Can the Illogical Inertia of American Involvement in the Middle East Be Broken?

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The 29 February 2020 American peace deal with the Taliban, thus far, remains intact. The U.S. military has stopped going after Taliban leaders and fighters and has essentially transitioned to a counterterrorism mission against ISIS-K and similar radical elements. The American public writ-large (to include veterans) wants to leave Afghanistan, and thus supports doing whatever is necessary to withdraw. The Taliban have (mostly) done their part too; they have “refrained” from attacking U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan. However, Afghan soldiers, bases, and outposts with no ‘babysitting’ international forces present have been fair play for Taliban attacks. Hence, the Taliban and the U.S. have become odd-bedfellows, each with a strong interest in seeing American troops leave. However, this begs the question: Will the Taliban, an ethno-nationalist insurgent group that has relied on terrorist tactics, actually commit to promises of not allowing al-Qaeda, ISIS-K, and other terrorist organizations to thrive once international security forces are gone by 1 May 2021? The answer, we argue, is complicated.  

There is tremendous speculation concerning secret annexes and deals with the Taliban, painting the picture of what a post-Afghanistan with or without a U.S. and coalition presence might look like. Adding to this speculation is the potential reality of zero U.S. “BOG” (Boots on Ground) after 1 May 2021, and whether that ‘zero’ might actually still include a small advisor footprint of security assurance personnel to conduct counterterrorism missions against ISIS-K and any other radical extremist elements. Such a reality is nearly twenty years in the making since the first American ground forces put their boots on the ground in Afghanistan and is – to many – inconceivable. The United States has been engaged in military conflict in the Middle East for as long as some members of the active forces have been alive. At no point in U.S. history has such a phenomenon occurred before. While there is much hope for a future where the U.S. no longer requires military ground forces in the Middle East, hope is not a course of action, and this optimism overlooks the pervading motivations behind America’s longest war. The reality is that the continued illogical logic of American Middle East policy will almost certainly ensure continued military Middle East meddling for the foreseeable future. We do not have to look far for tangible examples to support this assertion.

Syria may give some clues to the future of U.S. military entanglement in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even though President Trump boasted of pulling all American troops from Syria, leading to the perception of America abandoning the Kurds (yet again), a remnant force appeared to stay behind for advise, assist, and enable (A2E) missions with Kurdish militias at al-Tanf garrison, Syria. This base enabled a 55 km deconfliction zone, viewed cynically by some, because protecting oil fields seemed to be the primary mission of the remaining U.S. forces providing A2E to Kurdish militias in Syria. The same questionable logic and justification for continued U.S. military presence extend to the numerous bases and outposts in eastern Syria and northern Iraq supporting anti-ISIS operations, with awkward boxing outmaneuver against Russia and a bona fide ally Turkey.

These moves, while hotly contested in foreign policy circles as to their short- and long-term implications in the region, point to a deeper systemic problem. For better or for worse, and despite the general American apathy (and antipathy) towards the Middle East, American foreign policy elites seem doggedly committed to these wars. The desire to be involved in the outcome of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and others, suggests that the gambler's fallacy has taken root. It is hard, then, for policymakers and defense hawks to walk away from the Middle East. Decades of expended blood, sweat, tears, and money, compels an enduring American presence inspired by the illogical insistence that ‘this next war will be different.’

Emotional sentiments aside, the Middle East is becoming strategically less relevant. The vast amounts of energy resources are no longer economically worth the vast amounts of drama and instability the region brings. Foreign policy elite attachment, while possibly reflective of some modicum grand strategic thinking, is also attributable to the inertia of war. Depending on a policymaker’s ideological attachment to one of these countries turning out the way we want it (hint: it won’t), there will always be a cornucopia of foreign policy elites that can construe any terrorist problem or failed state into a trumped up national security threat to the U.S. necessitating a military solution (hint: it doesn’t)

The Unbreakable Entanglement

There are three reasons why the illogical logic of American involvement in the Middle East will likely continue unabated. First, the British, by virtue of their long-term strategic view of the region as the epicenter for oil production and necessity to facilitate industrialization, convinced the U.S. in 1943 to shoulder the responsibility of protecting the region. By convincing FDR and his administration, the British foisted the Middle East problem onto the U.S., sowing the seeds for deeper Persian Gulf commitment by each successive administration. Perhaps in hindsight, FDR foresaw such a future and warned Americans in his final speech to beware the military industrial complex for fears that the inertia, once started as it did in World War II, would be too difficult to stop. Indeed, the pattern of not wanting to get involved, but committing American troops to the region, has become deeply institutionalized since 1958, even though President Eisenhower also warned of the military industrial complex in 1961. By the time attacks on 9/11 happened, each presidency had created a deep entanglement and investment into the security affairs of the region. It was only a logical step after 9/11 to further securitize the Middle East by doubling down on the region. 

Second, much like the institutionalized – and arguably irrational – belief of domino theory and stopping communist takeovers during the Cold War, an inverse logic of (assumed) cascading regional stability elicited by terrorist eradication has taken root in U.S. foreign policy. While the Obama presidency used the phrase ‘Overseas Contingency Operations’ to get away from such symbolism, the Trump administration returned to calling it a ‘War on Terror.' Regardless of naming convention or presiding administration, the scope and scale of U.S. Middle East counterterrorism operations remain generally unchanged since the Bush administration launched the Global War on Terror in 2001. The U.S. clings to its misguided myth of exceptionalism. This informs an ideological insistence on perceiving the Taliban, al Qaeda, and the Islamic State as existential threats to the world order. This blinds policymakers to the dangers of trumping up threats, ignoring the guidance of John Quincy Adams in 1821 that America should not go “in search of monsters to destroy.” However, many think tanks in the Beltway think their security experts are the exception to the rule. They believe they can best identify threats to American interests, vouching for interventions anywhere in the world without a contextual understanding of the threat, and the second- and third-order effects of American meddling.

Finally, the United States’ has normalized ongoing militarized commitments to the region without addressing the source of instability. The policies informing continued Middle East militarization commit enough troops and equipment to show progress measured via questionably relevant indicators, but failing to mobilize enough resources to actually solve the problems the military is sent in to address. In other words, the U.S. is fully committed to being in the Middle East, but only partially committed to winning in the same. This persistent commitment is supplanted by strategic dithering: Doing enough to contain a problem, but not committing enough resources to solve a problem. Such foreign policy thinking fuels the inertia of war that is too big to stop. The “self-licking ice cream cone” expression comes full circle as a forcing function for American foreign policy elites generating policy that work at the tactical and operational levels of war, but fail to produce sustainable strategic effects. Such an unwillingness to generate sufficient public support for a strategic solution is driven by the belief that the American public will not support such a large commitment.

To the Future: Real Problems to Address

While it may be cliché and trite at this point to talk of focusing American strategy and military resources elsewhere, the whole war machine bureaucracy still seems bent on counterterrorism operations throughout the Middle East, not to mention some sizeable presence of conventional forces as a counter to Iran. However, the present American military presence is unstainable, given the need to confront Russia in Eastern Europe and China in Southeast Asia. The tragedy is American policy hawks have created an illusory national interest in trying to sort out a cultural winner in the Middle East where Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey vie for control over the narrative of who should be politically leading Islam. Sadly, Saudi Arabia seems unwilling or unable to stand up against Iran, given its inability to militarily control the civil war outcome in Yemen. American arms sales and training to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia since 1953 seems to have produced a Saudi military plagued with incompetence or insecurity, or both. Moreover, while the U.S. is not formally bound to the survival of Saudi Arabia, a de facto treaty-like logic binds America to be a strategic partner to Saudi Arabia. The U.S., however, remains contractually obligated to Turkey due to the NATO alliance and is caught in Turkey's attempt at projecting neo-Ottoman power in the Middle East. Outside of these competing cultural cleavages, the U.S. is left with an enduring partnership with Israel, but this has a price as well, as foreign policy elites are committed to giving billions of security aid with no strings attached. Beyond the Middle East, the U.S. finds itself entering into a renewed era of great power competition with China and Russia, but with finite military resources to go around.

Despite America’s 21st century re-balancing campaign toward great power competition with China and Russia, we see little comparative military commitments – relative to the 19 years and counting of the global war on terror – to this publicly stated priority. So while the U.S. continues its information campaigns and the occasional – and wholly ineffective – ‘show of force’ sortie to deter great power aggression, China and Russia continue their progress, undeterred, towards greater global influence. China, through its debt-trap diplomacy efforts, and Russia through its support for unpopular or unstable governments, are making cost-efficient in-roads throughout Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America (not to mention down under in Antarctica, Australia, and New Zealand), with minimal resistance by the U.S. The current COVID-19 pandemic is making this all the more obvious as China and Russia engage in virtual societal warfare against the U.S. and her allies.

This brings us back full-circle to the inertia of war in the Middle East. The military machine continues to facilitate missions ranging from the usual drone strikes and special operations missions to the more bureaucratized process of training host-nation militaries and creating elite counterterrorism units in partner countries. There are substantial benefits to enabling local partner militaries to handle the bulk of counterterrorism fighting –which can be messy, complicated, and difficult to ethically and legally justify – than it is for the U.S. to maintain pressure in unwinnable contexts. While the proposed benefits of foreign military training programs are undeniably well-intentioned, the realized value of the same remains in question and can lead to further, albeit unintentional, entanglement, and mission creep if not strictly defined.  

Regardless, the cost of fighting these peripheral wars against terrorists does not seem to be worth the investment anymore. There is an illogical logic pervading American foreign policy that drives continued Middle Eastern military meddling and further distracts – and detracts – military resources from their use in more compelling regions and towards more compelling challenges. There is so much more that could be done in eastern Europe and the Arctic to counter Russia, as well as working with partners and allies around the South China Sea to counter illegal Chinese actions in that region. As history shows, politicians, military leaders, and patriotic Americans alike will continue their fervent pursuit of and support for the war on terror, in 80 countries no less. Despite the (increasing) 20-year price tag of $6.4 trillion dollars, the U.S. will be on the hunt for new monsters to fight for the foreseeable future.

Dr. Ryan Burke has a Ph.D. from the Joseph R. Biden School of Public Policy and Administration at the University of Delaware and has published widely on national security issues and homeland defense. A veteran Marine Corps officer, he is an associate professor in the Military and Strategic Studies department at the U.S. Air Force Academy, a non-resident fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point, and a DoD Minerva-funded researcher studying foreign military training in the Middle East and the Sahel.

Dr. Jahara "FRANKY" Matisek completed his Ph.D. in Political Science at Northwestern University and has published widely on American foreign policy and international security issues. An active duty officer in the U.S. Air Force, he is an assistant professor in the Military and Strategic Studies department at the U.S. Air Force Academy, a non-resident fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point, and a DoD Minerva-funded researcher studying foreign military training in the Middle East and the Sahel. He is currently deployed to Afghanistan as an E-11 BACN pilot.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position or views of the U.S. Air Force Academy, U.S. Air Force, Department of Defense, and/or the U.S. government.

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