Their importance is priceless and extends far beyond the region.
As Iranian-backed terrorist groups throw rockets into Israel and the Biden government withdraws all US forces from Afghanistan. Those who are pushing for all American forces to be brought home from the greater Middle East need a dose of realism. Regardless of how tired politicians in the region may be or how urgent it is for the US to increase its military focus on an emerging China, US forces should remain in the Middle East.
Some so-called “realists” see the remaining US military presence in the Persian Gulf as the legacy of a bygone era in which oil interests and democratic “neocons” were paramount. Today’s most pressing security challenges require, the argument argues, to shift our military attention eastward to Asia.
However, it would be unrealistic and unwise to develop a national security strategy that shifts our fleet from Bahrain, our air cargo from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, or our ground forces from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Let’s not be naive: no modern president has been able to withdraw from the Middle East. The 9/11 attacks and Iran‘s malicious activities and nuclear weapons program are the recent security challenges that justify a military presence with both counter-terrorism and conventional military capabilities. Whether it’s Barack Obama trying to “rebuild our home” or Donald Trump railing against “forever wars,” none of the presidents could counter the logic of maintaining our military footprint. Indeed, both presidents reaped rich rewards from forward-looking military goods when they ordered our most important counter-terrorism achievements since 2001: the strikes against Osama bin Laden and Qasem Soleimani.
Presidents rely on a foundation of military strength in the region to protect allies and deter adversaries. Our regional presence helped mitigate the effects of President Trump’s unfortunate decision to reduce US forces in Syria, and assured allies and friends, particularly Israel, that the US would not cede the region to Iran or Russia. That same presence enabled President Trump to beat the Assad regime’s chemical weapons stocks, deterring a brutal dictator and complying with international norms.
Both Republican and Democratic US presidents have consistently relied on our military’s ability to project power in the Middle East to fuel American soft power. For decades, presidents have been enforcing peace treaties between Israel and Arab states – the Abraham Agreement is the most recent example. Our military strength and regional presence reinforce the stability these agreements promise and keep spoilers like Iran from undermining them. Why should this stop? Why throw that away?
However, the value of our military presence is not limited to the region itself. The current competition with China is global and includes the Middle East. Pushy and ambitious, China has Persian Gulf energy interests and economic interests tied to the Suez Canal. The vacuum left by a military exit will give China a strategic gift.
This deep presence in the Middle East is a critical part of the architecture that enables the US military to operate in other regions. Targeted operations or information-gathering operations – whether for deterrence through denial, information gathering, or targeted strike – in South Asia or the Horn of Africa are only possible because of our forward presence in the Middle East. This becomes even more critical when the military leaves its bases in Afghanistan but continues to monitor and combat terrorist threats in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.
Remaining in the Middle East does not mean that our presence there should forever be the same as it is today. The previous administration’s efforts to determine which military platforms and assets to use in the region and how and when to use them are ongoing. We have to be open to difficult questions. Is flashing an aircraft carrier or B-52 bomber the most efficient way to prevent Iranian misconduct? Would a cheaper game book achieve our goals while also freeing up resources to focus on China? On the other hand, the removal of the military from the region would raise questions of a more hair-raising kind. Are we ready to give China de facto control of one of the world’s most strategic bottlenecks? Do we want Russia and Iran to have a free hand in the Persian Gulf and Levant?
The presidents of both parties, whether neo-isolationist or multilateralist, have consistently relied on a military presence in the Middle East to advance US political, economic and security interests. The withdrawal from Afghanistan will only increase the need for such a permanent presence. Let’s not add complacency and self-inflicted strategic weakness to our list of enemies.