DON'T PULL BACK
Mara Karlin and Tamara Cofman Wittes (“America’s Middle East Purgatory,” January/February 2019) argue that because the Middle East matters less to the United States than it did 20 years ago, the region should receive less attention and fewer resources. “Heavy U.S. involvement in the Middle East over the past two decades has been painful and ugly,” they conclude. “But it is the devil we know,” they continue, “and so U.S. policymakers have grown accustomed to the costs associated with it. Pulling back, however, is the devil we don’t know, and so everyone instinctively resists this position.”
In fact, pulling back is a devil we know all too well. As Karlin and Wittes acknowledge, U.S. President Donald Trump and his predecessor, Barack Obama, “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.”
Washington’s declining enthusiasm for the Middle East is reflected most clearly in the shrinking U.S. troop presence there. Today, there are only 35,000 American soldiers in the entire region—a fraction of the approximately 500,000 that U.S. President George H. W. Bush sent to the Gulf in 1991 or the nearly 285,000 that U.S. President George W. Bush sent to the Middle East in 2003. The size of the troop presence is inversely proportional to the political turmoil it is triggering. Trump’s decision to withdraw about 2,000 troops from Syria reportedly led U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis to resign from his position, the first resignation on principle by a senior member of the cabinet in 40 years. And unlike the exponentially larger numbers of troops deployed for the two wars against Iraq, the U.S. troops in the region today are charged with defeating a terrorist group that has actually killed U.S. citizens.
Indeed, the United States is already well into executing the pullback that Karlin and Wittes fear American leaders will resist. This should be cause
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