America cannot ignore the Middle East

  • Themes: Geopolitics, Israel-Palestine, Middle East, War

Despite calls to refocus American grand strategy towards Europe and Asia, events in Israel show that the United States cannot abandon its commitments in the Middle East.

A US Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet jet fighter aircraft flies over the USS Gerald R. Ford.
A US Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet jet fighter aircraft flies over the USS Gerald R. Ford. Credit: US Navy Photo / Alamy Stock Photo.

A decade ago, Barack Obama wanted to pivot the United States to Asia, and implicitly reduce its strategic exposure in the Middle East. Today, a number of American foreign policy leaders and thinkers, particularly on the right, want America to pare back its military commitments in the Middle East and in Europe, again, ostensibly, so that it can focus on its most dangerous adversary, China. Hamas’ attack on Israel, the potential for that war to escalate into a regional conflict, and the way in which Iran made the initial attack possible, are the latest indications that such an ambition may be too clever by half.

The more responsible versions of the desire to focus American military power in Asia to the exclusion of other Eurasian theatres proceed from reasonable starting points. America’s unipolar moment is past, and the size of the Chinese economy combined with the wealth and significance of the east Asian periphery renders the threat posed by China unlike any America has faced in its history. Strategy involves the assignment of scarce means to ends. Acting as though means are not scarce is, by definition, un-strategic. America must prioritise, and whatever the threat posed by Russia, Moscow is not on Beijing’s level. Similarly, the threats posed by Iran or by Sunni extremist forces in the Middle East are not even nuclear (for now) and, as terrible as attacks on friends or terrorist attacks can be, such events pale in comparison to the fundamental changes in American security and prosperity that a hostile China might seek to bring about.

Additional considerations, less frequently mentioned by those making versions of the Asia-Only argument counsel great caution in how America should act, should think, and should talk regarding its regional distribution of hard power. Among those considerations are how even mere diplomatic efforts to lay foundations for a reduction of the American role in regional balances of power can introduce instability (let alone actual adjustments to the balance). And how such instability can ultimately make demands on American power that Washington would, for good reason, rather have avoided.

A clear example stares us in the face today: the long project, now in almost its fifteenth year, to reduce the direct American role in the Middle East’s many vectors of conflict. For both the Obama and Biden administrations, a key element in the effort to bring about this reduction has been the attempt to improve our relations with Iran, even as it continues to compete strategically with our traditional partners. (For the Trump administration, somewhat perplexingly, the policy seemed to be to draw down in the Middle East while still taking a hard line on Iran.) Reduced isolation among the community of nations would render the Iranian regime more responsible, such that it could exist in a reasonably stable balance with its traditional adversaries—ideally a ‘cold peace’ in which the adversary powers would ‘share the neighbourhood’, to use President Obama’s exact words – with the United States providing some balance but remaining as off-shore as possible.

Progress toward this goal has been halting. While America’s hard power commitments to the region are less than those reached during the George W. Bush era, they have not been reduced as far as many would like, and remain substantial. The Obama project of de-escalating with Iran as a precondition for reduced American military commitment in the region made significant advances, which, in the aftermath of Trump’s reversal of course, the Biden administration has made progress in restarting – if in a somewhat improvisatory fashion. Prior to the onset of the current hostilities in Israel the administration agreed to transfer the equivalent of six billion dollars in frozen Iranian currency in return for the release of American hostages, along with other transfers and elements of rapprochement, many of which the Biden administration prefers not to speak about. Perhaps most useful to Iran’s leaders are the revenues now generated by its oil exports in the face of the administration’s deliberately weak enforcement of sanctions; Iran’s production in August 2023 reached its highest level since 2018. Meanwhile, Iran’s currency reserves have gained back significant ground since the Trump administration, and are again relatively robust. Those who would like to argue that the flood of money and telegraphing of conflict aversion have not empowered Iran and its proxies and contributed to the current crisis have a heavy rhetorical burden to bear. Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reported that Hamas’ terror attacks on 7 October were directly authorized by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and even sceptics of the report acknowledge the attacks’ sophistication and scale were due to IRGC support for Hamas more generally.

It appears, therefore, that an American ambition to reduce its role in a regional balance of power has resulted in less, rather than more regional stability, in ways that directly harm one of its closest international partners and that have caused the hostage-taking and deaths of Americans. It is no shock that the crisis has caused the Pentagon to move an aircraft carrier group into the eastern Mediterranean and to surge highly capable combat aircraft to squadrons already based in the Middle East – reasonable moves meant to deter further aggression and prevent the conflict from escalating. If the conflict escalates, perhaps because the Iranians don’t believe that the Biden administration actually intends to engage in a confrontation, scenarios where direct confrontations between American forces and Iran or its proxies might nevertheless occur are easy to imagine, as are scenarios where such direct confrontation might even be demanded by large numbers of Americans (consider the prospect of ISIS-style executions of American hostages in Gaza.)

This situation illustrates why saying for all who will listen that ‘We plan to wash our hands of X and Y to focus on Z’ is, in strategic matters, just not that simple, and can even lead to something like the least intended result. There is no shortage of other examples in the history of American foreign policy that point to the same problem. Prioritisation and technical distributions of assets according to America’s assessment of interests and threats is the only responsible course of action, and on as proactive a timeline as possible. (So is getting serious about fixing the US defence-industrial base, a position that enjoys increasing and bipartisan support.) Significant hedging and flexibility are required, while blunt declarations – even just the declarations, let alone any accompanying actions – that some partners are to be defended while others, threatened by the same loose coalition of Eurasian troublemakers, are not, could easily cause more problems than they solve.

The overall debate regarding regional focus and what America intends to defend versus what it intends to leave to others is reminiscent of the early debates regarding the structure of containment during the Cold War. In broad terms, some in the late 1940s, like George Kennan, argued for key strongpoints threatened by the Soviets to be defended, at the expense of territory thought to be less significant; others, such as Paul Nitze, favoured a perimeter defence along the Eurasian rimland. The latter camp won the argument – in no small part because of the invasion of South Korea, a country which Stalin permitted to be attacked specifically because the Truman administration had asserted that it no longer fell within our direct protection, the ultimate consequence of which was to embroil America in a long, bloody, and difficult war in Korea. The perimeter strategy was enshrined in a maximalist strategic document, NSC-68, which it has long been fashionable to criticise for failing to match scarce means to ambitious global ends, and for failing to clearly prioritise objectives, at least beyond the inescapable recognition that Europe was the primary theatre of conflict with the Soviets. To these charges, one can only say that NSC-68’s authors were surely guilty. What is surprising, and perhaps counterintuitive, is that they nevertheless created a framework for action that was more flexible, hedged, and nuanced than the alternative, and in certain facial respects more sophisticated, option that was rejected.


Aaron MacLean