The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has made no secret of its desire to extricate the United States from the Middle East. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in an interview before taking office, said that he envisioned a Biden presidency would do “less not more” in the region. A senior U.S. official likewise told me that the Obama administration didn’t follow through on its so-called pivot to Asia, but “this time we are.”
The United States’ “strategic competition” with China currently dominates American foreign policy discussion, representing bipartisan consensus in an otherwise divided Washington. But for all the talk about withdrawing from the Middle East and genuine regional anxiety about U.S. abandonment in the aftermath of Afghanistan, the reality on the ground suggests otherwise: Washington still maintains a sprawling network of military bases and has proved willing to embrace even its most unsavory partners in the name of bolstering regional security. What’s more, regional dynamics are likely to lead to further instability and violence—fueling a demand for a continued American presence.
To be sure, the United States is no longer the only global player in the Middle East. Chinese economic and technology investments and Russia’s military influence have grown over the past decade. In that sense, the American moment is over. And yet, much as Americans may like to be done with the Middle East, the Middle East is not done with the United States. American withdrawal is not only a myth, it is preventing an important debate in Washington about how the United States can adjust its policies to improve the lives of the region’s citizens and contribute to a more just political order in the Middle East.
BUSINESS AS USUAL
For all the fears in Arab capitals of declining American commitment to the Middle East, U.S. military engagement shows more continuity than commonly acknowledged. Despite a promise to review a $23 billion arms sale to the United Arab Emirates with a greater emphasis on human rights, the Biden administration decided to move ahead with the sale. Biden’s “recalibration” of relations with Saudi Arabia has also not led to major policy change: Saudi Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman, brother of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, received high-level meetings with top U.S. officials during a visit to Washington in July, despite the release of a U.S. intelligence report assessing the crown prince approved the operation to capture and kill the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan also met directly with the crown prince in Riyadh in September 2021. The administration subsequently pushed forward a new $650 million arms sale to Saudi Arabia.
This does not look like an administration turning its back on traditional U.S. partners or “putting human rights at the center” of its foreign policy. This pattern extends beyond the United States’ wealthy partners in the Gulf: although the Biden team chose to temporarily withhold $130 million in military aid to Egypt, its decision fell short of human rights organizations’ expectations that the administration would uphold congressional legislation conditioning $300 million in military aid on concrete progress on rule of law and reform measures. With $1.3 billion granted annually through the U.S. Foreign Military Financing program, Egypt remains among the top three recipients of American military aid globally, despite President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s crackdown on political opposition and civil society.
The Biden administration did signal a realignment of its military posture by announcing a reduction of its antimissile systems in the region as it refocused on the challenge posed by Russia and China. The removal of these systems from Saudi Arabia in September, even as the Houthis continued to launch missile attacks on Saudi territory from Yemen, reinforced Riyadh’s sense of abandonment by the United States. The Department of Defense is also currently engaged in a major global force posture review, which will likely impact the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East as the United States prioritizes threats in the Indo-Pacific. But it remains doubtful that a radical reduction of tens of thousands of U.S. troops is on the horizon—or that Washington is prepared to ignore the perceived security needs of its major regional partners.
BASE OF SUPPORT
The strategic case for reducing the American presence in the Middle East is straightforward. In addition to the need to shift resources to Asia given changing geostrategic conditions, the United States’ reliance on oil from the Middle East has decreased significantly. There has also been increased scrutiny on whether large bases are effective for counterterrorism missions and whether these bases may provoke further attacks from Iran rather than deter them. Some analysts argue the United States should bring all troops home, while others argue for a more dispersed regional posture utilizing smaller bases. This would make the United States less reliant on large operating bases such as Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar or Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, which may become more vulnerable to Iranian attacks as Tehran’s missile and drone strike capabilities advance.
These arguments are compelling. But political considerations, bureaucratic inertia, the United States’ continued vulnerability to global oil market shocks, and the economic interests of the U.S. defense industry make a swift reversal unlikely—regardless of the strategic logic. The United States’ Gulf partners want American forces to stay, viewing the bases as a sign of Washington’s political commitment to their security. And after Qatar and other Gulf states played such an important role in the airlift of Afghans following the American withdrawal from the country, is the Biden administration likely to close down Al Udeid? A drawdown may be possible, but complete closure is a stretch.
The Middle East is not done with the United States.
Continued bipartisan focus on Iran will also work in favor of a considerable American military presence. Joint maritime security exercises, which are conducted with an eye toward containing Iran, now include the United States, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain. It is also unclear whether the large U.S. bases are as exposed to Iranian attacks as some fear: Qatar and Kuwait, countries that host thousands of U.S. personnel, maintain friendlier relations with Tehran and may not be as vulnerable to Iranian attacks on U.S. forces within their countries. The benefits of reducing the American presence in the region therefore may be outweighed by the political costs of alienating Gulf partners.
The rotation of missile defense systems and aircraft carriers out of the Middle East is one sign of the reduced U.S. presence in the region and will likely become more frequent as resources shift to Asia. Regional partners won’t like that, but they will learn to live with it. But shutting down massive military infrastructure is another matter entirely.
THE SHADOW WAR WITH IRAN
Iran sees the continued U.S. military presence in the region as both a threat to its interests and a convenient target. As Tehran seeks to bolster its deterrence, it may prefer to strike at small numbers of American forces in conflict zones rather than the large U.S. bases in the Gulf. U.S. and Israeli officials blamed Iran for launching a drone attack on the al-Tanf American base in Syria in October, possibly as retaliation for Israeli airstrikes in Syria. The U.S. presence in Iraq has also dwindled to just several thousand troops, which remain exposed to attacks by Iran-backed militias.
The hostility between the United States and Iran is now so deeply rooted within both countries’ establishments—particularly as hard-liners have consolidated control in Tehran—that attempts to reset the relationship are unlikely in the coming years. The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal and adopt a “maximum pressure” policy designed to isolate Iran diplomatically and economically made Iran more belligerent, not less. Following the United States’ assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in January 2020, the two countries engaged in direct military conflict for the first time since the 1980s. Even if American policymakers manage to avoid a full-scale war with Iran and contain its nuclear ambitions, they will still likely find themselves in a low-grade conflict for regional influence with Tehran.
Though Iran initially maintained its compliance with the nuclear accord following the American withdrawal, it has significantly expanded its program over the last year. It has increased its enrichment of uranium well beyond the constraints of the agreement, moving it closer to weapons-grade levels. Research and development of advanced centrifuges is progressing. Iran’s breakout time, or the time needed to produce enough enriched material to build a nuclear weapon, has shortened to months as opposed to a year under the constraints of the nuclear agreement. Nuclear inspectors are no longer gaining the access required by the agreement. All of these steps have introduced another source of tension in Iran’s relationships with the United States and the international community.
It is also no longer clear whether the Iranians are as eager to revive the deal as they once were. Iranian officials were in no hurry to return to talks in Vienna to restore the deal after the election of Ebrahim Raisi as president in June 2021. They have finally agreed to return to negotiations in late November 2021, but it is not clear that the Biden administration will have the political bandwidth to deliver on the sanctions relief necessary to restore the agreement or that Iran will agree to the required nuclear rollbacks. And it is nearly certain that Israel, toward which the Biden administration has been solicitous, will not support concessions to Iran.
The United States’ problem in the Middle East may be not that it is leaving but that it is staying in all the wrong ways.
U.S. officials are already in discussions with Israeli counterparts about a “Plan B” should the talks fail. This strategy would include more economic pressure and possibly military options. It is unclear how such “back to the future” policies will bring about a new nuclear deal, particularly without the type of international support that was possible before the 2015 agreement. It is difficult to imagine China signing on to renewed economic pressure against Iran, in light of rising tensions between Beijing and Washington. Indeed, China recently expressed more sympathetic positions on Iran’s nuclear enrichment rights following the United States’ and United Kingdom’s decision to sell nuclear submarines to Australia, which Beijing considers a proliferation risk. What may be more likely in the event of a failure to revive the nuclear accord is a repeat of Iran’s response to the Trump administration’s maximum pressure policies: an acceleration of military strikes across the region, including on U.S. forces.
If the deal collapses, it will be even harder for the United States to reduce its presence in the Middle East and shift its focus elsewhere. The Israelis certainly would not put Iran on the back burner, nearly guaranteeing continued escalation. Jerusalem’s “shadow war” with Iran has already expanded considerably: It has moved beyond the Syrian theater, where Israel regularly strikes Iran-aligned targets, to an active maritime confrontation. It has also continued its assassination campaign targeting Iran’s top nuclear scientists and its direct attacks on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, including an explosion at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility in April 2021 just as diplomacy in Vienna began. Cyberwarfare between Israel and Iran has even extended to civilian targets.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has so far avoided a public spat with Washington over the Iran file. But although his style may differ from the confrontational approach of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his policies do not appear markedly different. Bennett has maintained Israel’s covert military campaign against Iran’s nuclear program and spoken of a “death by a thousand cuts” strategy toward Tehran. Other Israeli leaders have made public statements reasserting Israel’s right to defend itself against Iran, which is widely understood as Israel preserving its military options. Israel is not a treaty ally of the United States, but the American political commitment to Israel’s security is so deep that it would be difficult for Washington to stay on the sidelines in the event of a full-blown Iranian-Israeli conflict.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict also continues to simmer, even if the Palestinian issue is a lower priority for the region and for Washington. Policymakers may prefer improving the economic conditions of Palestinians over pressing the Israelis on core issues such as settlement expansion. The outbreak of violence in the Gaza Strip in May demonstrated that the United States can work behind the scenes to contain the conflict, but it can’t ignore it. Normalization between Israel and Arab states is a welcome regional development, but it can’t replace a settlement of the parties actually at war.
BECOMING PART OF THE SOLUTION
With all these demands, the United States is not going to abandon the Middle East. In fact, it may be facing a different problem—not that it is leaving but that it is staying in all the wrong ways.
The Biden administration appears to be doubling down on military commitments to reassure its partners, who remain skeptical about the trajectory of its foreign policy. The arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are proof that Washington still prioritizes its military partnerships in the region. But these efforts, particularly when not balanced with engagement on human security and governance challenges, can fuel regional conflicts and repression. (The United States currently invests as much annually in military assistance to Egypt as it does in economic development assistance for the entire region.) This is a recipe for perpetual crisis, which will force the United States to take costly steps to contain new forms of extremism and violence.
A better way forward would be to use the opportunity of regional rebalancing to dial down military commitments and increase economic and development assistance. The United States needs to refocus its attention and resources on the challenges affecting the day-to-day lives of people. Building resilience to climate change in a region already struggling with poor infrastructure and expanding opportunities for youth are the types of issues that should top the agenda when U.S. officials visit the Middle East. American support in these areas should build on work that is already underway but is insufficiently resourced and showcased.
In this moment of strategic flux, the United States has an opportunity to do things differently—to develop and implement a strategy for development and equity. Instead of outsize military investments, it could invest in solutions to the socioeconomic and governance challenges preventing a better life for the region’s citizens. The United States, along with its wealthy allies, could help partners that want to transform the region from a set of problems to a set of possibilities. Either way, the United States and the Middle East are not going to part ways—but Washington should seize the chance to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.