A Superpower, Like It or Not
Why Americans Must Accept Their Global Role
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 the U.S. military on great-power competition, the U.S. footprint in the Middle East remains relatively constant, and seemingly permanent. Instead, what has changed is the scale of civilian effort that, in most previous administrations, would have accompanied such a military presence. The Trump administration has left numerous vacancies for key civilian positions unfilled for long stretches, slashed aid programs, and focused on high-level personal relations at the expense of broader ties. Altogether, its approach has not been typified by either retrenchment or interventionism but by what Barry Posen, writing in Foreign Affairs, has called “illiberal hegemony”—military superiority shorn of diplomatic stewardship.
Although some longtime U.S. partners in the region have sought to portray the United States as “getting out” of the Middle East in order to elicit additional assurances, this evergreen narrative obscures elements of the U.S. defense footprint that remain unchanged. Some mobile, high-value assets have indeed been rotated out of the Middle East—only to be rotated back in. For instance, gaps in what used to be the United States’ continuous aircraft-carrier presence in Gulf waters that persisted over several months were filled by the rotational return of a carrier strike group to the area in May.
Ever since the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, U.S. presidents have called for reconsidering the United States’ commitment to the Middle East. Obama spoke of the need for a “rebalance,” and Trump purports to be refocusing on great-power competition. Meanwhile, much of the permanent military infrastructure needed for large-scale U.S. deployments has remained in place. The United States maintains tens of thousands of troops spread across 14 countries in the region, including bases in Turkey, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait. It also runs ongoing training and counterterrorism missions in Iraq and Syria.
In some countries, the U.S. military presence is expanding—as in Jordan, where the planned withdrawal from Syria and other uncertainties in the region have driven a quiet but significant expansion of Jordanian facilities used by the U.S. military. Even amid the ongoing rift between Qatar and its Arab Gulf neighbors, the Department of Defense signed an agreement in January 2019 to further build out Al Udeid Air Base, the U.S. Central Command’s forward headquarters in the region. As one former senior Pentagon official recently told one of the authors, regional partners “are always trying to get us to pour more concrete.” Certain aspects of the bulked-up U.S. regional posture were an outgrowth of the Obama administration’s effort to ensure a credible military deterrent against Iran during negotiations for the Iran nuclear deal. Now the breakdown of that same agreement has led military officials to advocate further increases.
Alongside the discourse of abandonment, the reality of an enduring U.S. military presence persists. The military often looks at the Middle East in terms of contingency planning: it needs access to diverse, redundant bases across an unstable region where potential future crises range from Sunni terrorist insurgencies to Iranian attacks on U.S. forces to Houthis launching missiles at ships and threatening key shipping lanes. Foremost among these contingencies is a war with Iran. Although the National Defense Strategy includes repeated mentions of the “calculated risk taking” required to reorient U.S. priorities away from regional contingencies to focus on great-power competition, there remain tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Kuwait as a rapid-response backstop against regional war; continued air operations into Afghanistan and against ISIS out of Qatar and the UAE; and the U.S. Navy’s fifth fleet in Bahrain to keep the Strait of Hormuz open. Even independent-minded Oman allows 5,000 overflights and 600 landings by U.S. military aircraft and hosts 80 port calls by U.S. naval vessels per year.
The current tensions surrounding Iranian behavior and heightened dangers to international shipping in the Gulf, however, also give further evidence of a shift toward illiberal hegemony. Although the United States is now seeking to assemble a maritime coalition force to protect commercial ships transiting through the Strait of Hormuz, the first impulses of the Trump administration reflected a tilt toward unvarnished unilateralism and away from collective security. In that vein, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested initially that the United Kingdom was chiefly responsible for its own commercial ships in the region.
Alongside the discourse of abandonment, the reality of an enduring U.S. military presence persists.
To be sure, some aspects of the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East have changed. As the U.S. campaign against ISIS has slowed, so has the air campaign that peaked during the height of the battles for Mosul and Raqqa. There has also been a move away from continuous carrier presence toward rotations, each of which spikes and contracts U.S. troop numbers in the region. Last year Patriot missile batteries were rotated out of Jordan, Kuwait, and Bahrain and are now reportedly being deployed, along with 500 U.S. troops, inside Saudi Arabia after a fifteen-year absence. But, as recent moves demonstrate, even with a more flexible footprint in the region based on more frequent scheduled rotations, mobile assets can be redeployed at short notice.
On the civilian side, the decline of the State Department over the past two and a half years has been rightly lamented. The Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs has fared less badly than its peers in some respects, but its descent has still been steep. Consider, for instance, the vacant ambassadorial posts in the region. The Trump administration has only recently filled a few posts, including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. But that came only after leaving them open for 25 months, 16 months, 27 months, and 18 months, respectively. Jordan, Qatar, and Morocco remain unfilled. By comparison, in the first term of the Obama administration, only the Morocco post sat open for longer than a year.
Similarly, the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs was without a presidentially appointed, confirmed leader from January 2017 until David Schenker was confirmed as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs in June 2019. Obama filled this position in the first eight months of his presidency. The problem is not limited to ambassadorial ranks: an internal watchdog report found that 18 percent of overseas Foreign Service positions in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs remained unfilled as of March 2018, the highest level of vacancies of any region.
What has this meant in practice? When Trump joined a host of regional and world leaders in Riyadh in May 2017, he had appointed no ambassadors to key countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. Following the gathering—which has come to be remembered for the photograph of Trump, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi gathered around a glowing orb—Saudi Arabia launched a series of domestic crackdowns and, along with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, severed diplomatic relations with Qatar, which hosts U.S. Central Command, and halted land, air, and sea travel to and from the country.
Sixteen months later, when the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside Turkey erupted into a diplomatic crisis, there was no Senate-confirmed U.S. ambassador in either Turkey or Saudi Arabia to provide local insight or help manage relations on behalf of the U.S. president with the leaders of those countries. As a result—and potentially by design—the administration found itself working directly through Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to implement its policy response. The Trump administration is not the first to seek to circumvent established channels or to narrow policy deliberations on sensitive issues. But the degree to which it has personalized and centralized power while marginalizing bureaucracy represents something new in recent decades of U.S. foreign policy.
Less remarked upon than personnel vacancies but no less damaging has been the dismantling of other tools of U.S. civilian power. In the summer of 2018, Trump pulled the plug on stabilization funds inside Syria, civilian money that had assisted local governance councils and other measures to prevent the return of ISIS to liberated areas. Now U.S. troops remain deployed, but civilian stabilization aid remains frozen.
In Iraq, the Trump administration has invested in stabilization for religious minorities, but forsworn reconstruction and done little to help Iraq address its governance challenges—despite the United States’ still-strong diplomatic influence there. Escalating tensions with Iran led to security threats and ultimately to the closure, in September 2018, of the U.S. consulate in southern Iraq—a region at the heart of the country’s governance crisis and crucial to the survival of its current government. Then, in May, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ordered nonessential civilian presence out of the entire country and reportedly sought to make the downgrade permanent. Troops stayed behind, raising questions about the United States’ intentions and commitment.
The degree to which the Trump administration has personalized and centralized power while marginalizing bureaucracy represents something new in recent decades of U.S. foreign policy.
In Egypt, the tilt toward military-focused relations has happened over a longer period but been no less pronounced. Amid an unprecedented military-backed authoritarian resurgence, U.S. security assistance to Egypt has remained unchanged for decades at $1.3 billion. Economic support, meanwhile, declined over the past 20 years from $800 million to $120 million. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, security aid to Egypt was an average of three times larger than economic aid; today, it is 11 times larger.
Perhaps most dramatic of all have been changes to civilian cooperation with Palestinians. The Trump administration shuttered the U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem and has all but eliminated U.S. assistance. USAID’s mission to the Palestinian people let go ofapproximately 85 percent of its staff—ending virtually all ground activities, including support for hospitals in East Jerusalem as well as for Palestinian refugees in the region. These steps are punitive in nature and harmful to both sides.
Altogether, the Trump administration’s approach to the Middle East combines a largely stable U.S. military footprint with hyperpersonalized and militarized diplomatic engagement. Such an approach can yield warm relations and tactical gains for a time. But it risks creating a worst-of-both-worlds equilibrium, in which Washington pays tens of billions of dollars each year to station U.S. forces across the region, while forfeiting far cheaper investments in diplomacy that would help minimize the odds that those forces ever need to be used. Under this vision, a narrow subset of Americans deal with an equally narrow subset of regional rulers, ruling families, and security officials while societies are entirely marginalized. That may seem like hard-headed realism, but it will likely prove short-sighted.
This approach also exacerbates the long-standing problem of overreliance on the military as the central tool of U.S. Middle East policy. Even on a diplomat’s best days, regional leaders are well aware of the “consul effect”—the contrast between well-resourced American military commanders and their relatively impoverished diplomatic colleagues. Further marginalizing diplomats costs them influence, access, and bargaining power, while positioning the military and intelligence communities as the only effective U.S. institutional actors in the region.
The next administration should think hard about the opportunity costs of continuing the current disproportionately heavy focus on the Middle East.
Then there is the question of the day after Trump. His administration’s approach has already deepened the politicization and personalization of many key partnerships, transforming what were once enduring bipartisan relationships into appendages of the most polarizing American presidency in recent memory. This has planted the seeds for a near-inevitable reckoning with these partners over their behavior on his watch. A silver lining is that, by surfacing the most troubling assumptions underpinning the United States’ regional partnerships, Trump may provide a much-needed opportunity to reexamine their terms. Ultimately, Trump’s approach may bring about a real change in the U.S. military footprint in the region—by making it more likely that his successor will take on the task.
The next administration should think hard about the opportunity costs of continuing the current disproportionately heavy focus on the Middle East. The current status quo is the endpoint of a trajectory that began in 1980 with the Carter Doctrine, which declared that any “attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” Following the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent Gulf War, the United States began to lay down roots in a region that, after the fall of the Soviet Union, it could dominate without rival. That infrastructure would later provide the base and support for what grew into the Iraq war and President George W. Bush’s ill-conceived “war on terror.” This posture need not persist indefinitely.
Defense experts such as Melissa Dalton and Mara Karlin have explored incremental steps in between permanently sustaining the status quo and a destabilizing departure. Karlin developed this argument further in Foreign Affairs with Tamara Cofman Wittes, correctly warning that rebalancing from military to diplomatic investments cannot be a substitute for making hard choices and setting more realistic objectives. The next administration can and should consider carefully what is actually needed to fight jihadist terrorism, deter and contain Iran, and be prepared for various contingencies.
At the same time, a new administration will need to focus on reconstructing the diplomatic and development capacity that has been lost in recent years. While the United States is almost certainly not leaving the Middle East any time soon, its presence has grown out of proportion and out of balance—politicized, personalized, and militarized at the expense of civilian power. The risk is that a future administration will reach for meaningful alternatives to militarism and withdrawal only to find the cupboard bare; it will inherit a regional posture with one foot in the past and the other out the door.