Israeli, U.S., and Emirati leaders hold a meeting in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, August 2020
Ministry of Presidential Affairs / WAM / Handout / Reuters

It has been clear for some time that the United States should do less in the Middle East, despite the attendant risks and costs—a case that we made in these pages last year (“America’s Middle East Purgatory,” January/February 2019). At the time, some welcomed this argument; others balked at it. Yet the dramatic developments of recent months have underscored the need for the United States to focus less on the region, highlighting both the opportunity costs of remaining entangled and the unique dangers of President Donald Trump’s approach.

Even before the twin crises of the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent collapse in oil prices brought a wave of political and economic instability to the Middle East, a new American approach was long overdue. In a region where the United States has long reigned as hegemon, the reality of diminished interests and the resulting diminished influence is painful for many U.S. policymakers and analysts to accept. But as the tide of the pandemic recedes, the region will look rather different—and in this changed landscape, there will be opportunities for the United States as well as dangers.

The challenge for the United States is to protect its remaining and still important interests in an era of austerity and competition, without simply doubling down on the failed approaches of the past. The United States still enjoys opportunities for progress toward a more stable region that do not require expensive or long-term commitments. A focus on constraining geopolitical competition within the region, confronting Iranian behavior more effectively, and resolving proxy conflicts where possible should enable Washington to maintain preponderant influence, doing less in the Middle East without giving up on it altogether.

DETERRING IRAN

The pandemic and the crash in oil prices have left the Gulf Arab states facing a substantial decline in wealth, with insufficient cash to bolster their own grim economies, much less to advance ambitious reform programs or massive development projects. This relative poverty will also impede their ability to wield influence in the rest of the Middle East. The Gulf Arab states’ main tool in regional geopolitical competition has always been money. The effectiveness of that tool could be seen, for instance, in the $30 billion that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) spent to prop up the government of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt. Now, as their economies spiral, the Gulf states face tough financial tradeoffs. They will have to decide how much they can invest in struggling allies, such as Egypt and Jordan; how much they can spend to push back against Iranian influence in Iraq and Lebanon; and how they can protect their core interests while suing for peace in Yemen. Dreams of decimating ideological adversaries and remaking the region in their own image will have to be shelved.

Although Gulf financing has sometimes worked against U.S. interests, Washington has often relied on it to support weaker U.S. partners and grease the wheels of U.S. diplomacy. Losing this Gulf ballast will thus impede any U.S.-led efforts to stabilize the region. Indeed, the aftermath of the pandemic may even favor Iran at the expense of the Gulf Arab states. Although devastated by COVID-19 and by crushing sanctions, the Islamic Republic learned long ago to live without significant oil income, and it is well practiced at wielding regional influence on the cheap. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the main liaison to Iran’s regional proxies, makes its own money from smuggling under sanctions and from being involved in the country’s key economic sectors, such as construction, oil, and gas. Accordingly, after the crisis passes, Iran’s relative influence in places such as Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria will likely grow as the Gulf Arab states’ influence declines.

Dreams of decimating ideological adversaries and remaking the region in their own image will have to be shelved.

This shift makes it even more necessary to revise the Trump administration’s fruitless approach to Iran. Trump escalated military and economic pressure to punishing levels (in part by withdrawing from the nuclear deal negotiated by his predecessor), but he has never articulated realistic demands or made clear which of them he prioritizes. He has swung between attempting to meet with Iran’s supreme leader and escalating confrontation. The United States’ assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force, rid the world of a murderer. But it did not eliminate the instruments of murder Soleimani wielded or reestablish deterrence, as the Trump administration claimed. Rather, the assassination brought the United States to the brink of war. In mid-January, dozens of U.S. forces were injured by Iranian retaliation, and U.S. and allied forces in Iraq continue to face attacks from the Iranian-linked Kataib Hezbollah militia. The main results of Trump’s pressure campaign have been the international isolation of the United States when confronting Iran’s nuclear ambition, new pressures within the Iraqi government to expel U.S. troops amid an ongoing campaign to counter the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), and constant challenges to maritime security and energy infrastructure in the Gulf.

The United States has succeeded in deterring the Iranians over the past two decades less through a beefy military posture and more through a mix of sanctions, intelligence to interrupt bad behavior, multilateral pressure, and the targeted use of force when necessary. This effective policy package for containing Iranian threats to both regional stability and U.S. interests offers a path to induce Iran to temper and ultimately abandon such behaviors in favor of international engagement, without relying on the military as the United States’ preeminent tool. Implementing this approach requires a tight interagency process and close collaboration with allies, two features notably absent from the current policy framework of the United States.

GIVING PEACE A CHANCE

The United States also needs to tamp down other regional conflicts that give troublemakers, such as Iran and Russia, opportunities to expand their influence in the Middle East. In that regard, today’s crises may have a silver lining: the Gulf states’ financial pinch might also reduce their recent tendency toward regional adventurism.

Since 2011, Gulf governments have provided financial, material, and political support to armed actors in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. The Gulf states have seen these civil conflicts as proxy wars with their rivals for the future regional order. In Libya, despite violating a UN arms embargo, Egypt, Russia, and the UAE provided military support to Libyan General Khalifa Haftar’s bloody assault on Tripoli. Qatar and Turkey, also violating the embargo, backed the other side. Most Gulf aid to Syrian insurgents trailed off years ago, but its impact is still manifest in the fragmented opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In Yemen, three Gulf states have been direct combatants in an ongoing civil war.

The Gulf states’ financial pinch might also reduce their recent tendency toward regional adventurism.

The Trump administration’s policies on all three devastating civil conflicts have allowed regional actors (as well as Russia and Turkey) to pursue their goals unconstrained by any American redlines. Now, however, circumstances may push the Gulf states to give peace a chance. The decline both in resources and in the commitment of some fairly hardheaded actors to these conflicts may provide the United States additional leverage to push for de-escalation without requiring an expensive or risky new commitment of U.S. resources.

The Yemen conflict offers the best opportunity for the United States to encourage a path toward conflict resolution. Both the Emirati and the Saudi leaderships have begun to recognize that the price of their involvement in the conflict has grown unsustainable. They have not only failed to achieve their goal of reinstating the government of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi but have also profoundly undermined Yemeni and regional stability, benefiting Iran and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Of course, it takes two to tango, and the Houthis, well entrenched on the ground and feeling secure about the support of their Iranian backers, are resisting negotiation efforts. But the United States can increase pressure on the Houthis by strengthening the maritime coalition that includes Australia, France, and others to interdict arms shipments to the Houthis. It is possible the Houthis will not just keep fighting but overstep by attempting to capture Saudi territory or conducting an attack that results in significant damage. But barring that outcome, the United States can helpfully expend some diplomatic energy by encouraging external actors to reduce their involvement in the war and by supporting the negotiations process under the auspices of the United Nations.

TIME FOR A REVIEW

The United States’ military priorities in the region should be driven by its strategic objectives. Senior Pentagon official James Anderson outlined those objectives to Congress earlier this year: to “ensure the region is not a safe haven for terrorists, is not dominated by any power hostile to the United States, and contributes to a stable global energy market.” The dilemma, however, is how to achieve these objectives effectively. An aggressive diplomatic push to bring local actors into a regional security dialogue—as Daniel Benaim and Jake Sullivan recommended in Foreign Affairs earlier this year—could help realize these objectives. (It is worth remembering that over most of its history in the region, the United States has made its greatest positive impact through diplomacy.) But it can also be helpful to launch a zero-based review of U.S. military posture and personnel in the region.

Pressure for budget cuts to defense will likely intensify as the federal deficit closes in on $1.5 trillion. Keeping two carrier strike groups in the Middle East is unsustainable (as the debacle of the COVID-19 outbreak on the USS Roosevelt and the resulting gap in the U.S. presence in Asia underscored), and the region already has a good deal of U.S. sea and air capabilities. If the ongoing Department of Defense global review does not result in a smaller and different mix of military capabilities, personnel, and military headquarters in the Middle East, it will have failed to meaningfully align the U.S. military with U.S. priorities.

The United States has made its greatest positive impact through diplomacy.

The Pentagon also needs a more formal way to measure the impact of its regional posture on deterrence. Washington should not make decisions about its military posture in the region as an ad hoc reaction to crises or as a way to mollify insecure partners. Rather, the U.S. military should regularize a rigorous process for making force allocations match its strategic objectives and for reassessing when they do not. A systematic process would reassure regional partners in a more lasting way and clarify the potential and the limits of the U.S. military’s role in achieving U.S. goals in the region.

FRIEND OR FOE

The United States should also reassess its partnerships in the Middle East. The diplomatic opening between the UAE and Israel suggests that the United States’ friends in the region are ready to work more closely together against the Iranian threat. As the United States builds on this foundation, it must also ensure that its regional allies are not working together in ways that violate U.S. interests or values by, for instance, enhancing the capabilities of autocratic governments to surveil their citizens or repress dissent. Washington must also take care that the new weapons it shares with its friends do not enable them to indulge in adventures that could destabilize the region.

A first priority will be transforming the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia. Washington should begin by toughening its stance toward Saudi Arabia’s transgressive behavior at home and abroad. It should impose consequences on Saudi Arabia for violating international norms by, for instance, egregiously murdering journalist Jamal Khashoggi, planting spies in American companies, attempting to kidnap Saudis in the United States, and helping Saudis flee U.S. courts. None of these are the actions of a partner, much less a friend. A new U.S. administration should make clear that high-level visits, arms sales, and other benefits will mirror changes in Saudi behavior and policy.

The United States should also reassess its partnerships in the Middle East.

Washington should focus the relationship on responding to shared security threats from Iran and violent nonstate actors and prioritize military professionalism over arms sales—that is, training Saudi forces to be effective over cashing in on the Saudis’ hunger for the latest military hardware. The United States can and should press on domestic human rights abuses and encourage greater social freedoms where possible. Nevertheless, Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler and crown prince of Saudi Arabia, has already made clear that his reign will be a brutal one. There is good reason for the United States to keep Riyadh at arm’s length and prepare for the likelihood, seen elsewhere in the region, that repression will no longer be a sure recipe for long-term stability. This means ensuring that U.S. regional policy does not overly depend on Saudi cooperation.

A PATH FORWARD

As the United States focuses its more modest regional engagement on areas it can influence, it must also avoid triggering crises that will upend regional stability and demand U.S. engagement to mitigate. Even if Israel has set aside plans to annex territory in the West Bank for now, Israeli-Palestinian relations are degrading. The United States must work to avoid a conflagration and restart the painstaking work of setting conditions for negotiations. Trump has set back any hope for conflict resolution by greenlighting Israeli annexation plans, alienating the Palestinian leadership, and slashing aid crucial for Palestinian health, welfare, and stability. The United States should reopen relations with the Palestinians and stand strong against any Israeli annexation of territory in the West Bank.

Washington should not walk away from Syria and Lebanon. Although both are profoundly dysfunctional—the horrific Syrian civil war is entering its second decade, and Lebanon’s political and economic crises are at their worst—U.S. involvement can still have a limited impact. Maintaining the small presence of U.S. forces on the Syrian-Iraqi border and sustaining sanctions on both Syria and Iran may, in the months to come, offer more leverage to shape security and political outcomes. Assad has begun to more earnestly seek resources for reconstruction, Russia and Iran are struggling for dominance over Assad’s weakened regime, and both states feel increasingly constrained in the resources they are willing to invest in the game. The United States may be able to exploit these tensions. In Lebanon, the devastating Beirut blast precipitated a crisis that Washington should not waste. Working with France and others, the United States should mobilize economic support conditioned on meaningful political and economic reform, support Lebanon’s civil society, and continue investing in the Lebanese military’s work against shared threats, such as ISIS.

Washington should not walk away from Syria and Lebanon.

Washington should avoid viewing its role in the Middle East solely through the lens of its geopolitical competition with China and Russia. There is no reason to think that regional governments should have to choose sides; China and Russia still have largely transactional relationships with regional actors, and in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, they, too, will face harder domestic constraints that may limit their involvement in the region. Washington can keep a wary eye on Chinese and Russian activities in the region—for example, Chinese Belt and Road initiatives and technology cooperation with Israel and the Gulf states and Russian military bases that enable Russia to project power—without treating them as part of a zero-sum game. Russian engagement remains opportunistic, and China is keen on fostering economic ties in Israel and across the Arab world but has shown no desire to dirty its hands in regional disputes.

In short, the United States still enjoys opportunities to shape a more stable region that do not require expensive or long-term commitments. A focus on constraining geopolitical competition within the region, confronting Iranian behavior more effectively, and resolving proxy conflicts where possible should enable Washington to do less without threatening its regional dominance. Risks to U.S. interests remain; the pandemic and the related economic crisis offer a reminder of how fragile governance and social services remain in too many parts of this region, posing a long-term challenge to stability and security. Even if the United States succeeds in finding a path out of purgatory, it is not yet clear where that path will end.

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  • MARA KARLIN is Director of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
  • TAMARA COFMAN WITTES is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
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