Judging by the headlines, the last two years of U.S. Middle East policy seem to be marked by a whiplash-inducing series of radical shifts. U.S. President Donald Trump ran on opposition to a foreign policy of “intervention and chaos,” then ramped up U.S. airstrikes from Somalia to Syria. He announced a complete pullout of U.S. troops from eastern Syria in December, declaring, “They’re all coming back and they’re coming back now,” only to reverse himself and then trumpet additional military deployments to the region to counter Iran six months later. He has simultaneously decried his predecessor’s overinvestment in the Middle East and his weakness there.
These conflicting signals have allowed wildly different interpretations of the Trump administration’s posture in the Middle East. Focusing on one announcement leads to warnings of a new war; focusing on others allows for proclamations of a “post-American era” in the Middle East. Yet most Middle East watchers seem to agree that something fundamental about America’s presence in the region is changing.
Under Trump, the U.S. military presence in the Middle East has not changed much at all. Hundreds of U.S. forces remain in Syria with an open-ended mandate (one that goes beyond the initial rationale for deployment, which was focused squarely on fighting the Islamic State, also known as ISIS). Concern about the threat from Iran has brought about some changes in military presence, but so far they add up to a far smaller uptick than has been hyped. Even the most noteworthy among them—the return of several hundred U.S. troops to Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia—demonstrates that recent alterations to force posture in the region have been smaller and more incremental than the public debates around them might suggest.
For all the headlines, the U.S. military presence in the Middle East is fairly consistent. Despite the administration’s intention, laid out in the 2018 National Defense Strategy, to refocus
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