December 16, 2021

Rightsizing in the Middle East

By Becca Wasser and Elisa Catalano Ewers

Since declaring his candidacy for president, Joe Biden, like his two Oval Office predecessors, has made it clear that he wants to rebalance the United States’ military presence in the Middle East. During the 2020 campaign, Biden pledged to “end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East.” After assuming office, he similarly promised to stop “an era of major military operations to remake other countries.” His administration’s Global Posture Review, interim National Security Strategic Guidance, and forthcoming National Defense Strategy reflect these calculations as Washington shifts its focus to China and the broader Indo-Pacific.

But what rightsizing looks like is not fully clear—particularly after the contentious Afghanistan departure. For some foreign policy practitioners, it means nothing short of a full withdrawal from the region; for others, anything aside from minor adjustments is a grave geopolitical error. This is a false choice, and the Biden administration appears to be undecided about where the United States should land. Washington is pulling some resources from the Middle East, but administration officials, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, have also promised anxious regional partners that the United States’ “commitment to security in the Middle East is strong and sure.” The posture review hardly settles the issue. Although earlier force realignments, such as moving some air defense assets from the Middle East, were informed by the review, it largely punts on a vision for rightsizing forces in the region. Instead, it calls for more studies on U.S. military positioning.

Instead of continued debates and policy whiplash, the United States needs a sober recalibration of the military tools it should dedicate to the Middle East.

Debates about whether and how to withdraw from the Middle East are nothing new. Washington has long sought to change the size of its military presence in the region, only to be drawn back in by the crises and conflicts from which it sought to distance itself. President Donald Trump promised numerous military withdrawals from the region, yet he sent thousands more troops in as tensions rose with Iran in 2019 and 2020. President Barack Obama’s plans to scale back the U.S. mission in Iraq in 2011 was undermined by the need to fight the Islamic State (or ISIS) in 2014. As both administrations found out the hard way, saying you are adjusting priorities and resources is quite different from actually adjusting them.

This does not entail withdrawing from or disregarding the importance of the region. But it does entail a clear-eyed assessment of how to prioritize Washington’s military resources—and how to link them more closely to U.S. strategic objectives. Ultimately, that means the United States must streamline its presence to be more narrowly focused on protecting itself and its allies against terrorism, deterring Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and preserving the flow of commerce and freedom of navigation. It also means that Washington must learn to emphasize diplomatic and economic statecraft over military action, using the credible potential of force to support diplomatic ends and actual force only when it has no alternative.

Read the full article from Foreign Affairs.

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