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US Marines participate in Eager Lion, a multinational military exercise, in Jordan in 2015 (Austin Lewis via Wikimedia Commons)

What Is the US Military Doing in the Middle East?

Tensions have spiked amid the Gaza war, attacks on US forces, and growing regional instability.

Words: Barbara Slavin, Will Walldorf, Alexandra Stark

Adults in a Room” is a series in collaboration with The Stimson Center’s Reimagining US Grand Strategy program. The series stems from the group’s monthly networking events that call on analysts to gather virtually and hash out a salient topic. It aims 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. 

In spite of shifting landscapes and strategic aims throughout the decades, an extensive US military presence persists across the Middle East. The initial mission of these American soldiers was to defeat the Islamic State (or ISIS), thus ensuring US national security. 

Yet, over two decades post-AUMF and the same bases continue to operate, often with entirely transformed roles, unclear aims, and flimsy legal justification. Now, as tensions flare up across the region, these forward-deployed US troops invite the unnecessary risk of drawing the United States into entirely new conflicts. This begs the question, what is the US military doing in the Middle East? 

The Reimagining US Grand Strategy program’s April 2024 roundtable brought experts together to discuss this very question, with many weighing in on the state of US military engagement in the region. The conversation focused on the legal justifications given for US military activity, the changing role of the US military in these countries, the self-reinforcing nature of military engagement, and the hurdles facing legislative attempts to temper it, and the ultimate end-goals of such engagement. Three experts weigh in on the matter below. 

Barbara Slavin, Distinguished Fellow, Stimson Center

The deaths of three Americans at a remote base called Tower 22 on the Jordanian border with Syria on Jan. 28, 2024, highlighted a long-running US mission whose true goals have been obscured. The Americans, killed by a drone launched by an Iran-backed Iraqi militia, were providing logistical support to another isolated US outpost just across the border in Syria called Tanf. That base was set up initially to help defeat the Islamic State group but has morphed over the years into a component of the US mission to contain Iran, including by providing safe passage to Israeli fighter-jets that attack Iranian and Lebanese targets in Syria.

The war in Gaza, which has led to escalating frictions between Israel, the US, Iran, and their assorted allies, has made the US presence at places like Tower 22 and Tanf even more dangerous. The US forces there are vulnerable to attack by Iran-backed militias whenever tensions rise between the US and Iran or between Israel and Iran.

It is reasonable to question whether the benefits these outposts provide still outweigh the risks.

A ceasefire in Israel’s campaign in Gaza will hopefully bring down the regional temperature, but Israel is unlikely to stop pursuing Iranian targets in Syria.

– Barbara Slavin

With ISIS largely defeated, the Biden administration should be candid about the expanded nature of the mission. While Tower 22 was set up with the approval of the Jordanian government, Tanf exists in a legal netherworld in a country whose government controls only about 70% of its territory. That has allowed the US, Israel, Turkey, and a variety of non-state actors to violate Syrian sovereignty with impunity to carry out their foreign policy agendas — including assassinating Iranian generals on April 1, an act that led to a paradigm shift in the long Iran-Israel shadow war.

A ceasefire in Israel’s campaign in Gaza will hopefully bring down the regional temperature, but Israel is unlikely to stop pursuing Iranian targets in Syria. Iran and its partners in the “Axis of Resistance” will continue to see Americans as convenient targets for retaliation. A new and more inclusive approach to regional security could better mitigate these threats than continuing to put US forces at risk.

Will Walldorf, Professor, Wake Forest University; Senior Fellow, Defense Priorities

In the making of US foreign policy, executive authority, grand strategy, and domestic politics often prove a toxic mix leading to legal excess, notably policies that trump the law or dubiously stretch the boundaries of what’s legal. The primary example, of course, from history is Vietnam, where a strategy of stopping dominos from falling combined with domestic pressure around anticommunism to allow Lyndon Johnson to use the broad powers of the presidency to run roughshod over Congress’s authority to declare war. Johnson plowed nearly 550,000 ground troops into the so-called Vietnam “conflict” (i.e., a turn of phrase to elide the Constitution) where more than 58,000 US soldiers died

The period since the Sept. 11 attacks has been one of great legal excess too, brought on again by the combined impact of executive authority, grand strategy and domestic politics. Legally, the US troop presence in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and many parts of Africa are justified, for instance, on the 2001 AUMF that gave the president authority to track down the 9/11 attackers and other terrorists intent on hitting the United States. 

Today, however, the reasons troops stay in these Middle Eastern and African hotspots has much less to do with terrorism and more to do with domestic politics and a primacist grand strategy fixated on being the order-builder in every region of the globe to keep peer-challengers at bay. 

In Syria and Iraq, the ISIS caliphate collapsed in 2019 — by the AUMF’s logic, time to come home, right? Nope. Instead, a litany of primacist goals are cited as reasons to sustain these troop presences: curbing Iranian influence, oil, and preventing “chaos in the region,” among other goals. The troop presence has, in short, taken on a life of its own that, by all accounts, isn’t legal. 

US troop commitments in Africa are much the same. Virtually none of the terrorist insurgency groups US forces target in Africa today want to attack the United States or have the means to do so, thus failing to meet the legal standard of the 2001 AUMF. Regardless, US troops stay for reasons of avoiding the domestic fallout from leaving (i.e., not another Afghan withdrawal) and the primacist goals of competing with China and Russia for influence. Troops are critical to prevent a Russian effort to “take over Central Africa,” a top US defense official said recently. Is that about terrorism?  Nope, but US troops are there anyway in violation of the 2001 AUMF.

Curbing legal excess in US foreign policy is hard. Presidents promising change come and go. Congress repeatedly shies away too, generally failing in its oversight role.  Sadly, history teaches us it often takes a crisis, like the trauma of Vietnam, to make real strides toward change (e.g., the War Powers Resolution). Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that today —  but don’t be surprised if it does.

Alexandra Stark, Associate Policy Researcher, RAND Corporation

Author of the newly released book, The Yemen Model (Yale University Press, 2024)

War powers and foreign military sales (FMS) have been a site of contention in US foreign policy conversations for decades, foregrounding debates about where and how the United States should use military force abroad and what the guardrails for US security cooperation with allies and partners should look like. But Congress’s role in both war powers and FMS have also been a key tool that stakeholders, including members of Congress, activists, and constitutional scholars have used to shift the foreign policy debate. My research found that stakeholders were able to successfully use legislation related to the War Powers Act and the Arms Export Control Act to circumvent party leadership and force votes related to US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

In the 2017-2020 time period, a coalition that crossed partisan lines laid the legislative groundwork for measures — including congressional disapproval of planned arms sales and a war powers resolution directing the president to remove US armed forces from hostilities in Yemen — that eventually gained enough support to pass. Although the War Powers Act and the Arms Export Control Act legislation is often vetoed by the president, these measures served as crucial focal points for efforts to raise public awareness about the humanitarian devastation caused by the war in Yemen, and pushed the US role in the war into political debates, including the 2020 presidential elections. By 2021, polling found that a majority of Americans opposed arms sales to Saudi Arabia. And in April 2022, the United Nations-negotiated truce, backed by US diplomacy, came into force in Yemen, helping to lower levels of violence and enabling negotiations to end the conflict there in a more sustainable way.

The conveyor belt-like function that legislation can play when it comes to such foreign policy debates is often overlooked because legislation is often vetoed. But in the case of Yemen, the effort to pass the legislation was nearly as important as the legislation itself, since it led to greater US support for the UN-led process.

Barbara Slavin, Will Walldorf, Alexandra Stark

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