America Gets Middle East 'Withdrawal Fever' Again | Opinion

America has another bout of Middle East withdrawal fever. It happens every few years.

"This is a study that delights in challenging conventional wisdom and often is quite persuasive. The author challenges much of the rationale for American involvement in the Middle East, arguing that the powerful pro-Israeli and pro-oil lobbies have both, for different reasons, wanted the United States to make commitments in the region." Those sentences weren't written in 2021 but in 1992, in Foreign Affairs.

Now Joe Biden's administration is supposedly pivoting away from the Middle East, again. "Joe Biden is pivoting to Asia. ... National security adviser Jake Sullivan has restructured the National Security staff in the Middle East and Asia directorates—downsizing the team devoted to the Middle East and bulking up the unit that coordinates U.S. policy toward the vast region of the world stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific." Those were the words in a new Politico article about the White House leaving the Middle East "quagmire."

We've heard this before. George W. Bush said the U.S. was addicted to oil, intimating that the U.S. could get off its Middle East addiction if it could just get off the oil. The U.S. largely did that and is no longer relying as much on the region's oil.

A George Clooney movie in 2011 called Ides of March even proposed that not needing oil would somehow reduce terrorism. "You know how you fight the war on terror? You don't need their product anymore. Their product is oil," says the main character who plays a presidential candidate.

Former U.S. presidents have chimed in about the Middle East. Barack Obama said the Middle East was beset by conflicts going back millennia, while Donald Trump decried the "blood-stained" Middle East as a place that was mostly sand and where the U.S. could leave behind the "forever wars." He told a graduating class at West Point they wouldn't be sent to far away places they can't find on a map. "We are ending the era of endless wars," Trump said. It is not the role of U.S. soldiers "to solve ancient conflicts in faraway lands that many people have not even heard of," he said.

Now the pivot is back. The inevitable story about how the Middle East is not important and the U.S. must focus on "near peer" competitors like China and Russia. The U.S. needs to move away from counter-insurgency strategy to do "geopolitics" and deal with big states, not small non-governed places like parts of Yemen and Somalia.

Biden speaking
President Joe Biden speaks in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on January 27, 2021. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

This mantra and thirst for "big country politics" has always been at the heart of the U.S.' foreign policy analyst establishment. This is because it fits more easily into theories of international order and discussions about "realist" foreign policy. It is about "national interests" and discussions at the highest level. It doesn't require regional expertise, or getting to know anything about different groups in Nigeria and Afghanistan.

To underpin the new bout of fatigue in dealing with the Middle East a group of experts have been publishing articles that they hope will be required reading in the new administration.

Robert Ford, former ambassador to Syria, argued recently that the U.S. had failed in eastern Syria and that it could rely on Turkey and Russia in Syria. Turkey's authoritarian regime, which is buying Russia's S-400 system and working with Iran, likes this idea. Russia surely likes it. The argument is that the U.S. isn't good at "nation-building." This is a false reading of the successful U.S. role in Syria.

Washington never tried "nation-building" in eastern Syria. The U.S. actually did very little there but its partners in the Syrian Democratic Forces accomplished a lot. It seems a bit strange the U.S. help would rid eastern Syria of ISIS and then just turn the area over to adversaries or countries like Turkey which have proven that their role in Syria is to ethnically cleanse minorities, the same minorities like the Kurds the U.S. was working with.

The strange thing about the constant argument that the Middle East is a "quagmire" and the U.S. "failed" and should "leave" is not how other countries view the region.

Russia doesn't view the region as a quagmire. It is building influence in Syria and Libya, as well as offering weapons for sale across the region. Turkey is working with Iran, Russia and China to do trade. Iran wants to do more business with China and Russia and is increasing influence in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon. China is moving into the region also.

None of these countries appear worried about open-ended commitments or state-building or forever wars. They want influence and to increase trade and military sales and support for proxy groups or governments. Only the U.S. appears to get a fever every four years about its role in the Middle East. It would be good to take a short rest, and disabuse ourselves that another haphazard withdrawal is helpful.

The region is not a quagmire and the U.S. should play a role supporting allies and friends in the Middle East.

Seth J. Frantzman is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, a senior analyst of Middle East affairs for The Jerusalem Post and author of Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machines, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future (Forthcoming June 2021). Twitter: @sfrantzman.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.