The U.S. Military Should Pull Back but Not Pull Out
Since declaring his candidacy for president, Joe Biden, like his two Oval Office predecessors, has made it clear that he wants to rebalance the United States’ military presence in the Middle East. During the 2020 campaign, Biden pledged to “end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East.” After assuming office, he similarly promised to stop “an era of major military operations to remake other countries.” His administration’s Global Posture Review, interim National Security Strategic Guidance, and forthcoming National Defense Strategy reflect these calculations as Washington shifts its focus to China and the broader Indo-Pacific.
But what rightsizing looks like is not fully clear—particularly after the contentious Afghanistan departure. For some foreign policy practitioners, it means nothing short of a full withdrawal from the region; for others, anything aside from minor adjustments is a grave geopolitical error. This is a false choice, and the Biden administration appears to be undecided about where the United States should land. Washington is pulling some resources from the Middle East, but administration officials, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, have also promised anxious regional partners that the United States’ “commitment to security in the Middle East is strong and sure.” The posture review hardly settles the issue. Although earlier force realignments, such as moving some air defense assets from the Middle East, were informed by the review, it largely punts on a vision for rightsizing forces in the region. Instead, it calls for more studies on U.S. military positioning.
Debates about whether and how to withdraw from the Middle East are nothing new. Washington has long sought to change the size of its military presence in the region, only to be drawn back in by the crises and conflicts from which it sought to distance itself. President Donald Trump promised numerous military withdrawals from the region, yet he sent thousands more troops in as tensions rose with Iran in 2019 and 2020. President Barack Obama’s plans to scale back the U.S. mission in Iraq in 2011 was undermined by the need to fight the Islamic State (or ISIS) in 2014. As both administrations found out the hard way, saying you are adjusting priorities and resources is quite different from actually adjusting them.
Instead of continued debates and policy whiplash, the United States needs a sober recalibration of the military tools it should dedicate to the Middle East. This does not entail withdrawing from or disregarding the importance of the region. But it does entail a clear-eyed assessment of how to prioritize Washington’s military resources—and how to link them more closely to U.S. strategic objectives. Ultimately, that means the United States must streamline its presence to be more narrowly focused on protecting itself and its allies against terrorism, deterring Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and preserving the flow of commerce and freedom of navigation. It also means that Washington must learn to emphasize diplomatic and economic statecraft over military action, using the credible potential of force to support diplomatic ends and actual force only when it has no alternative.
Relying less on defense and more on diplomacy in the Middle East comes with some risks, chief among them that the United States could find itself less prepared militarily for crises that might emerge in the region. But such a risk is low given Washington’s considerable power projection capabilities. Moreover, years of a continued U.S. military presence have done little to deter recent crises in the region. Adopting a more diplomatic and strategic approach to the Middle East would be in keeping with U.S. goals. It would allow Washington to prioritize its efforts and attention elsewhere. And it would better position the United States to respond to and act on the Middle East’s changing dynamics.
MEANS AND ENDS
The United States’ military presence in the Middle East is decidedly outdated, stemming from conflicts that started—and in some cases ended—decades ago. Washington first began stationing large numbers of troops in the region in the wake of regional events in the late 1970s and the subsequent 1980 Carter Doctrine, which committed the United States to the security of the Gulf states. The United States expanded its footprint during the first Gulf War and then scaled up dramatically after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Successive conflicts, such as operations in Afghanistan, the Iraq war, and the fight against ISIS, entrenched U.S. bases across the region.
Some interests remain strategically relevant. Protecting the U.S. homeland and U.S. citizens, for example, is a clear interest, and the broader Middle East remains a fertile area for terrorist networks looking to attack the United States. But the link between Washington’s military activities and its core interests has been eroding for at least ten years, if not more. The United States, for instance, is no longer fighting expansive ground wars, and that means it no longer needs masses of troops and heavy equipment capable of controlling territory.
But Washington’s large Middle East presence is more than just wasteful. It has created an environment in which policymakers are tempted to disproportionately use military means, rather than diplomacy and economics, to carry out their agendas. Consider, for instance, Iran. The interim National Security Strategic Guidance prioritizes halting the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and for good reason: Tehran’s possible nuclearization risks sparking an arms race in the region. Washington should continue efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining a bomb, a process that includes fully preparing for a strike. But the United States must continue to place a premium on using diplomatic means and prepare to use military action only as an option of last resort.
Washington’s large Middle East presence is more than just wasteful.
The United States also has an interest in preserving the flow of commerce and freedom of navigation in the Middle East, which helps underpin the global economic order that Washington leads. It will need to work with allies and partners to patrol maritime areas, particularly chokepoints such as the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab el Mandeb Strait. But such patrols do not require overpowering military might or unilateral action, and this is not synonymous with securing the free flow of the region’s oil.
These are not the only interests Washington has in the Middle East. Others, such as ensuring the safety of Israel and countering China and Russia in the region, also matter. But the dynamics have changed. Israel has the region’s most capable security force and no longer benefits from the U.S. military’s physical presence, as it once did. “Great-power competition” has developed into code for countering China and Russia in the region and maintaining the military posture necessary to do so. Such arguments lack nuance and deeper analysis. Competing in the Middle East comes at the cost of the force readiness needed for deterrence in priority theaters such as the Indo-Pacific. Military positioning cannot compensate for diplomacy or deeper economic engagement with partners. Competition is better served by more than just military might, and policy experts on the Middle East, China, and Russia together should determine the right mix of tools needed for the United States to compete effectively in the region. Although the United States will still need its military in the Middle East to fight terrorism, stop nuclear proliferation, and ensure open commerce, most of the resources in the area right now are not focused on these issues. Washington can afford to rebalance its strategy and posture.
A PRESENCE FOR THE PRESENT
So what does a refocused military strategy look like? A footprint that emphasizes counterterrorism operations and deterring Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons would rely on special operations forces, unmanned platforms, some conventional strike aircraft, and critical enabling resources such as aerial refueling and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets. A naval fleet designed to protect trade entails nimble ships capable of carrying out maritime monitoring. None of these three interests necessitates what the U.S. military currently has stationed across the region: large contingents of ground troops and “heavy” capabilities in the oceans.
The United States can therefore wind down posture elements that are vestiges of outdated wars. The government, for example, could shrink Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, a base intended for heavy ground forces, and turn it into a logistics hub that would help the U.S. military surge when needed. Washington could negotiate contingency access agreements with regional partners so that it could deploy forces and further scale up facilities if and when necessary. The United States could also move away from operating a constellation of large bases in the Gulf and instead adopt a distributed basing system designed to keep U.S. assets safe. This means shifting assets away from some of the bases most likely to face attacks from Iranian missiles and towards bases outside the range of the worst threat rings—such as the Muwaffaq Salti Air Base in Jordan and the Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. To ensure its maritime involvement is commensurate with its interests, Washington should move from having a full carrier strike group earmarked for the Middle East at all times and instead rely on smaller ships. When supported by maritime patrol aircraft and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, these nimbler fleets are actually better at keeping sea-lanes open.
To carry out this shift, the United States will need to make choices about how, when, and why its military capabilities are applied in the Middle East and in what priority. These choices must be aligned with key strategic interests rather than worst-case scenarios that are not highly likely. For example, Washington’s Middle East posture has consistently featured heavy bomber aircraft capable of attacking Iranian nuclear facilities. It shouldn’t. The deterrent value of U.S. bomber task forces to date is debatable; they have not contributed to a slowdown in Iran’s nuclear program, for example. More important, these planes can reach Iran from Europe or the United States, where they are already stationed. Finally, prepositioning assets that might be used in an Iran contingency could create tension with regional partners, who may want to avoid being seen as a party to any attack. Ending bomber task force rotations to the Middle East may be a smarter way to preserve resources and readiness—both requirements for Washington to better focus on the Indo-Pacific—while having little to no impact on contingency planning.
The United States can wind down vestiges of outdated wars.
None of this will be easy. Changing the mix of military resources in the Middle East means that the United States will need to accept more risk in the region than it has in recent decades. There is a chance that Washington’s worries could materialize and that the United States may then have to contend with a nuclear-armed Iran or an ISIS 2.0 with fewer armed tools immediately available. It is difficult to take a hard-nosed look at how U.S. interests have changed in the Middle East, and it is even more difficult to then act accordingly. But should the United States retain its ability to surge its presence in the region, and should the current government continue to invest in the economic and diplomatic resources the Middle East genuinely requires, such risks are more manageable.
They are also outweighed by the security benefits. Recalibrating will allow Washington to leverage more of its military resources in places, such as the Indo-Pacific and Europe, where they are needed. It will rebalance how the United States applies diplomacy and economic statecraft in the Middle East and permit the country to rely less on force. And it will help the United States bolster its partnerships. Allies in both the Middle East and Europe already know that Washington intends to change its regional military presence, and they have baked it into their thinking. But they want to be a part of a consultative process that informs how the United States actualizes its shift away from the region, rather than simply absorb the consequences. By deliberating with allies on how to change its military posture while still defending its core interests, Washington can prove that it is capable of working closely with and listening to its partners—and in turn getting them to do more.
The next 30 years will not look like the past 30 years. By beginning to alter its military posture in the Middle East, the United States has an opportunity to change how it does business in both the region and beyond in the decades to come.