaos spread throughout the region. Under Obama, the US was suddenly involved in Libya and Syria. Now, modern US military conflicts in the Middle East included combating terrorism, overthrowing unfavorable dictators, and stopping the spread of the Islamic State.

At no point were clearly defined mission goals laid out and met, nor were US troops withdrawn in a timely fashion. There are several reasons for this: the nature of the region promotes instability, nationalism, and dictatorships; the region continues to control the global oil market; and Russia and China have increased their engagement in regional affairs. 

Anti-American Nationalism

US interests in the Middle East have often been inspired by leaders who Washington views as threats. Consequently, America often overreacts militarily, either by supporting opposition as in the case of Arab Spring protests, or by direct military intervention, like the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

Although Saddam Hussein was handpicked by Washington in the ‘80s, his favor ran out. The resulting wars that followed, and arguably the War in Iraq, was America’s attempt to correct its mistake.

In Iran, anti-American nationalism paved way for the Islamic Revolution, which turned the state and its people against America for the decades to follow. Often the US is too heavy-handed in pushing its policies while influencing dictators so that either the leaders revolt or the people do. They are quick to grow weary of what they perceive as colonial rule under Washington. 

The Importance of Oil

Following World War II, former President Franklin Roosevelt made overtures to Saudi Arabia’s founding king, Ibn Saud. Thus began an alliance that continues until today. 

Former American general-turned-president Dwight Eisenhower carried on the tradition of bartering American military support for oil by implementing what became known as the Eisenhower Doctrine, which essentially allowed Middle Eastern states to request US military aid in return for access to oil. 

During the Suez Canal Criss, the United States unsuccessfully tried to form an Arab coalition to resist Soviet influence. With the United Kingdom and France shut out from the region, America became the dominant western power. 

The oil embargo of the 1970s drove home the point of how critical the region is to the world’s oil supply and therefore prices. Although the US now the world’s largest producer of oil and natural gas, it still depends on Arab crude oil, which is heavier than the light product recovered in America.

Russia and China

The mere threat of a supply disruption in the Middle East can quickly cause a ripple effect across the industry. Independent states such as Iran cannot be allowed to dictate global prices and the flow of the supply chain, particularly when they are influenced by Moscow.

Russia’s attempt at controlling the region was underscored by its 10-year-long war with Mujahideen groups in Afghanistan. While this did not provoke direct US military intervention, America did assist the Afghan rebel groups, primarily through financial assistance.

Recently, Moscow has sunk its claws into Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and has arguably won that conflict against the West. The US was incapable of ousting al-Assad, even as he crossed Obama’s “red line” and used chemical weapons on civilians. Without international support and domestic will for another full-scale military engagement in the region, Obama kept the US military in Syria tasked with defeating the Islamic State.

China has also made strides in recent years to develop the region. Notably, it has designs on an economic corridor known as the One Belt Initiative, which would give Beijing free trade of Middle Eastern oil. By investing in the economies of Middle Eastern states, China could also gain political leverage. 

Military-Industrial Complex

Finally, there is the American military-industrial complex. Eisenhower warned against the influence of lobbyists and defence contractors that could dictate American foreign policy for their own profit. In a nutshell, if there are no wars, they go out of business, therefore it is in their interest to maintain a demand. 

US President Donald Trump and his predecessors have all supported increased defense budgets. Trump has also made public displays of promoting the sale of American weapons to Middle Eastern states, such as Saudi Arabia, to keep business booming.

As long as the Middle East controls the global oil market, the US has a vested interest in fighting for regional stability and control. While terrorism is often cited as a reason for increased US military involvement, economic issues are the underlying symptom. The US needs favorable regimes that won’t tip the scales too much and it has devoted decades of military conflict to that end.