Outlining his foreign policy objectives in 2020 in the magazine Foreign Affairs, then presidential candidate Joe Biden asserted that “it is past time to end the forever wars.” Indeed, as president, he withdrew all troops in a frenzied retreat from Afghanistan and reduced troop levels in Iraq by more than half. Ending the “forever wars” has been only a part of Biden’s longer-term strategy for the Middle East, however. Instead, his objective, like that of his two predecessors, is to downgrade the importance of the Middle East in American strategy.
Barack Obama began the trend of reducing America’s military presence in the region, and by December 31, 2011, all American troops had left Iraq. Obama also began the larger process of subtly altering Washington’s relationships with states that heretofore were its closest regional allies. Obama’s overtures to Iran and the American-inspired negotiations with Tehran that led to the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) angered America’s allies, notably Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, who felt that their views had not been taken sufficiently into consideration, that they had not been fully briefed on the state of the talks, and that the agreement gave too much away to Iran.
Although Donald Trump established a close relationship with both Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, he too sought a reduced American presence in the region. Even the 2020 Abraham Accords, which represented a breakthrough in relations between Israel and the Arab world, did not alter the thrust of Trump’s objectives and indeed pointed to a Middle East that relied more heavily on its own relationships for coping with a common Iranian threat.
Biden is thus continuing the trend set by his predecessors. The number of American forces in the region, which approximated 50,000 troops as recently as 2020, fell to less than 20,000 by mid-2022. And the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy, both of which were released in October, confirm that the Middle East no longer is a major concern for the Biden administration.
The president’s preface to the National Security Strategy focuses on partners in East Asia and Europe and does not mention the Middle East at all. The strategy itself has a major section that discusses “out-competing China and constraining Russia” and terms climate change “the existential challenge of our time.” As for the Middle East, it is highlighted not only after the Indo-Pacific and Europe, but also after the Western Hemisphere.
The strategy document is unapologetic regarding the Middle East’s lower place in the hierarchy of US concerns. It states: “We have too often defaulted to military-centric policies underpinned by an unrealistic faith in force and regime change . . . while failing to adequately account for opportunity costs to competing global priorities or unintended consequences.” It then lays out five basic principles that will guide American policy in the region. These are to strengthen and enable partners to defend themselves against foreign threats; to ensure freedom of navigation; to reduce tensions and end conflicts “wherever possible through diplomacy;” to foster regional integration; and to promote human rights. On the last of these principles, the National Security Strategy asserts that America “will . . . continue to demand accountability for violations of human rights.” The document does not indicate how that last commitment might be implemented, and at what cost to relations with key Middle Eastern allies.
The region again comes into play when discussing the fight against terrorism and when addressing a potential Iranian nuclear threat. Nevertheless, the document states that America will be “shifting from a strategy that is “U.S.-led, partner-enabled” to one that is “partner-led, U.S.-enabled.” How our Middle Eastern friends will respond to that statement is not entirely clear. If Saudi Arabia’s support for an oil price increase that empowers the Russian war effort in Ukraine is any indication, the administration’s statement is a worrisome portent indeed.
Another possible cause for concern among America’s Middle Eastern allies is the National Security Strategy’s assertion that the US will not commit forces to combat unless “and the mission is undertaken with the informed consent of the American people.” What “informed consent” might mean is never spelled out. It could connote a requirement for congressional support, which, however, might not be forthcoming given the isolationism of extreme right-wing Republican legislators and progressive Democratic legislators. It could even mean a popular referendum of some sort. Whatever is meant, the administration now has the burden of reassuring its allies that its ability to employ military force will not be permanently constrained by either the legislature or the public.
The Middle East remains a theater where wars not only can break out at any time but are also still ongoing, as in Syria, Yemen, and Libya. That Washington rightly has assigned priority to the threats from China and Russia does not obviate the need for a carefully structured strategy for the Middle East. Such a strategy should articulate objectives, such as extending the Abraham Accords to other states; building upon the recent natural gas agreement involving Lebanon and Israel; restoring comity with both Saudi Arabia and the UAE; encouraging cooperation on the threats posed by climate change and food and water shortages; and supporting the movement for freedom in Iran. Moreover, the administration should outline the various means at America’s disposal to achieve those objectives.
The region has long had a way of upending American strategic priorities. Precisely because the US confronts major threats from Chinese adventurism and Russian aggression, now is the time for the Biden team to formulate a coherent strategy that will outline the steps it will take to avoid yet another conflagration in this perennially volatile region.