U.S. foreign policy hands are rightly grappling with how engaged the United States should be in the Middle East. Thought-provoking essays by Martin Indyk (in The Wall Street Journal) and Mara Karlin and Tamara Cofman Wittes (in Foreign Affairs) have argued that the United States has few remaining vital interests—those worth going to war over—in the region. Washington should “do less” in the Middle East, as Karlin and Wittes put it, and lighten the U.S. footprint because, as the headline of Indyk’s essay noted, it “isn’t worth it.” Gone are the days when 180,000 U.S. troops fought in Iraq or when spiking oil prices held the U.S. economy over a proverbial barrel. And the terrifying outbreak of a global pandemic has been the starkest reminder yet that the United States has work to do to refocus its priorities on the most pressing current and future challenges.

Yet while the trend toward Middle East minimalism is broad based—both U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic opponents talk about “ending endless wars”—it remains ill-defined, the start of the conversation rather than the end of it. Above all, downsizing the U.S. presence in the Middle East will require striking a tricky balance: reducing an outdated U.S. military footprint without creating fresh insecurity, while maintaining deterrence and influence where needed to address those key U.S. interests that remain.

The Trump administration’s answer to this challenge has been incoherent, driven by irreconcilable desires to get out of the region while getting tough on Iran. Trump’s Jacksonian instincts have produced the bizarre combination of sending nearly 20,000 additional troops to the region while talking constantly about withdrawing. The result has been the worst of both worlds: a combination of military activism and diplomatic passivity that gives regional partners a blank check for destabilizing behavior and keeps the region on the brink of wider conflict.

If Trump’s approach is wrong, what’s the right approach? Too often, the debate has reduced the question to one of military posture—is the United States in or is it out? But a better approach requires clarity about U.S. interests and a plan for securing them, changing the United States’ role in a regional order it helped create without leaving behind yet more chaos, suffering, and insecurity. After all, Trump is not the first president to promise a lighter touch in the Middle East only to be drawn in, reluctantly but deeply.

A better strategy would be simultaneously less ambitious and more ambitious than traditional U.S. statecraft in the Middle East: less ambitious in terms of the military ends the United States seeks and in its efforts to remake nations from within, but more ambitious in using U.S. leverage and diplomacy to press for a de-escalation in tensions and eventually a new modus vivendi among the key regional actors. The United States has repeatedly tried using military means to produce unachievable outcomes in the Middle East. Now it’s time to try using aggressive diplomacy to produce more sustainable results.

DIPLOMATIC VOID

Thus far, the conversation about regional diplomacy has centered on how the United States and Iran might reestablish the nuclear deal under a new Democratic president. Getting off a collision course on the nuclear file is both urgent and essential. But it’s not the only diplomatic business the United States should be doing. It should also push for the establishment of a structured regional dialogue—with support from other members of the United Nations Security Council—that explores ways to reduce tensions, create pathways to de-escalation, and manage mistrust.

The two major regional protagonists are Saudi Arabia and Iran, both of whom are likely to arrive in early 2021 licking their wounds from a combination of low oil prices and the health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit Iran especially early and hard. Humanitarian crises have been the cause of diplomatic thaws before and could be again here. Depending on health conditions next year, and notwithstanding recent tensions, Saudi Arabia and Iran could build on past confidence-building efforts to plan together for the resumption of hajj travel to Mecca and parallel pilgrimages for Saudi Shiites. More significant would be an explicit noninterference pledge to respect each other’s sovereignty and territory as both address internal challenges. If honored, that would mark significant progress.

The two major regional protagonists are Saudi Arabia and Iran, both of whom are likely to arrive in early 2021 licking their wounds from a combination of low oil prices and the health and economic impacts of COVID-19.

Yet if conditions align with outside encouragement, there could be room for a larger conversation—about Yemen, Syria, and Gulf countries such as Bahrain and about functional issues such as maritime security. Some may understandably chafe at regional powers negotiating over third countries. But ending proxy conflicts that have trampled fragile countries’ sovereignty for years represents a small step on a long path toward restoring that sovereignty. So, too, would an agreement that persuaded Iran to restrict the proliferation of advanced missile technology to its proxies. Reaching such regional understandings may well prove out of reach. But even a failed attempt could offer templates for future enforceable arrangements to circumscribe Iran’s actions beyond its borders.

Such an effort would aim to fill a major diplomatic void that, in practice, is too often filled by U.S. military power. The hyperpolarized Middle East remains the world’s most dangerously underinstitutionalized region. While the African Union makes important decisions about peacekeeping and the Organization of American States helps fight democratic backsliding, the Arab League has failed to command similar authority and excludes arguably the region’s three most militarily potent states, including Iran. The Gulf Cooperation Council has been eviscerated by the Saudi-Emirati blockade of Qatar. Trump’s inchoate “Arab NATO” concept remains more focused on regional rivalries and U.S. security commitments than advancing members’ common interests.

A regional dialogue on issues of peace and security would not require a formal new institution or official treaties. It would involve an inclusive format with a flexible geometry and agenda, with exploratory engagement at first as wary adversaries take stock of one another’s intentions. Some conversations would be best held with U.S. support but with no Americans present—to ensure that Gulf countries feel their equities are at the table rather than on it. Others would be bilateral in nature, given Saudi Arabia’s preeminent role and smaller states’ distinct interests and perspectives. Others might feature significant players outside the region, including Russia and Europe. And the fruits of both direct U.S. diplomacy and the Gulf states’ dialogue with Iran could feed into the effort.

THREADING THE NEEDLE

In pushing for regional diplomacy, Washington would have to ask and answer two difficult questions about how its priorities and hoped-for outcomes fit together. The first is how closely—if it all—to tie a new regional initiative to a nuclear agreement with Iran. It is a recipe for failure to hold the opportunity to constrain Iran’s nuclear enrichment hostage to maximalist regional demands—as when U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for getting “every last Iranian boot” out of Syria. But there may also be a way to thread the needle, through a phased approach that delivers nuclear progress up front and creates space to address regional challenges over time. Under such an approach, the United States would immediately reestablish nuclear diplomacy with Iran and salvage what it can from the 2015 nuclear deal, which has been fraying since the Trump administration abandoned it in 2018. The United States would then work with the P5+1 and Iran to negotiate a follow-on agreement. In parallel, the United States and its partners would support a regional track.

To be clear, verifiably halting Iran’s nuclear progress—in service of a vital U.S. interest—should not be made conditional on the success of a regional dialogue. But a loosely connected approach could create an incentive structure in which the pace and extent of sanctions relief are connected to both tracks.

The second difficult question is how best to square diplomatic ambition with the desire to lessen the U.S. military footprint. Here, too, Washington will have to thread a needle. It should not condition its military redeployments on the outcomes of exploratory regional negotiations. But it could, for example, privately insist on serious, good-faith Saudi diplomatic efforts to end the Yemen war and de-escalate with Iran as part of the terms under which it maintains a complement of U.S. troops deployed in Saudi Arabia since May 2019.

In choosing to abrogate the nuclear deal and bring the United States to the edge of war with Iran, Trump all but guaranteed that the U.S. presence would become even more heavily militarized.

Ultimately, finding a more constructive approach with Iran is essential to the sustainable redeployment of U.S. forces from the region. Deterring Iran and preparing for contingencies arising from Iranian threats (to start a regional arms race, disrupt oil shipments, and support dangerous proxies) have helped drive the United States’ heavily militarized presence in the region over the past decade. In choosing to abrogate the nuclear deal and bring the United States to the edge of war with Iran, Trump all but guaranteed that whatever his rhetoric on endless wars, the U.S. presence would become even more heavily militarized—especially when combined with aid cuts, diplomatic evacuations, and the hobbling of the State Department.

A new administration should aim to test the opposite premise: whether by restoring nuclear diplomacy, lowering regional tensions, and forging new arrangements, it can manage the Iranian challenge with fewer forces in the region. Trump has shown that military deployments cannot substitute for diplomacy. Even with a lighter footprint, the next administration would retain a credible military deterrent as a necessary backstop to diplomacy while minimizing the odds it would be needed.

THE DEUS EX MACHINA DELUSION

There are plenty of reasons to question whether efforts to enlist regional partners for ambitious diplomacy can succeed. Rivalry and mistrust run deep, as does strategic inertia. Recent efforts have run aground. Iran’s regional ambitions and destabilizing actions push beyond the limits of what the United States or Arab countries can accept, and it may elect a hard-line president in 2021. Kim Ghattas has eloquently noted that both Saudi Arabia and Iran have powerful incentives to maintain the current enmity, since it keeps Washington invested in protecting Gulf economies while giving the Iranian regime an external threat to legitimize its power. Meanwhile, the threat to Israel from Iran and its proxies—Hezbollah in Lebanon, militias in Syria and Iraq, various extremist Palestinian groups in Gaza—remains potent.

Yet there are compelling reasons to make this regional initiative a priority. Renewed sanctions have crippled Iran’s economy and fueled domestic discontent, with calls across the country for an emphasis on the home front over regional adventurism. Collapsing oil prices will only deepen these challenges. Meanwhile, for Saudi Arabia and its closest partners, the excesses of the Trump administration may have actually had a clarifying effect and thereby created an opening. After falling out of love with three successive administrations, leaders in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates seem to realize that no deus ex machina solution from the outside—whether it comes from George W. Bush–era neoconservatives or the ultrahawks advising Trump—can rid them of the neighboring regime in Iran. The aftermath of Iran’s attack last year on the Abqaiq refinery was sobering: Riyadh and Abu Dhabi looked over the abyss and realized that Trump’s aggressive approach to Iran did not include a willingness to go to war to defend their territory—which leaves them overextended and exposed to Iran’s missiles, drones, and other unconventional threats.

After falling out of love with three successive administrations, leaders in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates seem to realize that no deus ex machina solution from the outside can rid them of the neighboring regime in Iran.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE are now reckoning with the reality of the options before them, which has already brought incipient diplomatic backchannels to lower tensions, which could be the building blocks for a more expansive diplomatic track. Emirati officials have made public visits to Tehran, and it is widely speculated that the Saudis have flirted with quieter efforts. The Trump administration reportedly discouraged these contacts, but a new U.S. president could enter these discussions with leverage, given how essential U.S. support is to Gulf states. Saudi Arabia’s leaders know they have severely damaged their position in Washington with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the prosecution of the Yemen war. Gulf countries may be able to visit Moscow in search of diplomatic alternatives or look to China for trade and investment, but the reality is that these are not credible alternatives to their security and intelligence partnerships with the United States. As Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS) seeks to modernize the Saudi economy, he will undoubtedly deepen ties with China—it’s the sensible thing for him to do—but he will also be keen to sustain his country’s special relationship with the United States. A new U.S. president could use that eagerness to pitch Riyadh on lowering tensions with Iran in order to buy time and space for Saudi Arabia to pursue its economic and social goals.

At the same time, it will be important to balance anxiety with reassurance, if the Gulf countries are to be induced to take part in a serious diplomatic effort. Even while beginning to shrink the U.S. military footprint and pursue diplomacy with Iran, Washington must show that it is serious about helping Saudi Arabia and other regional partners defend their territory against missiles, drones, fast ships, and attacks—digital and physical—to critical infrastructure. It can also press European allies to reinvigorate a genuinely multilateral effort to secure vital waterways.

THE NEXT PRESIDENT

The Middle East remains a source of significant upheaval far beyond its borders, from terrorism to nuclear proliferation to mass migration. The risk of further conflagration is a major reason why the United States must remain engaged even as geopolitics and growth potential argue for a greater focus on Asia, Africa, and the Western Hemisphere. Even as the end of the United States’ war in Afghanistan and a different approach on Iran open up opportunities to redeploy U.S. troops and land, sea, and air assets from the Gulf, a reasonably sized U.S. presence can help forestall crises that would necessitate the return of a larger one.

A grand diplomatic settlement of all outstanding claims between Riyadh and Tehran is nearly as fanciful as a purely military solution. And even the most effective regional diplomacy cannot resolve regional power competition, which surely will continue, from the Palestinian territories and Lebanon to Iraq and beyond. Other policies will be needed to address destabilizing fights between rival factions within the Sunni world and the widespread governance challenges that exacerbate so many of the region’s security issues. But reducing Gulf-Iranian tensions—which have fastened on to so many local conflicts in the last decades—can only help. Even an incremental lowering of tensions that creates structures for future progress would be a meaningful contribution.

U.S. plans in the Middle East typically run into a buzz saw of regional realities—whether al Qaeda and 9/11 during the George W. Bush administration, the rise of the Islamic State (or ISIS) that tempered the Obama administration’s hopes to extricate the United States from Middle Eastern wars, or the Trump administration’s slow realization that Iran would not simply crumble or capitulate under renewed sanctions pressure. And six months of pandemic, economic collapse, and Trumpian upheaval, layered on top of preexisting Middle Eastern churn, is a lifetime in foreign policy terms. Yet along with inheriting a military buildup in the Gulf, a slow-motion nuclear crisis, and little meaningful rollback of Iranian support for its militia allies, a new U.S. president in 2021 may also inherit an opportunity. Trump’s actions may finally force policymakers in Washington and the Gulf to confront—for their own distinct reasons—the limitations of the current approach. One does not need to be naive about the nature of the regime in Tehran to believe it is no longer wise or necessary for the United States to remain indefinitely just shy of war with Iran. 

Yet for all the folly of recent U.S. moves, and as much as U.S. interests in the Middle East have changed, that does not mean the United States can, will, or should leave the region outright. Instead, it should lead with diplomacy to set the conditions that will ultimately allow for sustained reductions in its military presence, while safeguarding important interests in a region that still matters for the United States and will for years to come.

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  • DANIEL BENAIM holds Fellowships at the Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress. He previously served as a Middle East Policy Adviser in the Office of the Vice President and on the U.S. Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff.
  • JAKE SULLIVAN is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He served as National Security Adviser to the U.S. Vice President in 2013–14 and as Director of Policy Planning at the U.S. Department of State in 2011–13.
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