America’s Middle East Purgatory

The Case for Doing Less

Leaving on a jet plane: an F-18 on its way to the Persian Gulf, March 2017 John Gambrell / ASSOCIATED PRESS

When U.S. President Donald Trump talks about the Middle East, he typically pairs bellicose threats against Iran and the Islamic State (or ISIS) with fulsome pledges of support for the United States’ regional partners, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. But the tough talk is misleading: there is little reason to think that Trump actually wants the United States to get more involved in the region.

He pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal but has shown no eagerness for a conflict with the Islamic Republic. He has continued U.S. President Barack Obama’s support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen but resisted calls for deeper military engagement there. Despite his promise of a “deal of the century,” a U.S. proposal on Arab-Israeli peace remains on the shelf. His support for an “Arab NATO,” a security alliance among Egypt, Jordan, and six Gulf states, has been stymied by deepening rifts among the Gulf countries. His vacillating approach toward Syria has led to confusion over the U.S. military’s mission there. The Defense Department has scaled back U.S. military capabilities in the Middle East in order to redirect resources to the increasing threats posed by China and Russia, leaving partners in the region wondering about Washington’s commitment to their security. For all the aggressive rhetoric, Trump’s Middle East policies have proved remarkably reserved. 

In that regard, Trump is strikingly like his predecessor. Trump may talk about the Middle East differently than Obama did. But the two seem to share the view that the United States is too involved in the region and should devote fewer resources and less time to it. And there is every reason to believe that the next president will agree. The reduced appetite for U.S. engagement in the region reflects not an ideological predilection or an idiosyncrasy of these two presidents but a deeper change in both regional dynamics and broader U.S. interests. Although the Middle

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