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The Middle East and Retrenchment Syndrome


Published February 16, 2021

Despite popular sentiment, US withdrawal from the Middle East would not be an unmitigated good. Leaders must make the case to the American people that sustained engagement is critical to security and prosperity around the world. The United States must remain engaged in the region, employing a long-term strategy that integrates diplomatic, military, and development efforts.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the cost of US disengagement in the Middle East?
  2. How can the United States use strategic empathy to develop a long-term strategy for the Middle East?

Additional Resources:

  • Read Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World, by H. R. McMaster. Learn more here.
  • Read “Middle East Policy in an Age of Constraint,” by Russell Berman via The Caravan. Available here.
  • Listen to “Chaos in the Middle East,” with Victor Davis Hanson. Available here.
View Transcript

In 2021, a new administration will face a confounding and wretched situation in the greater Middle East.

The policies of the Bush, Obama, and Trump Administrations have been consistent with America’s tendency to engage the region episodically and pursue short-term solutions to long term problems.

As the American experience in Iraq has demonstrated, treating symptoms rather than causes of violence perpetuates conflict and magnifies threats to national and international security.

The United States and its like-minded partners in the Middle East must focus on ending the sectarian civil war that is at the root of the humanitarian crisis and the threats that emanate from the region. To succeed, those efforts must be executed at a cost acceptable to the American people. 

Except, across the political spectrum many Americans now believe that withdrawing from the region would not only reduce costs but also improve U.S. security.

But there are three reasons why disengagement would make a bad situation worse.

First, problems in the region do not remain confined there. Today’s jihadist terrorist organizations are orders of magnitude larger than the mujahedeen alumni from the Soviet-Afghan War that perpetrated 9/11. Their reach and destructive capabilities are growing, and so must our and partner efforts to dismantle them.

Second, the costs of inaction in the region are often higher than the costs of action. The 2003 invasion of Iraq may have been ill-considered, but so was the 2011 withdrawal from Iraq. A small contingent of troops and a commitment to help keep the peace would have prevented the rise of ISIS and the devastation it caused.

Third, the United States is not the only major player engaged in the Middle East. Russia, China, and Iran all have their own vision for the region, and none of them are compatible with the interests or values of the United States.

For example, Russia and Iran aid, abet, and sustain the murderous Assad regime in Syria.

Iran threatens Israel and its Arab neighbors as it seeks hegemonic influence through the use of proxy forces to fuel sectarian civil wars which, in turn, generate support for jihadist terrorists.

Russia uses the chaos in the region to extend its influence, allying with Iran, drawing Turkey further away from the West, weaponizing refugees to weaken Europe, and presenting itself as an indispensable power broker that can ameliorate problems it is helping to create.

As the distinguished Hoover Institution scholar Fouad Ajami observed about the Middle East, “It is not a fast part of the world.” Progress in breaking the cycle of sectarian violence and overcoming the region’s problems will be slow and uneven. But withdrawing from the Middle East would neither conciliate the region’s violent passions nor insulate America from them. 

While recognizing the limits of its influence in the region, the United States cannot afford to disengage. Leaders must make the case to the American people that sustained engagement is critical to their future security and prosperity.

A long-term strategy that integrates diplomatic, military and development efforts to break the cycle of sectarian violence in the region and incentivize necessary reforms is the best way to improve security and promote prosperity for the people of the Middle East and the world.