Since World War II, the United States has identified a number of national interests in the Greater Middle East, a region often defined quite loosely as the Arab nations (including those of North Africa), Israel, and sometimes Turkey, as well as Iran, the Horn of Africa countries, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
During the Cold War period, from 1946 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, American bipartisan foreign policy identified a strategic need for the region’s petroleum. Gulf oil was seen as critical in augmenting America’s own seemingly finite supply or ensuring the free world’s access to it. Thus was born the post-war U.S. realist interest in the Middle East — a region that after the 15th-century discovery of the New World lost the strategic global position it had held since classical antiquity.
The United States backed most prominently the House of Saud and neighboring Persian Gulf monarchies and dictatorships on the rationale that they would endlessly pump oil and sell it to the West at a fair price. British Petroleum enjoyed a more or less controlling oil interest in Iran, and U.S. oil companies had a free hand in Saudi Arabia; both nations maneuvered with other regimes to develop oil-exporting industries. The ensuing conspiracy theories, coups, and succession scraps of Arab and Persian strongmen fueled a half century of “Great Satan” chanting and the burning of American flags on the Middle East street.
At various times, U.S. presidents sought to deny the Soviet Union the ability to harness the region’s resources and thereby leverage Western oil-dependent economies. Most notable was Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s success, in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in flipping Anwar Sadat’s Egypt from being a Russian client to being a de facto American ally. For all practical purposes, the Russians stayed ostracized from the Middle East until Secretary of State John Kerry in 2012 naïvely invited them back in after a roughly 40-year hiatus — supposedly to help monitor Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian depot of weapons of mass destruction. Huge new finds of Russian gas and oil in the 1980s and 1990s had made the Middle East less important to Russia, although regional chaos that spiked oil prices and hurt Western economies was always welcome to Moscow, both before and after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Today, America’s two chief strategic worries remain far away from Baghdad, Cairo, and Tehran: a hostile China, with a population of 1.4 billion, that seeks world commercial and eventually military hegemony, and a sclerotic Russia that nevertheless possesses about 7,000 nuclear weapons and in reductionist fashion is against anything we are for.
Of course, in terms of a Middle East presence, Putin’s Russia is no Soviet Union. Currently it is hard to calibrate in a cost-to-benefit analysis how Moscow is profiting from its messy presence in Syria, where it props up the shaky Assad dynasty, or from adjudicating conflicting territorial claims among Syrians, Iranians, Turks, and Kurds. Russia does not need the oil, and in 2020 denying an energy-independent United States access to the Strait of Hormuz seems not to be a good gambit.
Do we remember the 50-year litany of why, how, and when we got bogged down in the Middle East? After the 1967 Six-Day War, America increasingly began to arm a militarily ascendant Israel and de facto guaranteed its survival amid a host of enemies, most dramatically during the Yom Kippur War. In turn, Israel did the world a great favor in taking out Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor in 1981 and performing a similarly successful operation against a Syrian nuclear facility in 2007.
Since the 1970s and the age of Palestinian global terrorists, such as those affiliated with the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Black September Organization, and especially in the era of radical Islamic terrorists of al-Qaeda and ISIS of the last 40 years, the United States has sought to deny sanctuaries and training enclaves to terrorist cliques plotting against the American homeland, U.S. bases, and our European and other allies. Ronald Reagan intervened unsuccessfully to keep the peace in Lebanon in 1983, but he had better results in the 1986 bombing of Libya in retaliation for Moammar Qaddafi’s sponsorship of anti-American terrorists.
Less concretely, the U.S. military guaranteed the world economy free access to the oil-rich Persian Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz, the Suez Canal, and the eastern Mediterranean. In 1980 the so-called Carter Doctrine supposedly forbade any outside power (i.e., the Soviet Union) to recalibrate the Middle East in its interests and endanger American assets and allies — and, of course, access to oil. On rare occasions, the U.S. intervened to prevent starvation, genocide, or general chaos, as supposedly in Somalia in 1993 and less believably in Libya in 2011.
Two Gulf wars, in 1991 and 2003, and a decade of no-fly zones over Iraq were intended to curb the imperial plans of Saddam Hussein by preventing him from annexing the neighborhood or using petrodollars to subsidize terrorism or eventually become a regional nuclear power. Both wars were tactically successful, the first in ridding Kuwait of Saddam and the second in deposing him in Iraq. But neither victory led to Middle East peace or a secure and stable Iraq or necessarily long-term advantage for the United States.
None of these decades-old rationales for Middle East intervention remain relevant today. The Cold War is over. China is using cash, not arms, to seduce Middle East regimes to lease out ports and facilities for its Belt and Road Initiative, an extravagant neo-imperial global project that grows ever more dubious in a strictly cost-to-benefit analysis, especially as China bogs down in a trade war with the United States and seems to be offering round-one concessions to try to end it. With a million Muslims in Chinese reeducation camps, and its clumsy diplomacy abroad, Beijing may eventually become as unpopular in Arab capitals as Moscow was during the Cold War.
America is the world’s largest oil and natural-gas producer and for now does not really need imported Middle East oil. Its chief ally in the region, Israel, has likewise become self-sufficient in fossil fuels because of the discovery of natural gas in its waters in the eastern Mediterranean. So American need for petroleum is no longer a concrete reason to put a sizeable military presence in the Middle East. All that can be said is that the United States has some interest in keeping the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf open, for the viability of the world economy and safe oil exportation to Europe. China is the largest importer of Middle East oil, which accounts for 60 percent of the nation’s daily consumption. Europe is the world’s largest importer of all oil. Yet China, to repeat, is currently in a trade war with the United States. Europe seems unwilling to employ fracking or horizontal drilling to tap its huge domestic deposits of shale gas, and it also has no interest in building a blue-water navy apart from NATO’s reliance on the U.S. fleet. Accordingly, it is becoming a difficult sell for the American people to guarantee China and the European Union free and safe commerce to and from the Gulf.
In sum, all that seems left of the last 70 years of bipartisan foreign policy in the Middle East are three remnant interests that prompt us to paraphrase Trotsky — we may not be interested in the Middle East, but it is interested in us.
One, the United States does not want radical Islamists to carve out sanctuaries, such as ISIS’s recent caliphate in Iraq and Syria, by appropriating oil and using the money gained from its sale to stage terrorist operations against the West. It is not clear how many U.S. troops are needed to prevent the recurrence of al-Qaeda and ISIS or the growth of Hezbollah’s expeditionary terrorism, but such policing is largely done by U.S. air power, missiles, and drones. Sending American soldiers into the narrow streets of Beirut, Baghdad, Basra, or Benghazi to distinguish civilian from soldier, ordinary teenager from suicide bomber, and dead dog from hidden IED does not seem a wise use of formidable U.S. firepower and military discipline and training. Even stupider would be to do so while JAG officers adjudicate in real time the rules of engagement and CNN, the BBC, and Al Jazeera hype the ensuing “neocolonialism” and “imperialism” on global TV in an endless search for another Abu Ghraib.
A second vestigial interest is to deny a local hegemon the ability to absorb his neighbors, aggregate petroleum revenues, and become a nuclear power that threatens the West. Currently, Iran seems the most likely imitator of Saddam Hussein’s failed efforts of the 1980s and 1990s to become a transnational nuclear power. Yet, so far, beefed-up sanctions and retaliatory but disproportionate air strikes have stymied Tehran. In the post–Iraq War era, no one advocates sending nation-building ground troops into Iran or even overtly destabilizing the theocracy to seed democracy in its place, however much the West would like to see the end of that murderous regime. Iran is to be contained like North Korea, and the assumption is that U.S. missiles, drones, bombers, ships, and cyber assets will carry out the task while beefed-up sanctions continually erode the economy. No one knows at what red line Israel will preemptively take out Iranian nuclear facilities, in the manner of its past neutralization of Iraqi and Syrian reactors.
Finally, the United States wants the Suez Canal accessible and the Strait of Hormuz open to ensure global prosperity and, by extension, American economic growth — though, again, it is difficult to assess how much that stability would or should cost America. Given the end of the Cold War, and gargantuan U.S. oil production, it is hard to imagine a replay of the 1956 Western intervention to keep the Suez Canal open or the 1987–88 tanker wars to ensure free transit in the Persian Gulf.
Keeping a small, low-profile U.S. presence at air bases in the Gulf states or Turkey seems wiser for now — and cheaper in the long run — than complete withdrawal. The Middle East, like Central America and North Africa, is inherently an unstable place whose residents can swarm European borders by the millions. Thus it seems wise to invest some time, money, and manpower to preempt mass flotillas and caravans heading westward.
But then again, it is hard to justify protecting Europe’s territorial integrity by keeping the calm in the Middle East when the American Southwest lacks a secure border with Mexico and an estimated 20 million illegal aliens are residing in the United States — at least if such costly investments are seen in either/or fashion.
Given that oil and Soviet Communism no longer drive American strategic thinking in the Middle East, and that the unfettered use of air power can largely deter nuclear proliferation and decapitate another ascendant ISIS caliphate, it is likely that the region’s status has changed. The anachronistic term “Middle East” is itself emblematic of an ossified status. In the 19th-century nomenclature of the British Empire, entire regions were named for their distance from the imperial brain in London: The Middle East lay between the Near East (the eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor) and the Far East (China, Japan, and on occasion India). But in 2020, despite its being the nexus of three continents and three great religions and home to over 400 million people, the Middle East hardly seems to be in the middle of anything important — certainly not according to the popular American mind.
For nearly 70 years Americans have watched nightly on their televisions as Arabs and Iranians scream and damn America. They have understandably grown tired of the region and its proverbially volatile Islamic street, where mobs equate any U.S. presence on the ground with imperialism, colonialism, and other catchwords spoon-fed to them by Western leftists. Americans increasingly see the Middle East as a sinkhole of precious blood and treasure wasted in behalf of those who are, to be frank, not deemed worth the effort. Most recently, the bier of Qasem Soleimani was driven through Baghdad on an imported Chevy pickup among shouting anti-American mobs while guarded by U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces — a metaphor, along with the fact that more Iranians died at Soleimani’s perfervid funeral in Tehran than were killed in the American drone attack on his caravan, for the contemporary confused status of West-meets-East.
Especially in the last half century, the Middle East has produced little more than bad news, bad memories, and bad blood. Six major Israeli–Arab conflicts, the 1979–80 Iranian hostage crisis, the Persian Gulf War, the Iraq War, a decade of no-fly zones, the shooting down of a U.S. Black Hawk in Mogadishu, the two-decade slog in Afghanistan, the first and second Libyan bombing missions, the Marine-barracks attack in Beirut, the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, Obama’s “red line” in Syria, gassings and genocides by Saddam and Assad, the hijackings, assassinations, mass killings, and bombings by the Muslim Brotherhood, the PLO, Black September, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, and ISIS, the current mass ethnic cleansing of Christians, the online beheadings, the no-go zones of Middle East immigrant communities in Europe — all these have done their part in souring generations of Americans on the Middle East. And all that monotony and weariness stands well apart from the bitter memories of the bloodthirsty rantings of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, Yasser Arafat, Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Saddam Hussein, Moammar Qaddafi, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — and Qasem Soleimani. “Death to America!” and all that blah, blah, blah.
One refrain of Trump’s support among the deplorables and irredeemables was a desire to end “endless wars” abroad. The well-recognized subtext of that desire was no more Middle East interventions. After 9/11, Americans were in a punitive mood as regarded the home of the 19 hijackers and murderers. But the desire to pay back Islamic terrorists has aged into something akin to an out-of-sight, out-of-mind weariness with the entire region.
We might end with another paraphrase, of the famous saying attributed to Otto von Bismarck: To the American street, the entire Middle East is no longer worth the healthy bones of a single U.S. Marine.
This article appears as “Need America Be in the Middle East?” in the February 10, 2020, print edition of National Review.