The end of World War Two was a watershed moment in US political history, it marked the end of its international isolation which had been the pervading element in US politics since the end of the 1920’s and only was abated when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. The politics of the Monroe doctrine were rekindled as the need to counter the Soviet threat grew.
The decline and fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990’s led to the resumption of American isolationism. America looked inward, became embroiled in its own internal issues such as the impeachment of Bill Clinton and the bungled US Presidential election in 1999.
As the new century dawned, America was shocked out of its isolationist stance by a new Pearl Harbour, the September 11th Attacks. It was a powerful wake-up call for the Bush administration and shocked the Americans into action. American involvement in international affairs increased, as they were effectively “hit where they live” by a few well placed individuals piloting hijacked planes.
The popular public sentiment at the time was revenge, the desire to hit those who had hurt America so badly. However Al-Qaeda was not of any specific country, Osama Bin Laden was a Saudi Arabian national and Saudi Arabia had a history of good relations with the US going back to the first gulf war.
This all changed, when the link between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was established in December 2001 and was duly followed by the invasion of Afghanistan by US forces.
The fall of the Taliban should have marked the end of this need to retaliate, but the American public full of the patriotism of winning a war wanted more. The controversial pursuit by the US of definitive proof that Saddam Hussain was manufacturing weapons of mass destruction, despite reasonable evidence that he had no such capability prompted the second Gulf war.
But this time the US had bitten off more than it could chew. Although the war was won in a matter of months the resultant insurgency bogged the US down in the area for a number of years. Public support waivered and then declined dramatically as more and more US servicemen were killed. The second term of George Bush Junior was one belied by lack of progress, both domestically and internationally. Osama Bin laden remained at large, the US economy teetered and then fell into the abyss of recession and Hurricane Katrina rid the US of its stomach for war.
The Obama presidency was supposed to be a brave new dawn, where the mistakes of old were rectified not repeated. The killing of Osama Bin Laden in 2012 was seen as an ending to the aggressive stance of the US with the switch being made to a more peaceful approach. US troops were withdrawn gradually from Iraq and Afghanistan with the onus being on local forces to take up the slack. While the existing structure of Afghanistan did not change, the US disassembling of the Iraqi military created more insurgency, with many of these individuals joining the newly formed Islamic State.
The current crisis in the Middle East, one can argue is a direct result of American destabilisation of the area. Displacement of individuals with military training and those who would have enjoyed a greater position under the previous regime, together with those individuals who exercise an extreme view of Islam have combined forces where they would not have done if the US had not got involved.
Many books have and will continue to be sold on the motivations of the USA in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and its role in the Middle East. I don’t propose to rain on their parade; I’d like to establish an alternative: What if the USA pulled out of the Middle East entirely?
When I say pull out of the Middle East entirely, I mean a complete cessation of all military, diplomatic, economic and industrial involvement in any country located in the area.
The most obvious casualty of this withdrawal would be the standing of the US in the political arena. Withdrawal sounds far too much like retreat, the US would be seen as running away with its tail between its legs. Old adversaries like Russia, North Korea and Iran would cry coward and would not be on their own.
Far too often in politics leaders have pursued a course of action to the bitter end, despite the obvious damage it has caused to their political standing. An example I have already mentioned bears this out: The US pursuit of the Iraq war despite opposition from its allies within the UN. International relations with Germany and France were set back at least 10 years by following this through. On the other side of the coin, a US withdrawal from the Middle East sphere would show that the US is willing to change, willing to embrace new ideas. This may lead to a softening of current perception about the US and its foreign policy.
In addition the US government would improve its standing at home, as withdrawing would enable it to focus on its internal strife and rid itself of the problems that it faces and ultimately may strengthen it. However, this withdrawal may lead to a backlash, as those families who lost loved ones fighting in the wars for Iraq and Afghanistan might wonder what they died for and start to question their leadership.
The US army currently has 21,374 personnel in seven countries across the Middle East at its various military bases. This figure does not include the 28,970 currently stationed in Afghanistan, as most of these are due to return to the US by the end of the year, leaving a small residual force in the country until the end of 2016. The withdrawn personnel could be reallocated to conflicts closer to home, such as assisting the Mexican government in its battles against the cartels or defending the shipping lanes currently under threat from Somali pirates in the horn of Africa.
Ceasing economic intervention in the Middle East would save the US government on average 17.7 billion dollars in foreign aid payments. Money which could be reallocated to solving the US debt crisis, the redevelopment of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the strengthening of disease management infrastructure, the list goes on. It could also pay these funds to less developed countries than those currently enjoying US aid.
Industrially, the US would lose its guarantees to Middle Eastern oil, which currently comprises two thirds of the worlds overall reserves. These guarantees are mostly bought with a combination of aid and military support which would cease. Although the loss of these guarantees would be a body blow to US industry, it would stem the US overdependence on this resource, allowing monies which would have been spent on oil to be spent on developing fledgling energy sources such as fracking and re-evaluating Nuclear power.
The US need to defend these oil reserves, as articulated during the presidencies of Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter would cease and a new policy would have to evolve to suit.
In any war there are casualties, just as there will be casualties in any US withdrawal from the Middle Eastern theatre. US withdrawal would put the pressure of fighting Islamic State back on the powers currently being helped by the Americans. Would these powers be able to effectively push back IS without US help? Simply put: No. The IS advance into Iraq proves the ineffectualness of their army, the Turkish army is unwilling to aid the coalition because of the coalition’s desire to support its traditional enemies, the Kurdish people. Iran may be drawn into supporting its neighbour, resulting in an expansion of the conflict zone to larger sections of the Middle East.
Countries which have enjoyed US protection, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait are ill equipped to defend themselves against an aggressor such as IS. The fact that IS is concerning itself solely with Iraq is the only thing stopping the potential attack of these countries.
Already repressive regimes in the area would become more oppressive as a result of the absence of the moderate US, which serves as a check against restrictive and oppressive governments. These regimes could become the breeding ground for a new “Arab Spring” style revolution, which while needed could destabilize the region even further.
The other chief casualty of this withdrawal would be Israel, an aggressive country which has proven itself to be reactionary and volatile on more than one occasion in the recent past. In addition the removal of US financial aid would undermine the Israeli economy, which currently spends 57.5 billion a year on its defence forces. Volatility, combined with the presence of nuclear weapons is a dangerous combination and could lead to Israel’s destruction either by itself or a hostile foreign power. Iran, in the past has made no secret of its desire to destroy Israel as a nation state and the withdrawal of the US from the region could prove the catalyst to war.
So coming back to our original question: Would the US pursue a better strategy by pulling out of the Middle East entirely?
The simple answer is no. The US has been embroiled in the region for far too long is over dependent on its resources, finds opposition in its people and is too invested in the continuation of the current Middle East status quo. Removal of the US from this theatre would yield many practical benefits, however the ideological cost and lasting political, military repercussions on the region from exerting such a stratagem would cancel out any potential benefits.
Why ask the question then? Well the role of the politically minded individual is to question their leaders, the policies they follow and the politics they preach. We must continue to ask these sorts of questions of our leaders, lest we become a totalitarian dictatorship.
© R Simmons. All Rights Reserved.