A lengthy New York Times article over the weekend touches on a contradiction in the U.S. strategy against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Even as the United States cooperates in a de facto tactical alliance with Iran against ISIS, we’re engaged in a longer-term strategy against Iranian influence in the Middle East. U.S. and Iranian-backed forces have even clashed in battlefield skirmishes in recent weeks.
Picking a fight with an implicit ally is problematic for many reasons. Perhaps most worryingly, such clashes risk sucking U.S. forces deeper into Syria’s civil war.
The article quotes Lebanese scholar Kamel Wazne’s argument that the Trump administration, with encouragement from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, is “turning up the heat against Iran,” and eager to prevent it from establishing “'Shiite crescent' of influence from Iran to Lebanon” when the Islamic State is defeated. This stance, we’re told, “puts the United States at loggerheads with the pro-government alliance in Syria.”
The stated concern is that Shiite-controlled territory provides a land route for supplying Iranian allies and proxies. But, according to Ilan Goldenberg and Nicholas Heras, writing in The Atlantic, “moving large amounts of weaponry across a 1,000-mile stretch of difficult territory in Iraq and Syria isn’t exactly an ideal logistics plan. Plus, Iran already has the ability to fly supplies into Damascus, and, from there, move them to Hezbollah in Lebanon.”
One suspects what is really driving the U.S. approach here is fealty to existing alliances. Some of this boils down to a kind of compulsive status quo bias. The Sunni Arab Gulf states have been U.S. partners for many years, despite evidence that they act in ways that undermine U.S. interests. With oil sales, lobbying largesse, flattery, and avoidance of direct challenges to top U.S. priorities, they dissuade policymakers from reevaluating that posture.
But there is a more practical rationale. The Sunni Arab Gulf states host U.S. military bases and enable American power projection in the Middle East. If relationships sour, we could lose that access. In the minds of U.S. policymakers, that would damage American leadership and influence. Washington therefore tends to side with the Gulf states.
The problem with having huge overseas military bases, however, is that we tend to use them. Permanently maintaining tens of thousands of U.S. troops throughout the Gulf region can enhance the temptation for policymakers to intervene for bad reasons. As should be clear from the past 25 years of habitual interventionism in the Middle East, “power projection” can be more a liability than an asset.
Don’t we need bases in the Gulf to protect the free flow of oil? Actually, no. Much academic research demonstrates that threats to the flow of Gulf oil are remote and don’t require forward deployment to mitigate. According to Joshua Rovner and Caitlin Talmadge, the policy of “large, permanent peacetime land forces in the Gulf” is not particularly useful for oil security and has often been “just as counterproductive as the vacuums created by hegemonic absence.” Eugene Gholz and Daryl Press similarly argue, “the day-to-day peacetime presence of U.S. military forces in the Persian Gulf region is not merely ineffective; it is probably counterproductive for protecting U.S. oil interests.”
Another justification for America’s permanent military presence is managing local disputes between regional players. But U.S. backing may encourage clients to heighten conflict. The recent Saudi-Qatari split is a case in point.
Neither are U.S. bases necessary for counterterrorism missions. In any case, military action in the post-9/11 era, as Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations points out, has created more enemies than it has eliminated and destabilized the region seemingly beyond repair.
Long-term American interests aren’t served by placating traditional Sunni allies that host U.S. military bases. Rather than trying to protect the future of power projection, Washington should be looking for ways to extricate itself from the Middle East.