July 20, 2020

Demilitarizing U.S. Policy in the Middle East

The Bottom Line

A new U.S. strategy for the region should be part of the next National Security Strategy (NSS) and NDS, and it should be based on the following key principles:

  • Define U.S. interests in the region more narrowly.
  • Pursue pragmatic diplomacy based on de-escalation instead of focusing on regime change and military solutions.
  • Rethink U.S. security and economic assistance, focusing on investing in people rather than authoritarian governments.
  • Reduce U.S. conventional military presence in the region and pursue a limited, realistic, and cost-efficient “by, with, and through” approach to counter irregular warfare.


For 20 years, U.S. presidents have tried to get out of the Middle East only to be pulled back in. George W. Bush campaigned against being the world’s policeman, but his presidency was consumed by 9/11 and the Iraq War. Barack Obama ran on getting out of Iraq, yet by the end of his administration, the United States was fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and dropping bombs on six countries in the region. Donald Trump ran on ending Middle Eastern wars but has repeatedly come close to a major conflict with Iran.

What is needed instead is a sustainable, limited, steady state approach to the Middle East.

In every instance, policymakers tried to shift away from the region without having a coherent strategy for more cheaply and efficiently managing America’s limited interests. When such an approach resulted in failure, each administration overcompensated and became too invested in the region. What is needed instead is a sustainable, limited, steady state approach to the Middle East.

The 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) suffered the same problem. It argued for a shift to focusing on great power competition and for a more limited approach to the Middle East, based on relying on local partners. But it failed to articulate a comprehensive strategy for how America protects its interests in the region without getting drawn into prolonged expensive deployments and conflicts. Until such a strategy is delineated, the Middle East will always draw senior policymaker attention and U.S. assets back into the region, impeding America’s ability to both reduce defense spending and focus on more important strategic challenges such as China.

The Failure of U.S. Policy in the Middle East

For the past decade, perpetual civil wars have defined the Middle East. These wars are sparked by the internal weakness of states, where lack of freedom, inequality, and corrupt governments’ inability to meet the needs of their people cause domestic instability. For evidence of this dynamic, one simply has to look to the protests during the Arab Spring of 2011 in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain, and more recently those in 2019 and 2020 in Iraq, Lebanon, Algeria, Sudan, and Egypt. Protest movements will remain a feature of the region for years to come as long as the current social, political, and economic problems persist. Indeed, the economic crises brought on by COVID-19 and the collapse of oil prices are exacerbating these challenges.

While internal weakness is the initial cause of instability, it is state-on-state competition that transforms these small conflicts into prolonged civil wars. There are four competing coalitions in the region: the anti-reform bloc led by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt; a Turkish-Qatari alliance more open to supporting Islamist groups; Iran; and Israel. When protests erupt and weak states teeter, these blocs dump money, weapons, and fighters into the vacuum in a competition for influence. In the process, small conflicts in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Iraq turn into larger, longer-lasting, more violent wars that create terrorist safe havens and cause mass refugee flows.

Common among all these mistakes is the emphasis on military solutions—not diplomatic and economic ones.

America’s policies in the Middle East over the past 20 years have exacerbated this dynamic. U.S. military interventions in Iraq and Libya—and to a lesser extent in Syria and Yemen—have fueled the fires of civil war. Propping up dictators has entrenched corrupt ineffective governments. The sale of billions of dollars in weapons has only entrenched the security state in places such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Taking sides in the intense competition between different regional blocs has encouraged competition. Common among all these mistakes is the emphasis on military solutions—not diplomatic and economic ones. This stands in strong contrast to U.S. policy in Asia and Europe, where the U.S. military is certainly part of the equation but not the exclusive driver.

Reimagining U.S. Policy: A More Sustainable, Limited Approach to the Middle East

America’s militarized policies in the Middle East do not serve its national security interests. In reimagining America’s approach to the region, U.S. policy should be crafted around the following four principles.

Define U.S. interests in the region more narrowly.

The United States needs to start by redefining its interests in the region. The nation does not need to be in the Middle East because of oil. Thanks to the shale revolution today, America is a net exporter that gets almost no oil from the Middle East. Global markets are still significantly impacted by the flow of oil out of the region, but not to the extent that justifies the United States playing the role of singularly guaranteeing the flow of energy resources through the region’s key choke points. U.S. regional presence is also not about defending Israel, which has the most powerful military in the Middle East and a per capita gross domestic product (GDP) higher than those of most countries in Western Europe. It is a valuable partner of the United States, but the days of its dependence on America to defend it are over.

Nor should U.S. policy be concerned with rolling back Iran’s influence everywhere in the Middle East. While Iran is often portrayed as a boogeyman, it is ultimately a weak middling power with the GDP of New Jersey but nine times as many residents. It is a problematic actor that needs to be countered, contained, and, when possible, engaged, but making that the centerpiece of U.S. policy in the region is a mistake. And the United States cannot intervene in every conflict in the region in the name of preventing terrorism. The United States should certainly take steps to defend itself and contain and manage the threat, but trying to “solve” or eliminate terrorism is a near impossible goal.

Instead, strategy in the Middle East should prioritize two objectives. First, the United States should focus on managing and containing the challenges posed by the region’s civil wars and the outflow of terrorism and mass migration. These factors have led to a backlash in the United States and Europe that has generated xenophobia, the rise of anti-democratic demagogues, and ultimately a fraying of European institutions and the transatlantic alliance, which have been key features of the U.S.-led international order, and whose health is critical to sustaining both U.S. and European strength in long-term great power competition. Second, the United States must work to prevent the emergence of any new nuclear powers in the Middle East—most notably Iran. The consequences of introducing more nuclear weapons into the world’s most conflict-prone region would be both dangerous and destabilizing, and could also have negative effects for the global non-proliferation regime.

Pursue pragmatic diplomacy based on de-escalation instead of focusing on regime change and military solutions.

The Iraq War is the poster child for mistaken American adventurism in the Middle East. The war in Afghanistan, while outside the Middle East, is emblematic of this, as is the intervention in Libya. The lesson to draw from the U.S. experience is more than just not to invade to oust regimes; it is not to set unrealistic objectives instead of negotiating pragmatic solutions. In Afghanistan, the United States could have negotiated an end to the war with the Taliban on better terms in 2003 than the ones it agreed to in 2020. In Syria, the United States could have achieved a better outcome if in 2011, rather than calling for Bashar al-Assad to step down and arming the opposition, it had negotiated with Russia, Iran, Turkey, the Arab states, Assad, and the Syrian opposition to try to end the fighting without necessarily insisting on Assad’s departure. In contrast, the Iran nuclear deal in 2015 was an example of realistic diplomacy that achieved a critical non-proliferation objective—but in the absence of support from key Middle Eastern states and bipartisan support at home, it ultimately collapsed.

The lesson to draw from the U.S. experience is more than just not to invade to oust regimes; it is not to set unrealistic objectives instead of negotiating pragmatic solutions.

In addition to pursuing limited realistic objectives and negotiating with all of the actors, the United States should support a mechanism for all the countries in the region to come together in a multilateral forum that allows for smaller groupings of multilateral and bilateral engagement. The United States has supported such security architectures in Europe and Asia, but they do not exist in the Middle East. The overall objective should be to de-escalate regional tensions in the short term and sustain a process that over time can find durable solutions. This forum will not solve the region’s problems, but it will create a venue where countries can begin talking about a long list of agenda items. These include regional responses to COVID-19; avoiding maritime conflict; addressing environmental challenges the region faces; ceasing support for militias and separatist groups that interfere in one another’s internal politics; ending the civil wars in Syria, Yemen, and Libya; reducing U.S.-Iran tensions in Iraq and to a lesser extent Afghanistan; developing regional nuclear joint enrichment arrangements or inspections and verification regimes that allow access to civilian programs while foreclosing the possibility of weaponization; and discussing limitations of conventional weapons in the region, including ballistic missile development and distribution. Some of these issues are extremely difficult, and such a process could take years, but it can start with creating venues for negotiation and taking de-escalatory steps on all sides.

Rethink U.S. security and economic assistance, with a focus on investing in people rather than authoritarian governments.

U.S. security assistance in the Middle East for too long has been focused on high-ticket items that do little to address primarily unconventional threats in the region and exacerbate poor governance. The largest single piece of aid the United States provides to the Arab world is $1.3 billion annually to the Egyptian military for tanks and airplanes. This aid serves first and foremost as a jobs program for a military dictatorship and helps entrench a security state that only exacerbates the problems in the region. Additionally, the United States sells billions in arms to Saudi Arabia. Those arms are then used in a war in Yemen that is against U.S. interests and is being fought ineffectively with high civilian casualties.

Instead, more limited U.S. arms sales need to focus on helping partners deal with the challenges posed by low end civil wars and counterterrorism. And in many cases, arms supplies need to be replaced with aid programs focused on education, development, humanitarian assistance, and improved governance. That does not mean taking a dramatically expansive view of aid that equates to nation building, or that sees all the economic and social problems in the Middle East as root causes of terrorism. Instead, assistance and private sector engagement that helps create more productive economies and more jobs and lessens inequality in these countries can, over the long term, reduce some sources of instability. This can be done at a fraction of the cost the United States has invested in the region militarily over the past 20 years.

The United States should invest in countries such as Tunisia, which is on a bumpy but positive road to democracy and also vulnerable to violence and instability, given the challenges on its border with Libya.

The United States should invest in countries such as Tunisia, which is on a bumpy but positive road to democracy and also vulnerable to violence and instability, given the challenges on its border with Libya. In Iraq, which is struggling to recover from the ravages of ISIS, the United States should invest in U.N. aid programs that use local workers to rebuild the city of Mosul, instead of investing millions in a corrupt Iraqi central government that does little other than enrich itself. These types of examples abound throughout the Middle East and should govern U.S. economic and assistance strategies. Such an approach is far superior to perpetuating a deteriorating status quo, even though the strategy will take time, perhaps years, to see results.

Reduce U.S. conventional military presence in the region and pursue a limited, realistic, and cost-efficient “by, with, and through” approach to counter irregular warfare challenges.

For years, U.S. posture in the region and particularly the deployment of large numbers of fighter aircraft and ships have been driven by the conflicts in Afghanistan and with ISIS, a potential future contingency with Iran, and the importance of maintaining freedom of navigation to ensure the flow of energy resources. Some of these assets should certainly remain, but a reduction in forces should be possible, especially if the United States pursues the narrower interests described in this paper combined with a more pragmatic diplomatic strategy that has less ambitious objectives.

Still, a military presence will be necessary to deal with some of the challenges in the security vacuums created by the region’s civil wars, especially where they have created opportunities for Salafi-jihad groups and Iran’s Quds Force. U.S. policymakers should ask three fundamental questions before getting involved: (1) Do the actors gaining power in this space present a serious and credible threat to U.S. interests and those of U.S. partners; (2) Is there a viable local partner on the ground whom the United States can support, and who can provide long-term security on the ground; and (3) Does it require an American role because the mission cannot be accomplished by other countries aligned with the United States?

In most cases, setting this high bar will mean a choice to not intervene, but instead to pursue mitigation strategies through economic and humanitarian assistance, diplomacy, and, on rare occasions, limited counterterrorism operations. In rarer instances, when the criteria described here are met and the decision to intervene militarily is made, the United States should pursue a by, with, and through approach, using a small number of U.S. troops to train, equip, advise, and assist local forces with legitimacy on the ground; and sometimes providing limited airpower, logistics, and enablers. This approach worked tactically in the counter-ISIS campaign to reverse the territorial gains of the caliphate with only a few thousand troops and most of the fighting done by local capable partners on the ground. It has not been a strategic success because of the failure to pursue some of the other elements in this paper—most notably realistic diplomacy and more effective aid programs.

In most cases, setting this high bar will mean a choice to not intervene, but instead to pursue mitigation strategies through economic and humanitarian assistance, diplomacy, and, on rare occasions, limited counterterrorism operations.

This model can become more sustainable and cost-efficient and require even less U.S. intervention if some countries in the Middle East, those most closely aligned with the United States, become more adept at pursuing their own by, with, and through strategies in identifying and working with capable local on-the-ground forces. This will require greater strategic cooperation between the United States and some of its partners in areas where they share common interests, as well as a focus by the United States on working to train small elite counterterrorism and special operations forces in the Middle East.

To ensure proper checks are put in place to prevent these types of operations from becoming perpetual costly investments, the president must insist on a new authorization for the use of force from Congress and refuse to support these deployments without it. That also means the president should be willing to accept highly circumscribed authorizations that include requirements for regular detailed reporting on how the overall diplomatic, economic, and military strategy is proceeding; transparency to Congress and the American public; and sunset provisions that require regular reauthorizations by Congress.


For years U.S. policymakers have talked about leaving the Middle East. But if there is no strategy for how to actually do so while protecting U.S. interests, the United States will inevitably get sucked back in. Indeed, a sustainable Middle East strategy that allows the United States to pull back militarily while focusing on realistic diplomacy and a smarter assistance strategy is a central building block for shifting resources to other priorities, for example effective competition with China. The next NDS must detail a new approach to the Middle East.

About the Authors

Ilan Goldenberg is the Director of the CNAS Middle East Security Program and formerly served at the State Department, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.

Kaleigh Thomas is a Research Associate in the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

Learn More

From July to December 2020, CNAS will release new papers every week on the tough issues the next NDS should tackle. The goal of this project is to provide intellectual capital to the drafters of the 2022 NDS, focusing specifically on unfinished business from the past several defense strategies and areas where change is necessary but difficult.


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  1. Condoleeza Rice, “Campaign 2000: Promoting the National Interest,” Foreign Affairs, January–February 2000, 45–62.
  2. Edward Delman, “Obama Promised to End America’s Wars—Has He?” The Atlantic, March 30, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/03/obama-doctrine-wars-numbers/474531/.
  3. Chris Dougherty and Kaleigh Thomas, “Sending Troops Back to the Middle East Won’t Stop Iran,” Defense One, January 17, 2020, https://www.defenseone.com/ideas/2020/01/sending-troops-back-middle-east-wont-stop-iran/162523/?oref=d-river.
  4. Ilan Goldenberg, “America’s Yo-Yo Diet in the Middle East,” Politico, December 19, 2018, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/12/19/americas-yo-yo-diet-in-the-middle-east-223320.
  5. Department of Defense, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America, https://dod.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2018-National-Defense-Strategy-Summary.pdf.
  6. Marwan Muasher, “Is This the Arab Spring 2.0?” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, commentary, Middle East Program, October 30, 2019, https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/10/30/is-this-arab-spring-2.0-pub-80220.
  7. For example, see Chase Winter, “Eyeing End of War and Iran, Arab States Move to Reconcile with Syria,” Deutsche Welle, January 1, 2019, dw.com/en/eyeing-end-of-war-and-iran-arab-states-move-to-reconcile-with-syria/a-46916046.
  8. Tamara Cofman Wittes and Mara Karlin, “America’s Middle East Purgatory,” Foreign Affairs, January–February 2019, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/2018-12-11/americas-middle-east-purgatory. Martin Indyk, “The Middle East Isn’t Worth It Anymore,” The Wall Street Journal, January 17, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-middle-east-isnt-worth-it-anymore-11579277317.
  9. Ilan Goldenberg and Kaleigh Thomas, “Trump’s Iran Policy Is a Failure,” Foreign Policy, September 25, 2019, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/09/25/trumps-iran-policy-is-a-failure/.
  10. Samuel Stebbins and Grant Suneson, “Does Texas or Russia Have the Larger GDP? Here’s How U.S. states Compare to Other Countries,” USA Today, April 17, 2019, https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2019/04/17/how-gdp-of-us-states-compares-to-countries-around-the-world/39295197/.
  11. Daniel Benaim and Jake Sullivan, “America’s Opportunity in the Middle East,” Foreign Affairs, May 22, 2020, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/2020-05-22/americas-opportunity-middle-east.
  12. Congressional Research Service, Jeremy M. Sharp, “Egypt: Background and U.S. Relations,” CRS Report No. RL33003 (May 27, 2020), 31, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RL33003.pdf.
  13. Burgess Everett, “Senators Make Bipartisan Push to Halt Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia,” Politico, June 6, 2019, https://www.politico.com/story/2019/06/09/arm-sales-senate-saudi-arabia-1358440.
  14. Goldenberg, “America’s Yo-Yo Diet in the Middle East.”
  15. For greater detail on such a strategy, see Ilan Goldenberg, Nicholas Heras, and Kaleigh Thomas, “Slow and Steady: Improving U.S.-Arab Cooperation to Counter Irregular Warfare” (Center for a New American Security, April 25, 2019).
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