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A U.S. soldier sits on an armored vehicle on a road leading to the tense front line with Turkish-backed fighters in Manbij, northern Syria, April 4, 2018 (AP photo by Hussein Malla).

Questioning the Reasons For U.S. Involvement in the Middle East

Monday, April 15, 2019

The reasons for U.S. involvement in the Middle East are becoming obsolete, but policy and strategy aren’t keeping pace. Find out more with your subscription to World Politics Review (WPR).

The security environment in the Middle East may be the most complex on earth, with an intricate, volatile and sometimes shifting mixture of destabilizing forces and hostilities. There are deadly power struggles within and between nations. And behind it all is the Middle East’s massive oil production, on which the global economy depends.

The United States first ventured into the Middle East early in the Cold War and has remained heavily involved, particularly since the 1970s. Over the decades, America’s policies and partnerships in the region have evolved, but the basic reasons for U.S. involvement in the Middle East remained consistent: preventing a hostile power from using the region’s petroleum reserves as a weapon. To achieve that objective, the U.S. used direct applications of military power when necessary but relied heavily on local allies, from Egypt to the Gulf states, bolstering them with security assistance and weapons sales.

Now the core assumptions for U.S. involvement in the Middle East are collapsing. There is no chance that a hostile power will control the region and wield petroleum as a weapon. Yet the U.S. still clings to its longstanding, military-centric Middle East strategy even while its underlying assumptions become invalid and its central rationale fades. Today, America’s Middle East strategy is on its last legs, less a reflection of a central purpose than a search for one.

The reasons for U.S. involvement in the Middle East are no longer as valid as they once were, and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East is failing to keep up. To learn more, read American Strategy in the Middle East Is on Its Last Legs with your subscription to World Politics Review.

Could The U.S. Still Craft A Coherent Strategy for the Middle East?

It’s not certain that such a central purpose can even be found. The question confronting the U.S. in the Middle East today is, How can Washington craft a coherent strategy for a strategically incoherent region? Perhaps nowhere is this confusion more visible than in Syria, where the U.S. has struggled to identify its interests, let alone formulate a consistent approach to the country’s civil war, in part because it is actually several conflicts at once. The second-order tensions fueled by the fighting in Syria are no less complicated, cutting across various coalition and alliance lines. And things don’t get any easier when you consider the regional picture, where Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies are engaged in a confrontation with Iran, but also in an intra-Gulf conflict with Qatar. In the face of such strategic chaos and confusion, it helps to simplify. What would the U.S. like to achieve? And what means is it willing to use to do so?

What would an effective strategy look like for the U.S. in the Middle East? To find out more, read Is a Coherent U.S. Strategy Possible in a Strategically Incoherent Middle East? with your subscription to World Politics Review.

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The Partnership With Saudi Arabia Has Outlasted Its Usefulness

One relationship in particular that has recently come in for scrutiny in Washington is America’s partnership with Saudi Arabia. For many decades, shared fears of common enemies—from the Soviets to the Iranians, Saddam Hussein and extremist movements like al-Qaida and the Islamic State—pushed America and Saudi Arabia into an uneasy embrace. Ironically, the rise of violent, transnational Islamist extremism, led first by al-Qaida and later by the Islamic State, both solidified the U.S.-Saudi relationship and amplified its fissures. In reality, though, the U.S.-Saudi relationship was always fragile. Unlike the natural partnerships between the United States and fellow democracies, the ties between Washington and Riyadh were a marriage of convenience that discomforted both sides. The only glue was the idea that the “enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But today that calculus is no longer enough to sustain their alliance. For the United States, the strategic costs of the Saudi relationship have come to outweigh the benefits, as the tensions and unnaturalness of the partnership make it increasingly intolerable.

The logic that guided U.S. ties with Saudi Arabia can no longer sustain their partnership. Learn more, in It’s Time for America to Downgrade Its Alliance With Saudi Arabia with your subscription to World Politics Review.

Will the U.S. Be Replaced In The Middle East?

As the reasons for U.S. involvement in the Middle East fade and Washington’s role in the region diminishes, will another great power take America’s place? Both Russia and China insist they do not want to replace the U.S. in the Middle East, but they are still intent on expanding their regional influence. The Russians are undeniably on the move, building on their Syrian strategy to deepen cooperation with Iran and move in that direction with Turkey, too. In the Arab world, Egypt’s fiercely anti-Islamist leadership may open the country’s doors to Moscow again, while across the region, Russia is getting more attention and respect as an outside player and broker than it has had for decades. China, the other contender for a bigger role in the Middle East, is aiming not to confront or compete with the U.S., but to fill vacuums when needed and to promote Chinese economic and political interests. For decades, one of the pillars of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has been to prevent any hostile outside power from dominating the region. Can Washington accommodate these more assertive policies by Moscow and Beijing and still retain its dominant role?

Will Russia and China vie to replace the U.S. across the Middle East? To find out more, read Does Anyone Want to Replace the U.S. as the Great Power in the Middle East? with your subscription to World Politics Review.

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Editor's Note: This article was first published in January 2019 and is regularly updated.

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