Pulling Out: Debating Middle East Disengagement (Affirmative)

On January 23, 1980 President Jimmy Carter enunciated what became known as the Carter Doctrine. He stated, “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” To give this commitment meaning, the United States began a military buildup in the region that ultimately led to the creation of Central Command, which now has responsibility for fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Carter Doctrine came about during the period of the “Big Red Arrow” Soviet threat. Readers of a certain age will remember seeing scary maps back then. A big red arrow originating in Soviet Central Asia, plunging through Afghanistan and toward Iran. A second red arrow originated in Ethiopia and shot up into South Yemen, aimed at Saudi Arabia. This was the context of the significant increase in American military presence in the Middle East.

This transformation was significant. Traditionally, the United States had been pretty hands off in the Middle East. Though the United States recognized Israel immediately after its founding, Israel received more aid from other countries for a generation. Massive financial aid to Israel and Egypt only began following the Camp David Accord during the Carter Administration. Otherwise, the United States had always been willing to remain at arm’s length from developments.

Nearly 30 years later, by a combination of inertia, mission creep, and ill-considered friendships, the United States now finds itself deeply enmeshed in politics throughout the Middle East and South Asia. It is time to reverse that trend. Fundamentally, we have made a key mistake in our relations with the Middle East — we have overstated the benefits of deep involvement and the costs of disengagement while systematically underestimating the risks associated with playing such a visible role in a politically unstable region. Challenging the Soviet threat was a credible basis for a greater role, the hodge-podge of half-considered issues we face today is not.

I have argued for a the United States to maintain a dramatically smaller “footprint” on the ground in the Middle East while actively seeking to reduce our “fingerprints” on policy developments in the region. The U.S. military is too active and too visible. American Embassies are too large. And in general, our role in region is too overwhelming. Poll after poll shows the same thing — The United States is blamed for many of the misfortunes of the region and is considered an aggressive, hostile, imperialist power. At this point, our active involvement is self-defeating.

If we were to limit our involvement, this would impact three issues directly: Radicalism, Oil, and Israel. Let me discuss each in turn.

The big issue for the United States today is the threat posed by radical and violent Islamist movements. I would argue that in this area we would reap the greatest benefits of a more detached policy. Simply put, during the Cold War we accepted a quid pro quo with “moderate” Arab rulers. In return for consistent anti-Communism we would allow them to scapegoat us for domestic repression largely aimed at Islamist groups. That policy worked all too well as over the past two decades the biggest change in the Islamist movement has been increased focus on the “far enemy” (i.e. the United States) and less on the “near enemy” (i.e. corrupt rulers at home). It was a bad bargain during the Cold War, and is an even worse one today. The United States simply can no longer allow hatred of us to serve a steam valve to reduce pressure on Middle Eastern rulers. If we are going to be closely associated with regimes in the region, we have to insist that they forthrightly and consistently defend that relationship with their own people. No more message segmenting. No more blame shifting.

On the reverse side, some argue that we cannot reduce our presence because that is what our enemies want. In short, they believe that to spite groups like al Qaeda we have to go against our own interests. As a matter of strategy, it is tremendously dangerous to allow your enemies to define your interests for you. If we allow al Qaeda to pick the time and place of our confrontations, we cede to them the initiative and choice of terrain. Just because AQ might consider Iraq or Afghanistan a central front does not mean we have to. Yes, they may indeed claim victory if we do retrench. But we cannot make American policy in response to AQ press releases. Reducing the visibility of the American role will reduce the viability of anti-American movements and do more to undermine groups like al Qaeda than anything else, even if it gives them the theme for a crowing video.

The second issue is oil. The U.S. presence in the Middle East does serve to reduce some of the risks associated with the Western world’s reliances on Middle Eastern oil. It does not lower the cost necessarily, but it may reduce some potential for volatility in supply. But the cost of this risk mitigation is tremendous. We pay for lowering the supply risk with increased risk of terrorist attacks, greater hostility from the Arab population, and the costs of men and materiel associated with military commitments. Are there other ways to reduce those risks? Of course there are. They include investments in alternative energy, oil exporation at home, better fuel efficiency from cars. Certainly those are costly measures in the short-run, but so is deep involvement in a volatile region. In the long-run, the calculus is easy. Energy independence is a strategic imperative.

The third issue is Israel. There are some in the United States who believe it is in America’s interests to play “whack-a-mole” against an ever-shifting set of potential enemies of Israel. Yesterday Iraq, today Iran, tomorrow Syria. Ultimately, though, Israel has nuclear weapons and is unlikely to be attacked by any state actor. Certainly, the United States has an interest — as does the entire international community — in preventing terrorist groups from acquiring nuclear weapons, but pursuing a non-proliferation agenda does not require unilateral commitment to the region. The other part of the Israel issue is the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Here, I am more pessimistic than most. As long as the Israeli political system is fractured — there are 18 parties represented in the Knesset and the largest party has fewer than one quarter of the seats — and Palestinian political power is split between Fatah and Hamas and even factions within those movements — it is simply impossible to conceive of a lasting, broadly accepted peace. The more visible the American role in brokering such a broken peace, the more resentful enemies we are likely to see emerge. Israeli land-grabs will become American land-grabs in frustrated Palestinian perceptions. Palestinian corruption and violence become American corruption and violence in the minds of angry Israelis. Genuine peace is a fantasy, and before you can visualize hope, you need to recognize reality.

In short, the benefits we believe accrue from deep engagement are largely illusory, and the costs associated with retrenchment are smaller than most fear.

Image by Flickr user Stewf under Creative Commons license.

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Bernard Finel
About Bernard Finel
Bernard I. Finel is Chair of the Department of Security Studies at the National War College. He holds a Ph.D. in Government from Georgetown University. He contributed several posts to OTB from December 2008 to February 2009.


  1. Steve Verdon says:

    In the long-run, the calculus is easy. Energy independence is a strategic imperative.

    I think this is the weakest part of your argument Bernard. Simply put there is no magic energy pony for us to turn too, at least right now and politicians are too cowardly to pursue the policy that would accomplish this goal–i.e. drive up prices to make alternatives and research for alternatives viable. A pigouvian tax on oil and gasoline would accomplish this, but it will never be implemented…even by making such a tax revenue neutral (i.e. reducing either payroll or income taxes to offset the increased tax on oil).

    Sure I suppose you could argue the government can fund the research, but the government is usually pretty bad at being innovative, efficient, and responding quickly to changes in the market. You’d likely get entrenched interests for various types of “alternative energy sources” based on political nonsense vs. actual market and technical viability.

    I did like this part alot, though,

    As a matter of strategy, it is tremendously dangerous to allow your enemies to define your interests for you. If we allow al Qaeda to pick the time and place of our confrontations, we cede to them the initiative and choice of terrain.

    I’d like to see Dave’s response to this in particular. I think it will be the hardest part for him to overcome. Surrendering the initiative is not an ideal strategy.

  2. Brett says:

    You could argue that you’re not really surrendering the initiative; after all, here and in Europe, you still have police and intelligence agencies breaking up plots. It’s just that you’re not going after the problems “at the source” – i.e. the FATA in Pakistan.

    Of course, you could argue that you shouldn’t do that when a terrorist attacks; instead, you ought to focus on getting your local Islamic contingent on-board (the US has done this pretty well, Europe not so much), and killing off jihadist groups when they pop up. Doing the other way is kind of like what we’ve done with the Drug War – you end up escalating things.

    I see you are a fellow Pigovian, Steve. This pleases me. You’re right about the pricing issue, although I wonder if you might need another element – something that would weaken the US’s reliance on Middle Eastern suppliers to the point where doing the type of geopolitical gaming we’ve been doing in the Middle East (much less making it the center of our international strategy, as has been the case for a decade at least)just isn’t cost-effective for the oil purchased.

  3. tom p says:

    If we allow al Qaeda to pick the time and place of our confrontations, we cede to them the initiative and choice of terrain.

    AQ will always pick the time and place of our confrontations. It is in their nature (they are in fact very weak) to attack us only at our weakest points and our most vulnerable times. They cannot win a direct confrontation, so they hit us when and where we are at our most vulnerable, and then fade back into the shadows. I do not see an easy way around this dynamic, other than a massive investment in human intelligence…. but that has repercussions too.

    Just because AQ might consider Iraq or Afghanistan a central front does not mean we have to.

    While I agree with your broader sentiment here Bernard, I have to point out that AQ certainly didn’t make Iraq a central front in the “war on terror”, the Bush Admin (w/ congressional lap dog-ism) did. They just decided that if that was where we wanted to fight, they would accomodate us.

    Yes, they may indeed claim victory if we do retrench. But we cannot make American policy in response to AQ press releases.

    Indeed, we have to understand that their declarations of “Victory” are as hollow as Bush’s declaration of “Mission Accomplished”.

  4. PD Shaw says:

    My father-in-law was stationed in Saudi Arabia in the 50s. Over the decades I believe the American presence in the Peninsula has ebbed and flowed depending upon the regional stability threat. Placing the issue in the context of the threat of Soviet expansion during the Carter era minimizes that longer history, which includes expansion in the face of threats from Nasser, Khomeini and Saddam.

    I think you have to go back to the Roosevelt order in the Middle East in which the U.S. presence is based upon oil and the desire to influence the international order. Take away those two elements and U.S. involvement is unnecessary.

  5. Brett says:

    Yeah, but in the Roosevelt Era dealing with the Saudis was more or less optional – the US still produced more oil than it consumed, and in fact the US was a major world oil exporter (one of the reasons why Japan started the Pacific War in World War 2 with the US was because Japan was heavily dependent on imports of oil from the US, and the oil embargo effectively amounted to strangulation).