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Adults in a Room, Middle East, foreign policy

Reading the Crystal Ball on Biden’s Middle East Policy

The latest from our “Adults in a Room" series.

Words: Annelle Sheline, Eugene Gholz, Alexandra Stark, and Peter Engelke.
Pictures: Jaanus Jagomägi

Adults in a Room” is a series in collaboration with The Atlantic Council’s New American Engagement Initiative (NAEI). The series stems from NAEI’s monthly networking events that call on analysts to gather virtually and hash out a salient topic. The goal of this series is to give you a peek into their Zoom room and a deep understanding of the issue at hand in less than the time it takes to sip your morning coffee, without the jargon, acronyms, and stuffiness that often come with expertise. The adults, however, are going on vacation in August but will be back at the roundtable in September.

What are the experts talking about this July? The announcement by the Biden administration that it would be ending combat operations in Iraq, in addition to the full withdrawal from Afghanistan, signals a new era for US foreign policy in the Greater Middle East. But what are the core US interests in the region? Is the Biden administration focusing on addressing the right issues there and does the United States have the capability to address them?

The Atlantic Council’s New American Engagement Initiative (NAEI) brought together a number of experts to discuss current US policy toward the Middle East and how it could be improved. The discussion was wide-ranging, covering military threats, the interests of other powers in the region, and how diplomacy could replace the dependence on the US military for exerting influence in the region. There was general agreement that no significant threats to US security exist in the region, so a large-scale military presence is no longer necessary. But there were various ideas about how the United States could best leverage its power and relationships to advance its interests. Four of the participants expanded on their thoughts about US Middle East policy below:

Annelle Sheline, Middle East Research Fellow, Quincy Institute

President Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan constitutes part of a broader effort to expend less blood and treasure on the Middle East. Interestingly, this shift has provoked little public outcry: 3 out of 5 Americans want less military engagement abroad, including an end to troop deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. Instead the pushback comes primarily from the stakeholders that have benefitted from decades of US involvement in the Middle East, including the Pentagon, defense contractors, and regional governments that rely on the US to help keep them in power. These stakeholders’ interest in US military involvement in the region is interdependent: The US arms industry profits from sales of advanced weapons to the Saudis, Emiratis, and other regional autocrats, who use their bloated security sectors to repress their own population while brutalizing others. The inherent instability of a region awash in weapons justifies the ongoing presence of the US military, and the sale of additional military hardware to local partners.

The extent to which the US military’s perpetuation of foreign wars is insulated from public pushback and instead sustained by special interests is inconsistent with democracy. US foreign policy should — and must — reflect the will of the American people.

Eugene Gholz, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Notre Dame

Two goals that are widely considered as minimal justification for US military action in the Middle East are preventing the rise of a regional hegemon and preserving the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz. What level of threat do each of these present to the United States that may result in the US using   its military tools, such as troop deployments and military alliances?

After decades of US involvement in conflicts across the region, the United States has an obligation to minimize the harm that could come from its disengagement — and ending US intervention will not be enough to end ongoing conflicts.

The military missions that a potential adversary would have to undertake in order to bid for regional hegemony or to disrupt oil exports through the Strait of Hormuz are complex and difficult. If a country were to make a bid for regional hegemony, its conventional forces would need five things: 1) Significant logistics and maintenance capability to cover the long distances involved; 2) the ability to mount a mobile air defense to protect offensive military forces while moving across vast expanses of open territory; 3) forces trained well enough to execute complex combined-arms maneuvers to stay alive (and keep attacking) in the face of defenders’ witheringly lethal modern firepower; 4) tactical and operational leaders with the ability to react to unexpected circumstances that would surely arise during an offensive; and 5) the ability to occupy conquered territory and govern it well enough to extract resources sufficient to make power accumulate.

None of the countries in the region can meet all of these preconditions. Moreover, changing that fact would take a long time and could not be accomplished in secret, giving others (including the United States) opportunity to react. Because no one can present a fait accompli in the region, there is no reason for preemptive military presence or activist commitments to “deter” a non-existent threat. The US military has nothing much to do in the Middle East and can take steps to gracefully withdraw its forces and commitments.

Alexandra Stark, Senior Researcher, New America

If we want to scale back US military engagement in the Middle East, then we also need to articulate an alternative vision for US engagement. After decades of US involvement in conflicts across the region, the United States has an obligation to minimize the harm that could come from its disengagement — and ending US intervention will not be enough to end ongoing conflicts. We need a surge of investment in diplomacy and development that is sustained over the long run, with the aim of preventing and ending conflicts and investing in human well-being more broadly. The United States is one of several important actors in these conflicts, which means that  it can’t simply impose a peaceful settlement on the fighting actors, or at least one that will last. The Biden administration, though, can play a major role in shifting the incentives of key actors, by using its leverage with security partners, such as Saudi Arabia in Yemen’s conflict or the UAE in Libya, and providing critical support for peace negotiations.

Peter Engelke, Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, Atlantic Council

This summer’s catastrophic flooding, heatwaves, and fires are the precursors of a less stable, less secure, climate-altered global future. The Middle East is among the most vulnerable regions, facing much hotter and drier conditions. In 2021, the region’s record high temperatures are causing widespread power blackouts, water scarcities, and mass discontent.

Yet, the conversation about US foreign policy priorities toward the Middle East appears rooted in the oil shocks of the 1970s. Analysts in 2021 should ask themselves where the free flow of Gulf oil should rank among US foreign policy priorities given two factors: 1) The likelihood of peak oil demand arriving this decade, and 2) the certainty of climate-driven destabilization of the Middle East. US interests globally are best served by hastening the worldwide transition to a net-zero-carbon future, including swift transition of the transport sector away from oil. US interests in the Middle East are best served in helping its oil-dependent economies wean themselves off a substance rapidly approaching the downside of its curve.

Annelle Sheline, Eugene Gholz, Alexandra Stark, and Peter Engelke.

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