Let’s Face It: US Policy in the Middle East Has Failed

The ongoing controversy surrounding the murder of a dissident Saudi journalist and Saudi Arabia’s brutal bombing campaign of a largely defenseless neighboring Yemen, which has come with an enormous human toll, have elicited increased scrutiny over the U.S.-Saudi alliance. The White House remains supportive of Riyadh, both diplomatically and with continued military aid. Republicans have offered mildly critical words for the Saudi regime, while an increasing number of Democrats are calling for a fundamental reassessment of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

Such a reassessment is long overdue. Washington’s partnership with Riyadh has often been treated as sacrosanct, at least here in the nation’s capital. It should have been clear long ago that the Saudis are not good allies. In fact, they often act in ways that undermine U.S. interests. Backing one of the world’s most appallingly tyrannical regimes to the hilt has actually not been a net positive for U.S. national security or for stability in the region.

With any luck, the unfolding drama over the U.S.-Saudi partnership will extend beyond merely this troubled bilateral relationship to U.S. policy in the Middle East as a whole. The United States is deeply entangled in this region, with roughly 50,000 boots on the ground, dozens of permanent military bases and deployed assets, and a staggering sum of taxpayer dollars, essentially wasted. We are engaged in active combat operations in at least five countries across the Middle East and North Africa, bogged down in endless counter-insurgency campaigns, grisly counter-terrorism operations, and inglorious proxy wars. Washington also tasks Central Command with the responsibility of supporting, training, arming, and stabilizing various corrupt dictatorships, while we also try to put the squeeze on Iran.

A well-timed paper  by Chatham House’s Micah Zenko clarifies the failure of U.S. regional objectives, despite the gargantuan resources devoted to them. Zenko lists four primary objectives: (1) enhancing regional security and reducing political instability within Middle East governments; (2) preventing the emergence of terrorist safe havens; (3) ensuring the free flow of energy resources; and (4) enabling allies to build enough military capacity to defend themselves.

We have failed at each of these. Indeed, far from serving a stabilizing role, U.S. policy has rather plainly destabilized the region. The Iraq War upended the Middle East, empowered Iran, and fueled a new generation of jihadist terrorists. Washington bungled a series of changes in the Egyptian regime and helped (along with other external actors) fuel Syria’s civil war. The Obama administration’s Libya war created anarchy and new refugee flows. And our longstanding support for Saudi Arabia as a balance to Iran has not only failed to roll back Iran’s regional activity, but it has also emboldened Riyadh to act aggressively and pick fights with several of its neighbors.

Second, the effort to prevent terrorist safe havens is based on a false premise that territorial safe havens matter much at all. But even accepting the flawed premise, U.S. policies have multiplied the number of “ungoverned spaces” as incubators for terrorist groups. As Zenko points out, “troops maintained in foreign countries to prevent terrorism actually increase the probability that those troops’ home countries and global interests will experience terrorism.”

Third, there is good reason to believe that U.S. efforts to ensure the free flow of oil actually address a problem that largely solves itself. Each state has a strong interest in maintaining the flow of oil through the Persian Gulf, and Saudi Arabia is not the juggernaut it once was. Global energy markets have evolved over the last 40 years and are much more resilient and able to overcome supply shocks than in the past. At best, patrolling the Persian Gulf waterway deters a scenario - an attempt by Iran or some other party to close to Strait of Hormuz - that is already an extremely low probability event.

Fourth, the United States has certainly provided numerous authoritarian regimes in the Middle East with the military capability and know-how to protect themselves, but whether that has redounded as a benefit to U.S. interests and regional stability is another question entirely. Much of what we provided to Iraq ended up in the hands of ISIS. American made weapons have been used to ruthlessly suppress peaceful protesters, from Egypt to Bahrain. And U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia is currently enabling unspeakable war crimes in Yemen, in a conflict that has actually bolstered the position of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Washington is terrible at self-evaluation. Our record in the Middle East is one of abject failure. Strangely, even when we have presidents that agree with that assessment to one degree or another, policy doesn’t change. President Obama wanted to shift U.S. focus and resources away from the Middle East to East Asia. It didn’t happen. Trump, in April 2018, said, “We’ve spent $7 trillion in the Middle East and we’ve got nothing for it. Nothing, less than nothing, as far as I’m concerned.” And yet his administration has increased overall troop levels in the region, doubled down on backing traditional allies, and revived an anti-Iran posture that harkens back to the Bush era neocons.

A real reevaluation of U.S. policy toward this region is imperative. After decades of trying, Washington has failed in its primary objectives. A new and enlightened policy framework should appreciate the dearth of serious threats to core U.S. security emanating from the region and should emphasize diplomacy as a way to manage relations with regional actors, rather than the military-centric approach that has failed so miserably.