November 04, 2021

When Less Is More

Rethinking U.S. Military Strategy and Posture in the Middle East

Executive Summary

For the past 20 years, the U.S. military has invested heavily in the Middle East. Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump both attempted to shift assets out of the region and put a greater focus on the Indo-Pacific, but both were drawn back into the Middle East. Now, President Joe Biden again has put an emphasis on the Indo-Pacific, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has emphasized the importance of China as the Department of Defense’s “pacing challenge.” Effectively realizing the new administration’s shift in priority—and avoiding the cycle of drawing forces out of the Middle East only to have new crises pull them back in—requires an assessment of how the United States can continue to protect its core interests in the Middle East with a smaller and smarter footprint.

This paper is the beginning of an effort to answer this question. It methodically outlines what key U.S. interests and objectives should be in the Middle East to develop the appropriate U.S. force posture to meet the security challenges of today and tomorrow. It then describes the key military activities necessary to protect those interests and achieve those objectives, in some cases breaking old assumptions and identifying areas where the United States can afford to accept more risk. Finally, it begins to outline the associated military assets necessary to pursue those activities and ends by identifying areas where the United States can look to alter its presence and activities in the region.

The conclusion of this analysis is that the United States still has vital interests in the Middle East that require a level of military investment in the region. However, those interests are more limited, and the United States must be willing to accept more risk in the Middle East while also prioritizing non-military tools. Given challenges and strategic interests elsewhere in the world and at home, it is time to consider how the United States might approach force posture in the region differently than in the past.

The United States should pursue three central interests in the Middle East:

  • Defend and protect the U.S. homeland, American citizens, and U.S. allies from terrorist attacks.
  • Stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
  • Preserve freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce.

From these three interests, the authors derive six objectives for U.S. policy in the Middle East. Four of these objectives have a significant military component:

1. Disrupt and degrade the capabilities of terror networks that have the potential to threaten the United States and its allies.

2. Limit costly military engagement in the Middle East.

3. Prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

4. Secure key waterways in the region that are essential crossroads for international commerce.

The other two equally important objectives should be achieved through economic and diplomatic means rather than military force. However, these objectives should not be undermined by U.S. military activities:

5. Contain and reduce the level of state-on-state security competition.

6. Encourage and support governance models that are more responsive to the people of the region and provide for greater long-term stability.

Based on these objectives, the United States should revise its activities and posture in the Middle East, move away from a sprawling base network, and instead support lighter-footprint operations more in line with U.S. national interests. Specifically, the United States should:

  • Pursue a slimmed-down U.S. ground presence focused on supporting direct counterterrorism operations, logistics, maintenance, and security cooperation, while still ensuring the United States retains the ability to surge in the event of a major conflict with Iran or a non-state actor.
  • Shift toward a distributed basing network to reduce risks to U.S. forces and capabilities from missile strikes. This would involve consolidating outdated bases and reducing the footprint at larger bases, while developing new bases or access to host-nation bases outside of missile ranges.
  • Reallocate conventional strike and bomber aircraft from the Middle East to other priority regions, while keeping a mix of light Special Operations Forces (SOF) aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), a small number of fixed-wing aircraft, and aerial refueling capabilities. This would require leveraging opportunities to base assets outside of the Middle East and working across combatant-command seams.
  • Narrowly focus U.S. security cooperation efforts to train and professionalize elite partner counterterrorism forces capable of countering Salafi-jihadist extremist groups and Iranian proxies instead of trying to build national militaries.
  • Deprioritize the sale or provision of high-end conventional military capabilities requested by partner forces that have little application for counterterrorism operations, or other prioritized operations such as naval monitoring or defensive priorities.
  • Increase burden-sharing with allies and partners to monitor and maintain safe passage around sensitive choke points such as the Bab el-Mandeb and the Strait of Hormuz to reduce a reliance on persistent U.S. naval presence.
  • Avoid large conventional deployments as tools to deter Iranian proxy attacks except in the case of a major contingency.

Importantly, this paper focuses almost entirely on the Middle East and not nearby Central Asia. That being said, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan will have implications for U.S. posture in the Middle East and the over-the-horizon requirements that forces based in the region may have to support in Afghanistan. None of those requirements fundamentally alter the basic recommendations of this report, since the activities and capabilities required to fulfill the counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan will be similar to those necessary in the Middle East. What they may alter is the precise number of troops and locations of U.S. military forces that should be based in the region. The scope of this report does not offer that level of detail; rather, it provides a firstorder set of recommendations to alter U.S. posture in the Middle East, shown in Table 1. Further examination is needed to inform more detailed recommendations as to the right mix and locations of U.S. military forces and capabilities.

U.S. Middle East Posture Dos and Don'ts

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  • Ilan Goldenberg

    Former Senior Fellow and Director, Middle East Security Program

    Ilan Goldenberg is the former Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. He is a foreign policy and defense expe...

  • Becca Wasser

    Senior Fellow, Defense Program

    Becca Wasser is a Senior Fellow for the Defense Program and lead of The Gaming Lab at the Center for a New American Security. Her research areas include defense strategy and o...

  • Elisa Catalano Ewers

    Former Adjunct Senior Fellow, Middle East Security Program

    Elisa Ewers is a Former Adjunct Senior Fellow with the Middle East Security program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), with 20 years of experience in U.S. natio...

  • Lilly Blumenthal

    Intern, Middle East Security Program

    Lilly Blumenthal is the Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Intern for the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Before joining CNAS, Lilly interned at...

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