Not leaving! The US narrative of Middle East withdrawal is false
The myth that the US is withdrawing from the Middle East has gained traction over the past ten years. Evidence is frequently cited, including the official military withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the declining importance of Middle Eastern energy for US markets.
But there is a lot of oversimplification in this story. The occasional wars and oil trade are only a small part of America’s overall regional strategy.
Since World War II, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Saudi King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud famously met on an American cruiser in the Suez Canal, the US has been a steadfast player with no intentions of giving up its leadership position.
The US has always placed Israel’s supremacy over its neighbors at the top of its regional agenda, in addition to ensuring the free flow of oil in exchange for security, combating terrorism, and preventing nuclear proliferation.
The Carter Doctrine of 1980, which affirmed the significance of the Middle East for US grand strategy, laid the foundation for the use of military force when necessary.
The main objective of the Carter Doctrine was to stop the Soviet Union’s influence from spreading to the Gulf. At the time, there were worries that the Soviet Union might take advantage of local unrest to seize control of crucial oil resources.
And the US did not think twice about establishing its dominance through military force. This dreadful chapter of US interventionism in the region is represented by the Gulf War of 1990–1991 as well as the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003, respectively.
These three large-scale military operations took place during a specific unipolar period when the US, as the world’s hegemon, pursued “liberal” interventionism in international affairs. Washington frequently used preemptive wars against “rogue” states during this time, especially in the name of counterterrorism.
But today, the Cold War’s bipolar world and the liberal post-war vision Francis Fukuyama dubbed “the end of history” have lost their luster. The global stage is becoming more multipolar as a result of emerging powers like China.
Washington needs to proceed cautiously because this is a crucial time.
Washington has a strategic opportunity to examine the behavior of newcomers like China in the region in light of a perceived sense of American absence by continuing to promote this narrative of American withdrawal.
As a free rider within the security system led by the US for the time being, China appears content to invest in the area, expanding the scope of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative.
Meanwhile, the US is investigating Beijing’s intentions for the region and looking for information on the Chinese military’s actual military capabilities.
American decision-makers would like to learn more about Beijing’s true intentions and capabilities, particularly if they may clash in the dangerous waters of Middle East politics. The Chinese leadership is hesitant to leave its comfort zone.
However, despite the tactical advantages of effectively promoting the withdrawal narrative, actual events refute this myth. With a staggering 78% share of Saudi Arabia’s arms imports and 54% of all global sales, the US maintains its hegemonic position in the global arms market.
It is very difficult for nations to switch to other suppliers once they become customers of the US military-industrial complex due to issues with technology, maintenance, and training. Thus, Washington is aware that occasional purchases of weaponry by Middle Eastern countries from other countries do not pose a severe threat.
Additionally, Washington has established a strict surveillance system, keeping a close eye on the major players in the region. Leaked US intelligence documents from April showed how Russia had bragged about working with the UAE and claimed that this would reduce US influence.
Russia fell victim to the withdrawal trap. Officials from the Emiratis refuted the accusations, while Washington purposefully left the situation unclear. Although, indeed, American influence has not been as strong as it was after 9/11, this does not mean it has vanished.
In actuality, US influence in the Middle East has simply changed rather than diminished.
China used the region’s general security architecture for free, but things are changing. The withdrawal story provides Washington with a practice ground for a multipolar world.
After all, the US continues to ensure the security of Israel, the continuation of Gulf monarchies, and the preservation of the status quo in the region.
The momentary shroud of uncertainty will lift if the region ventures outside the acceptable bounds of the current situation, providing vital intelligence to Washington’s adversaries, significantly altering their arms supply chains, or gravely endangering the status quo. In that case, the US’s traditional tools of influence will resume with renewed vigor.