Could America Leave the Middle East by 2031?

Mike Sweeney
Jun 18 · 15 min read
Camp Arifjan, Kuwait. ( U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Veronica McNabb via DVIDS)

I

Before the Iraq War, there were those who hoped toppling Saddam Hussein could lead to the United States exiting the Middle East. That statement now, will — at best — elicit bitter laughter. But, at the time, some supporters of the war argued that by removing the threat posed by the Iraqi strongman, the U.S. requirement to garrison the Persian Gulf — and Saudi Arabia in particular — would be obviated. To be clear, that argument was not universally held, nor was it ever put forward officially by the administration of George W. Bush, at least not beforehand. However, it was one of the seemingly noble ideas discussed in foreign policy circles in the lead up to the war. Even opponents of the war picked up on the prospect for a greatly reduced U.S. presence in the Gulf immediately after the initial success in Iraq.

In the end, almost all U.S. forces did leave Saudi Arabia. But among the many other failed hopes of the Iraq War, the United States simply relocated to other countries and sites, actually expanding and deepening its network of military bases in the Middle East during the next sixteen years. Today, America maintains major military facilities in Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), while still actively fielding combat forces in Iraq and Syria. With the exception of those in Bahrain and Turkey, none of these bases or deployments existed before the first Gulf War in 1991.

Failed dreams of a U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East were very much on my mind while reading a pair of excellent — if flawed — articles in War on the Rocks by Anand Toprani. In the first essay, published in January, Toprani provides one of the best explanations you’ll find on the vagaries of oil pricing and supply, as well as a cogent case for why oil is unlikely to be “just another commodity” anytime soon. In his second essay, published in May, he further underscores that the Persian Gulf remains an irreplaceable source of oil production and argues, to this end, that the United States needs to continue its Cold War role as the region’s strategic guarantor. Collectively, Toprani’s writings serve as a useful antidote to those overly absorbed in the American “shale revolution” and the belief that the strategic importance of the Middle East and oil have waned. All of that said, his rationale for an ongoing U.S. military presence in the Gulf still seems deeply questionable.

In his second essay, Toprani correctly explains that even before the end of the Second World War, the United States made a strategic decision to secure access to Gulf oil not for its own domestic needs per se but to ensure a reliable supply to its allies in Europe and Asia as they rebuilt and recovered following the war. A related objective was preventing another major power (i.e., the Soviet Union) from establishing its own monopoly on Gulf oil, which would have afforded it an invaluable tool for coercing (and perhaps dislodging) U.S. allies. He concludes that as Europe and Japan were importing 80% of their oil from the Gulf or North Africa by 1973, the U.S. post-war policy of prioritizing access to Middle Eastern oil was sound and, indeed, “an integral element of the U.S. victory in the Cold War.”

Fair enough.

But Toprani then goes on to extend this analogy, arguing that the United States must now continue to act as the Gulf’s guarantor, citing China as the new threat to be countered. He contends that Beijing is a more formidable challenger than Moscow ever was as the former wields real economic power whereas the latter only possessed military strength. China’s economic leverage could allow it to dominate oil exports from the Persian Gulf to the detriment of the economies of America’s East Asian allies: Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Singapore, and Taiwan.

There is much that is wrong in this line of thinking. First, it presumes that the current strategic environment automatically must evolve into “a new Cold War” and that China needs to be countered with the same urgency that the Soviets once were. This supposition is far from guaranteed, nor is the permanence of China’s anticipated ascent to a position of equality to the United States in the international system.

Second, it equates the vibrant economies of twentieth-first century East Asia with the devastated and vulnerable ones of U.S. allies following the Second World War. Even if a “Cold War 2.0” is inevitable, it’s reasonable to ask whether guaranteeing the economic viability of its East Asian allies is really of the same import as ensuring the ability of, say, post-war Asia and Europe to recover in the 1950s and 1960s. Is Japan, today the world’s third richest country and owner of a large and technologically advanced military, really incapable of securing its own oil, as it was as a defeated and devastated state in the late 1940s?

Toprani’s emphasis on the need for America to continue to commit military resources to the Persian Gulf is even more confusing as he readily acknowledges that another set of U.S. allies — those in Europe — will unquestionably be dependent on energy from Russia. Consciously or not, it feels like Toprani is searching hard for a justification for the United States to remain the Gulf’s strategic guarantor rather than asking if that role is truly in the U.S. interest given the resources it consumes.

II

Perhaps the biggest error in Toprani’s reasoning — one that he is not alone in making — is that he equates military presence with decisive influence over the oil flow. This is really the crux of the problem. Toprani’s own analysis shows this not to be the case. Consider his point regarding the success of America’s strategic choice to ensure its allies’ access to Gulf oil following World War II. As stated above, by 1973, Europe and Japan had successfully recovered and were importing 80% of their petroleum from the Middle East and North Africa. Interestingly, the goal of the post-war strategy had been accomplished at that point and the United States only opened its second military base in the Persian Gulf two years earlier — in 1971, when it took over the British naval station at Manama, Bahrain. (America’s first foray into Gulf was a lease on the air base at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, which expired in 1962.)

It’s a point worth emphasizing: for most of the Cold War, the United States had a minimal basing structure in the Middle East. Yes, the United States did maintain facilities in Iran (for electronic surveillance), Morocco (to support the strategic nuclear mission), and Pakistan (a secret U2 base), but all of these sites were focused on countering the Soviet Union, not on energy security. The same was true with the United States’ longest standing base in the region: Incirlik in Turkey. American deployments and facilities in that country were under NATO auspices and oriented — from a strategic standpoint — northward toward fighting and containing the Warsaw Pact. It’s only in 1991, at the end of the Cold War and in the face of Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, that Incirlik becomes a true “Middle Eastern” hub for American forces as part of Operation Desert Storm. And, yet, despite the absence of the expansive network of facilities it now maintains, the United States achieved its strategic objective of ensuring access for its allies to Gulf oil, which, as Toprani rightly notes, supported the economic health of Europe and Japan and aided the United States in winning the Cold War.

Admittedly, an argument can be made that the United States could get by with a minimal military posture because British forces were carrying the bulk of the burden in garrisoning the region. But this too needs elucidation. After 1956 and 1959, when British forces were forced to withdraw, respectively, from Egypt and Iraq, the United Kingdom was largely confined to the Middle East’s periphery at bases in Aden and Cyprus. While the United Kingdom did maintain the naval base at Manama up until 1971 (when it was “inherited” by the United States), the British posture in the Gulf was similarly minimal. And its impact on the oil flow is questionable.

In fact, the one instance where it can be said British forces acted decisively in support of the Gulf’s security came in 1961, when an earlier Iraqi dictator, Abd Al-Karim Qasim, presaged Saddam’s actions by threatening to invade Kuwait. With U.S. backing and Saudi support, London dispatched marine commandos and an RAF squadron to the emirate as a deterrent. The move worked and Qasim backed down. (It’s worth noting that British forces quickly withdrew after the crisis passed; they didn’t stick around for another couple decades.) And as repayment for Western actions in defense of the Gulf, the Saudis promptly decided not to extend the U.S. lease on Dhahran, underscoring how little Western defense efforts influence regional decision-makers. This point was further driven home a decade later, when Riyadh led a painful oil boycott against the United States in 1973, apparently unconvinced of a need for a benevolent guarantor.

III

So why is America still in the Gulf? It’s hard to argue that it is to prevent the flow of oil from being impeded by an external rival. The great irony is that U.S. basing in the Middle East massively expanded after the country it was nominally trying to defend the region from ceased to exist. By 1990, threats from inside the region were by far the bigger challenge — in part because of the consequences of the policies pursued by America and other Western powers. Consider the French legacy in Syria, the Anglo-American legacy in Iran, or the consequences of U.S. support for Saddam Hussein in the 1980s — itself a response to the mistakes made in Iran. It’s inevitable that the bill comes due on a strategy predicated on exploiting a region and its people for a resource, of prioritizing antiquated dictatorships over the interests of their citizens.

Perhaps such measures were necessary to win the Cold War. But are they still required, if, in fact, America itself can function without Gulf oil? Is ensuring the flow of oil to East Asia worth the expenditure of treasure (and possibly blood) required to maintain the current U.S. commitment in the Middle East for the duration of a prolonged conflict with China? This question, again, seems all the more pressing, especially if there’s no guarantee military presence will equate to strategic influence over oil flows. Just as importantly, are we not inviting additional costs — and not just economic ones — by continuing to pursue the role of the Gulf’s strategic guarantor if it’s no longer essential — and possibly counterproductive — for us to do so?

To his credit, Toprani argues for a more restrained approach in the future by the United States noting that “a modest U.S. force posture in the Gulf is only possible if it does not further destabilize the region.” He calls for an updated, modified Carter Doctrine that avoids U.S. interference in other states’ domestic affairs and instead focuses on “ensuring the world’s access to oil and natural gas on nondiscriminatory terms.” The feasibility — and desirability — of this seems questionable though.

First, if America really was ensuring access to hydrocarbons on a non-discriminatory basis, then wouldn’t China still be able to buy all that it wanted and theoretically use the same economic leverage against U.S. partners in East Asia that Toprani originally warned against?

Second, while “non-interference” in domestic affairs might sound good in practice, in reality it would be hard to implement. In 2011, President Barack Obama urged the Bahraini regime to exercise restraint in dealing with Shiite protestors. Should he have not done so? Likewise, wasn’t America turning a blind eye to the subsequent crackdown also a form of complicity in the repressive measures taken by the Bahraini regime (with Saudi assistance) against protestors? So long as the United States maintains a presence in a Gulf state, it’s hardly neutral as to what happens in that country. There will always be an inclination to influence the host government, as well as the perception of American culpability whenever a partner state takes action against its citizenry.

Maintaining “neutrality” in host nations’ domestic affairs will be even more difficult if the Arab Spring turns out to be a precursor for more societal upheaval in the years ahead. As Marwan Muasher has argued in Foreign Affairs, the unrest of 2011 challenged the existing social contract in the region, questioning the sustainability of the traditional model of regional states “bribing” their populace to accept authoritarianism through the fruits of oil revenues. This “rentier model” that pervades the region cannot be sustained indefinitely. While it’s possible that regional governments will find ways to reform and modernize without major domestic unrest, the current record on that score isn’t encouraging, particularly if oil prices take an unexpected — and prolonged — downturn.

Which brings me back to the Iraq War and the dashed hopes for a reduced U.S. presence in the Middle East. As imperfect, ugly, costly, and brutal as the outcome of that conflict was, one of its few positives is that Iraq is no longer a threat to the oil and gas reserves to its south. It’s also hard to argue that Iran is.

The Army’s recently released study of the Iraq War concluded that the only real winner of the conflict was an emboldened, expansionist Iran. That may be, but it’s still reasonable to ask whether — as a conventional military force — Iran is capable of invading and, more importantly, occupying the oil and gas fields of the Arabian Peninsula. Among other things, it would have to transit Iraq first to do so, which — despite any fraternity Iraq’s Shiites might feel toward Iran — is not necessarily something Iraq would acquiesce to. And it’s certainly possible that many Iraqis — Sunni, Kurdish, and even Shiite — would see that “transit” for what it is: invasion, one that recalled ugly memories of the horrific Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. In short, Iraq might not be the unabashed, pro-American, stable democracy some hoped for when advocating for Saddam’s removal, but it still functions as an effective buffer against an Iranian invasion and occupation of the Arab Gulf states. All of this assumes, incidentally, that Iran has the military and financial wherewithal to mount such a campaign, which should not be taken as a given.

So if neither Iraq nor Iran nor any other major state directly threatens Gulf oil and gas reserves and if the greatest challenge to regional stability in the future is likely to come from internal unrest, the question remains: why is America still in the Gulf?

IV

When I started writing this response to Toprani’s articles, I didn’t plan on concluding with a call for a complete withdrawal by U.S. forces from the Middle East. Originally, my recommendation was going to be for the United States to close most of its facilities in the region, moving back to a posture similar to that of the 1970s, when it had only two major regional bases: at Incirlik and Manama. My specific suggestion was for the United States now to close both of those facilities, as well as its air bases at Azraq in Jordan and Al Dhafra in the UAE, and the majority of its extended footprint in Kuwait (the United States currently acknowledges operating out of at least five facilities in that small country.) The U.S. “fallback position” would be to contract to the air base at Al Udeid in Qatar or maybe the planned West Al Mubarak air base in Kuwait, which is already under construction and scheduled to open in 2023. The latter is envisioned as a major logistical hub — replacing the temporary facility in Kuwait known as “Cargo City.” Though not as capable as a port, either or both of those air bases could still provide a sufficient hub for reintroducing modest forces into the region in the event of an unforeseen crisis.

The Al Udeid/West Al Mubarak option still might be a useful waystation to aim for. But a complete withdrawal should also be on the table, if only to begin to spark serious debate over U.S. presence in the region. As the discussion about the United States getting out of its “Middle East purgatory” has taken shape, there’s been a reticence to push for a truly dramatic change in the U.S. posture, with most advocating modest changes rather than radical ones. I’m not sure that’s enough, particularly if a follow on — perhaps a transformational one — to the Arab Spring is in the offing, as would seem likely given the Middle East’s demographics and the inevitability of a breaking point in its current societal structure. How viable is the maintenance of (at best) nineteenth-century autocratic monarchies in the twenty-first century? When those governing structures finally collapse, what are the attitudes of the people of the Gulf and other areas likely to be toward an America that formerly allied and enabled those dictators? Amidst prosaic debates about the future of Middle East basing it’s worth considering how much choice we may have in the matter. What if some day, we simply get kicked out?

Writing recently on Twitter, Lawrence Freedman warily drew a comparison between supporters of a “No Deal” Brexit, who blithely disregard its impacts on the British people, and advocates for ousting Saddam Hussein, who failed to fully consider the consequences of removing him beforehand. It’s a rough, but apt parallel, as well as a general warning for anyone seeking to do something “big” in foreign and defense policy without fully explicating the possible implications. I understand there are serious risks to the United States relinquishing its bases in the Middle East. These aren’t simply chits on a hex map. There are real consequences for U.S. operational and strategic choices if these bases go away.

One can already hear the responses being written on the centrality of Bahrain for U.S. operations — not just in the Persian Gulf, but also in the Indian Ocean. I don’t disagree. Naval Support Activity Bahrain is a unique facility that can’t be easily replicated or replaced. That’s in many ways the point. Reducing U.S. bases will force the United States to curtail its operations in the Middle East and elsewhere unless it can enunciate a clear and overriding reason to continue them. To some extent, that was my basic problem with the second Toprani article: it provides good historical analysis but then links it to the strategic equivalent of auto-pilot in which the United States keeps doing what it’s been doing (albeit with minor tweaks) and somehow expects better results. So, yes, losing the Fifth Fleet’s base in Bahrain would hurt, but it would also disentangle the United States from one of the most volatile countries in the region. Bahrain’s domestic stability is even less sustainable over the long term than most because it suffers from the same failing rentier system as its neighbors, but has the added hindrance of a Sunni dictatorship trying to hold onto power over a dissatisfied majority Shiite population.

Culling bases would force a reevaluation of strategy in the Middle East, something that’s been lacking in U.S. thinking since the end of the Cold War. Instead, the United States has largely pursued a wholly reactive approach that has sought to clumsily and expensively clean up the security detritus created by the Carter and Nixon Doctrines. It’s simplistic — but nonetheless accurate — to describe U.S. policy in the Middle East over the past thirty years as fighting the monsters America helped create during the preceding forty. And with revelations that Saudi Arabia had to be dissuaded by the Trump administration from invading Qatar’s gas fields in 2017, it’s reasonable to ask if we’re still not making new monsters that we might have to fight one day. One can look at this through a moral lens, but there’s also the basic question of efficacy. At what point does the United States exit this particular, morbid merry-go-round?

V

Even with all that said, the recommendation here isn’t for isn’t for a slapdash withdrawal. Rather, it is for American defense planners to begin seriously studying possible routes of egress from the current regional basing network over the next few years, with a follow on period during which a phased withdrawal from the region would be implemented over the course of a decade. As an alternative, the goal could be to draw down to a residual presence of just one or two facilities, with Al Udeid and West Al Mubarak being the likeliest candidates. That option would, again, take the United States back to a regional posture similar to the one that existed for most of the Cold War.

Deadlines can be arbitrary and counter-productive, but they also focus the mind. I suggest 2031 as a fixed goal for radically re-aligning U.S. regional posture, either contracted down to one or two sites or removed entirely. Twelve years is ample time to assess regional trends and the risks associated with a U.S. departure. And the stakes of a withdrawal — coupled with the complexities of untangling the United States from the regional security architecture — are sufficient that extended planning is needed. Just as the British originally intended to draw down their forces in the region over a decade (a timetable that was subsequently expedited, in part, by the downturn in British economic fortunes), so, too, the United States should take a similar period of time to manage its departure from the region.

2031 would also be, not coincidentally, the twentieth anniversary of the Arab Spring. I’ve heard it said one always views countries and regions through the lens of the first one studied. As someone who started out in Soviet studies, I can’t help thinking that twenty years is roughly the same period as between the Prague Spring and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Just as 1968 was a precursor to 1989 in the communist world, the events of 2011 presage additional societal upheaval in the Arab world, particularly if the Middle East’s autocracies continue to avoid real change. A sequel to the Arab Spring in the next ten to fifteen years seems inevitable, possibly on a greater, more tumultuous, even dangerous scale. When that happens, it might be a good thing for most — if not all — of the American bases in the region to be gone.

Mike Sweeney is a disillusioned former think tanker. He once wrote an essay, “Could America Lose a War Well?” He’s still not sure how he feels about it.

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