US Military Policy in the Middle East: An Appraisal

Author (Person)
Series Title
Series Details October 2018
Publication Date October 2018
ISBN 978-1-78413-294-1
Content Type

Chatham House published in October 2018 a report in its US and Americas Programme called 'US Military Policy in the Middle East: An Appraisal'.

The author concluded that despite significant financial expenditure and thousands of lives lost, a fundamental shift in policy remained unimaginable at present.

Summary of report

+ Despite significant financial expenditure and thousands of lives lost, the American military presence in the Middle East retained bipartisan US support and incurred remarkably little oversight or public debate. Key US activities in the region consisted of weapons sales to allied governments, military-to-military training programmes, counterterrorism operations and long-term troop deployments.

+ The US military presence in the Middle East was the culmination of a common bargain with Middle Eastern governments: security cooperation and military assistance in exchange for US access to military bases in the region. As a result, the US had substantial influence in the Middle East and could project military power quickly. However, working with partners whose interests sometimes conflicted with one another had occasionally harmed long-term US objectives.

+ Since 1980, when President Carter remarked that outside intervention in the interests of the US in the Middle East would be ‘repelled by any means necessary’, the US had maintained a permanent and significant military presence in the region.

+ Two main schools of thought – ‘offshore balancing’ and ‘forward engagement’ – characterised the debate over the US presence in the Middle East. The former position sought to avoid backlash against the US by maintaining a strategic distance from the region and advocated the deployment of forces in the ‘global commons’, where the US military enjoyed unparalleled supremacy. The latter group believed in the necessity of a robust military footprint to provide access to oil and gas markets and to prevent the emergence of a regional hegemon, such as Iran.

+ American public opinion was roughly evenly split on whether the US should maintain a military presence in the Middle East. However, the status quo enjoyed wide support in elite US circles.

+ Despite President Trump’s criticism of major elements of the US military’s presence in the Middle East, US troop levels had increased since he took office. This demonstrated the difficulty in altering the status quo due to the risk of rupturing relations with friendly governments in the region.

+ Key US objectives included reducing instability in the region, containing Iran’s influence, preventing the emergence of safe havens for terrorist organizations, assuring the free flow of oil and natural gas, and building up the capacities of local militaries to defend their own territory. The goal of allowing the flow of oil had been largely successful, while the others had had decidedly mixed outcomes.

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