What to do – and what not to do – in the Middle East

Admiral Ali Saeed Al Shehri speaks with soldiers during mixed maritime exercise with U.S. Navy and Saudi Royal Navy, at Saudi Military Port, Ras Al Ghar, Eastern Province, in Jubail, Saudi Arabia February 26, 2020. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed
Editor's note:

This brief is part of the Brookings Blueprints for American Renewal & Prosperity project.

For over a decade, the United States has sought to wind down the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, reduce its military footprint in the Middle East, and redirect scarce resources to Asia. Global and regional trends reinforced this American desire to reduce the priority of the Middle East in its global strategy, and the military “pivot” is well underway. The challenge for American policy is how to protect its remaining and still important interests in that region in an era of austerity and fierce power competition, both in the region and globally. The incoming Biden administration should not waste the window for a reset.

Gulf Arab partners, facing fiscal constraints from lower energy prices and the COVID-19-induced global recession, are more open to conflict resolution in the proxy wars they hagve been fighting across the region. But their relative penury will also impede their ability to invest in stabilizing weaker neighbors, including key states like Jordan and Egypt. Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic of Iran is sanctioned to the hilt, and used to wielding regional influence on the cheap. Thus the balance of power in the region may even favor the Iranians as the pandemic begins to recede. The Biden team must set aside the Trump administration’s fruitless “maximum pressure” in favor of the mix of intelligence cooperation, diplomacy, financial and military tools that can effectively deter or disrupt subversive Iranian activity while incentivizing Tehran’s return to the nuclear negotiating table. And the Pentagon must undertake a zero-based review of its force presence in the Persian Gulf region to ensure it is both efficient and effective in fulfilling its core missions there.

The United States must rebuild what has historically been its most effective tool in the Middle East: diplomacy, especially in advancing conflict resolution. In Yemen and Libya, there might now be opportunities to pull competing regional powers out of the fighting and negotiate power-sharing governments that promote stability and reduce freedom of action for Islamist terrorist movements. Washington cannot let Israelis and Palestinians stew in their stalemated conflict — but rather than trying to reconvene talks, it should take a long-term approach to rebuilding foundations for compromise between the two societies while insisting that they both abjure destabilizing unilateral actions, and work to improve freedom, security, and prosperity for those living with the conflict every day.

Finally, the Biden administration must reestablish clear boundaries in relationships that were deeply unbalanced by President Donald Trump’s careless approach. Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) all have questions about the extent and durability of American security commitments to their neighborhood, and all three prefer to keep the U.S. closely engaged. Washington can pursue necessary de-escalation and nuclear diplomacy with Iran while engaging these key partners about where American interests begin and end, and where partners’ own preferences and behaviors present real obstacles to closer cooperation. As in all healthy relationships, honest communication and clear boundaries are essential to maintain mutual respect and good feeling.

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Two years ago, with my Brookings colleague Mara Karlin, I argued that it was time for the United States to end a long period of “purgatory” in the Middle East by deciding to do less in the region, despite the attendant risks and costs. We argued that, while the U.S. retains interests in the Middle East, they are falling in priority within its global strategy, even as the region is destabilized from within and U.S. partners there are less inclined to accede to American preferences. As a result, we said, even a much higher level of American investment was unlikely to yield stability or even satisfactory outcomes. Instead, we posited, the United States should reduce its regional ambitions to match its core interests and the level at which it can comfortably sustain engagement. Some welcomed and repeated this argument, while others balked. But the dramatic developments of 2020 only underscore the opportunity costs of remaining entangled in the Middle East, as well as the bankruptcy and danger of Trump’s twin policy legacies in the region: imposing “maximum pressure” on Iran while giving traditional American partners boundless latitude to pursue their own power struggles regardless of the consequences for American interests.

The challenge for American policy is how to protect its remaining and still important interests in [the Middle East] in an era of austerity and fierce power competition, both in the region and globally.

The challenge for American policy is how to protect its remaining and still important interests in that region in an era of austerity and fierce power competition, both in the region and globally. A new approach to the Middle East is overdue, and the incoming Biden administration should not waste the window for a reset. As the tide of the pandemic recedes, the region will look rather different — and in this changed landscape, there will be opportunities for the United States, as well as dangers. The choices facing President Joe Biden are neither simple nor cost-free, but this paper will suggest a path forward that sets clear priorities and addresses key relationships.

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Limits of historic and existing policies

As the tide recedes, Gulf Arabs are weakened

The twin crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and the crash in global oil prices have left Gulf Arab states facing a substantial decline in wealth, with insufficient cash to bolster their own grim economies, much less to advance ambitious reform programs or massive development projects. This relative penury will likely impede their ability to wield influence across the region. The Arab Gulf’s main tool in regional geopolitical competition has always been money. That money had considerable power in years past, evident in, for example, the $30 billion a handful of Gulf states invested to prop up the government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in Egypt.

Now, however, the Gulf will have tough decisions to make: about how much they can afford to invest to keep friends like Jordan and Egypt above water, how much they are willing to spend to push back against Iranian influence in Iraq and Lebanon, and how they can protect their core interests while suing for peace in Yemen. The dreams some of them once harbored of decimating ideological adversaries and remaking the region in their own image will have to be shelved for a more propitious time.

Losing this Gulf ballast will impede any U.S.-led efforts to stabilize the region — a COVID-impaired U.S. economy will be hard-put to invest scarce assistance dollars in shoring up weak Middle Eastern states. Indeed, the overall post-COVID regional geopolitical balance may even favor Iran. Although devastated by the pandemic and by crushing sanctions, the Islamic Republic long ago learned to live without significant oil income, and is well-practiced at wielding regional influence on the cheap. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the main liaison to Iran’s regional proxies, makes its own money from smuggling under sanctions and from control of key economic sectors inside the country. After the crisis passes, then, all else equal, we are likely to see a Middle East where Iran’s influence in places like Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon is more-or-less constant, while the Gulf’s influence declines.

Maximum pressure is maxed out

This trend in favor of Iranian influence heightens the imperative of revising the Trump administration’s fruitless approach to Iran. Trump escalated military and economic pressure to punishing levels, but never clarified realistic demands or how he prioritized amongst them. He swung between clumsy bids for diplomacy with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and escalating military confrontation in the Persian Gulf. The assassination of IRGC general Qassem Soleimani rid the world of a murderer. But it did not eliminate the instruments of murder he wielded or “reestablish deterrence,” as the Trump administration frequently claimed; instead it brought the United States to the brink of war. Just a year ago, dozens of U.S. forces were injured by Iranian retaliation that also brought down a civilian airliner at the cost of 176 lives. U.S. and allied forces in Iraq continue to face attacks from the Iranian-linked Kataib Hezbollah militia. The main policy results from Trump’s pressure campaign have been America’s international isolation in confronting Iran’s nuclear ambition, new pressures on the U.S. presence and counter-Islamic State group (IS) campaign in Iraq, and constant challenges to maritime security and energy infrastructure in the Gulf. That, and the fact that Iran is now much closer to having sufficient enriched uranium for a bomb.

A post-COVID Middle East in which Iran is relatively advantaged will make right-sizing the American military posture in the region all the more important. The beefy posture of the last two decades by itself has not deterred the Iranians (and indeed, it was largely built to deal with other challenges in the long war on terror). Instead, the United States has deterred Iranian bad behavior most successfully when it has adopted a multifaceted approach using sanctions, intelligence to expose and interrupt bad behavior, multilateral pressure, and the targeted use of force when necessary. An effective policy package for containing the threats Iran poses to regional stability and American interests will also offer a diplomatic pathway for Iran to temper and ultimately abandon such behaviors in favor of international engagement; most of all, it will not rely on the military as the preeminent tool in the policy package. All of this requires close coordination with both regional and global partners, a feature decidedly absent from the go-it-alone capriciousness of the Trump years.

Right-sizing the military presence

America’s military priorities should be driven by the strategic objectives that drive for America’s military presence in the region. As senior Pentagon official James H. Anderson outlined to Congress in May 2020, they are to “ensure the region is not a safe haven for terrorists, is not dominated by any power hostile to the United States, and contributes to a stable global energy market.” In this light, the objects of American military engagement become clearer: defeating IS and other terrorists and denying them safe havens, preventing Iran from achieving nuclear weapons status, and preventing disruptions to energy flows. The dilemma, however, is how best to achieve these objectives in a sustainable and effective manner. Daniel Benaim and Jake Sullivan’s recommendation in Foreign Affairs for an aggressive diplomatic push to bring local actors into a regional security dialogue is a thoughtful proposal, if it can be brought to fruition, and a good reminder that America’s greatest positive impact over most of its history in the region has been through diplomatic tools. Its success will depend on the will of regional actors to tamp down confrontation and build mechanisms for wider dialogue and conflict resolution.

U.S. Central Command is sorely overdue for a zero-based review of its posture and personnel. The reduction in U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq creates opportunities to likewise reduce military presence in the Gulf linked to those operations. Defense budget cuts are increasingly likely as the federal deficit closes in on $1.5 trillion. The debacle of COVID contagion on the USS Roosevelt and the gap its sidelining left in Asia is a reminder of why keeping two carrier strike groups in the Middle East is unsustainable. Additional maritime and air capabilities are not needed in a region that already has a good deal of both.

But if the global review now under way at the Department of Defense does not result in a smaller and different mix of military capabilities, personnel, and headquarters in the Middle East, it will have failed to meaningfully align U.S. priorities. The Pentagon also needs a more formal way to measure the impact of regional posture decisions on deterrence. Instead of viewing current posture as a sunk cost and making decisions about military posture in the region as an ad hoc reaction to crises or to mollify insecure partners, the U.S. military should regularize a rigorous and realistic process for making force allocations match intended strategic objectives and reassessing when they do not do so. A systematic process with more durable results would better reassure regional partners and help reveal the potential and limits of the military’s role in the region.

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Policy recommendations

America needs conflict resolution

As the United States works to reduce the heavy military focus of its regional policy, it needs to beef up its diplomacy to tamp down other regional conflicts that give troublemakers like Iran and Russia opportunities to grow their influence. In that regard, there may be a silver lining: the financial pinch felt by Gulf states might also reduce their recent tendency to regional adventurism. Since 2011, Gulf governments have provided financial, material, and political support to armed actors in Syria, Yemen, and Libya, seeing these civil conflicts as proxy wars with their regional rivals for the future regional order. Most Gulf aid to Syrian insurgents trailed off years ago — although its impact is still visible in the fragmented nature of the Syrian opposition. In Libya, though, the UAE, Egypt, and Russia funded, armed, and provided military support to General Khalifa Hifter’s bloody assault on Tripoli while Turkey and Qatar backed the other side — all of them in violation of a U.N. arms embargo. In Yemen, of course, two Gulf states have been direct combatants.

Trump administration policy on all three of these devastating civil conflicts has been capricious and confused, allowing regional actors to pursue their own goals unconstrained by any American red lines. But Gulf states have achieved neither greater security nor greater American engagement from their assertive approach; instead, their behavior generated bipartisan concerns in Congress about continuing the sale of U.S. arms to these states. Perhaps now their reduced financial circumstances will encourage them to give peace a chance. A relative decline in both resources and commitment by some fairly hardheaded actors may provide the United States additional leverage in situations where, over recent years, gaining leverage would have required a significant commitment of resources. Already, the UAE has withdrawn militarily from Yemen, while Libyan factions have reached a tentative agreement on new elections and are discussing a process for power-sharing.

The Yemen conflict offers the most opportunities for the United States to encourage a path toward conflict resolution. Both the Saudi and Emirati leaderships have begun to recognize that the price they are paying for their involvement in the conflict has grown higher and unsustainable. They have not only failed to achieve their goals, they have also profoundly undermined Yemeni and regional stability, to the benefit of Iran and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

But it takes two to tango — the Houthis, well-entrenched on the ground and feeling secure in the support of their Iranian backers, are resisting negotiation efforts. The maritime coalition to interdict arms shipments to the Houthis has borne fruit; to support the peace process, this mission should be strengthened. The Houthis might take egregious actions to capture Saudi territory, attack Saudi infrastructure, or cause significant Saudi casualties. But barring such escalation, the United States can helpfully expend some diplomatic energy by encouraging external actors to reduce their involvement in the war, support the negotiations process under U.N. auspices, and by discouraging unhelpful actions by its regional partners. Such an effort is vastly complicated by the reckless decision of the Trump administration in January 2021 to designate the Houthi movement as a foreign terrorist organization.

Righting unbalanced relationships

Persuading regional partners to pull back from their regional adventurism is one part of a broader reset needed in these fundamental relationships. Over the past decade, the Middle East has undergone upheaval of historic proportions. After decades of eroding social contracts, weakening government services, and sustained repression, popular uprisings challenged autocratic governments across the region and toppled longtime dictators. In the wake of these protests, civil wars erupted in Yemen, Syria, and Libya. The shock waves of this upheaval left regional leaders intently focused on regime security, with various players using a combination of reforms, increased government spending, and intensified repression to remain in power. At the same time, the United States under President Barack Obama found itself at odds with several of its traditional partners, not just over popular demands for democracy and human rights, but also over negotiations with Iran and the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that resulted.

Today, the Middle East is an arena of fierce geopolitical competition between blocs led by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, with outside actors like Russia taking advantage of the situation to undermine American policies and challenge American partnerships. Under Trump, the United States abandoned the Iran nuclear deal and escalated confrontation with both Iran and IS, but the Trump administration’s impulsive decisionmaking on issues from Syria to Iran did not reassure regional governments of its reliability as a security partner. Their anxiety, as much as the threat of Israeli annexation and Trump’s fire-sale offers of highly sophisticated weapons systems, helped catalyze the Israel-UAE normalization agreement. And this regional uncertainty is bolstered by the accurate understanding amongst regional actors that the United States would prefer to spend less time, attention, and resources on the Middle East, so that it can focus on the emergent global competition with Russia and China. In the last four years, some of the strategies deployed by the United States’ traditional regional partners have involved taking advantage of the ego, ignorance, carelessness, and venality of Trump and his senior advisers, with the result that Washington’s regional friends have become enmeshed in America’s deeply polarized domestic politics, to the detriment of bilateral cooperation.

The crux of the dilemma facing the United States in attempting to implement this change is that doing less in the Middle East means relying more on regional partners to stabilize the region and protect our shared interests. But in this region, Washington itself has no clear vision of how to return to regional stability, and its partners have thus far been intent on narrow strategies of short-term self-help that destabilize at least as often as they calm. Even if post-COVID dynamics tamp down some of the worst tendencies of regional actors, the gaps between Washington and its partners remain. A path forward for America in the Middle East demands clarity and honesty in communications with longtime regional partners, to overcome the mistrust built up over the past decade, and to determine whether and how much Washington and its regional friends can agree on priorities for stabilizing the region. One clear lesson from the Trump era is that, as in families, healthy relationships rely on open communication and solid boundaries.

 The diplomatic opening between the United Arab Emirates and Israel is evidence that America’s friends in the region are ready to work more closely and overtly together against the Iranian threat. As the United States builds on this foundation, it must also take care that its regional friends aren’t working together in ways that violate American interests or values, like enhancing the capabilities of autocratic governments to surveil citizens or repress dissent. Washington must also watch carefully that the new weapons and systems it shares with its friends do not kick off a new regional arms race, or give governments capabilities that they might use in aggressive or destabilizing ways. The arms package for the Emiratis has already provoked a request from Qatar for F-35 aircraft and necessitated a “compensation” package for Israel. Given the ongoing Emirati role in Libya, and there are hard questions to be asked about the wisdom of selling the UAE Reaper drones, with their capabilities for close air support and irregular warfare.

Probably the relationship most in need of revision is that with Saudi Arabia. The Trump administration and Riyadh both played a part in radically unbalancing the relationship. Trump did so through his willingness to abide egregious Saudi behavior and even to abuse executive authorities to shield the kingdom from consequences for that behavior imposed by Congress. Riyadh did so through a series of behaviors that, in the eyes of both Republican and Democratic elected officials, evidenced disrespect for American sovereignty and interests and called into question the steadiness and strategic judgment of the new leadership of a longtime U.S. partner. From the American side, a reset will thus inevitably begin with demanding, and enforcing, Saudi accountability for egregious actions like journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, planting spies in American companies, attempting to kidnap Saudis in the United States, and helping Saudis flee American courts. None of these are the actions of a partner or a friend.

That said, shared interests and shared history still offer opportunity for common ground. Washington should focus the partnership on shared security threats from Iran and violent non-state actors, and prioritize Saudi military professionalism over arms sales. The U.S. cannot determine who leads Saudi Arabia, and it should not try. But it can ask for assurances that the Saudi leadership understands U.S. interests and concerns, and cares enough about the bilateral relationship to be responsive to them and to be forthright about its own views and priorities. There are a number of actions Riyadh could take at the outset of the new administration to reassure concerned Americans that the kingdom’s rulers value the relationship and understand the need to strengthen their reputation as a reliable, stabilizing force in the region. Actions in that vein could include decisively removing Saad al-Qahtani, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s aide implicated in both the murder of Khashoggi and the torture of Loujain al-Hathloul, from any role in the government or palace; dismissing the outrageous cases against women’s rights activists and releasing them from prison, house arrests, and bans on work and travel; releasing U.S. nationals like Walid Fataihi from Saudi prisons; and working with alacrity to move toward a negotiated solution in Yemen.

The crown prince remains focused on transitioning the monarchy from the sons of King Abdul-Aziz to the grandsons, and transitioning the kingdom’s economy from one dominated by oil rents and government spending to one with a growing independent, non-oil private sector. To achieve these goals, he has moved forward with some long-awaited domestic societal reforms. But he has already made clear that, modernization aside, his reign will be a brutal one, and his arbitrary and coercive exercise of increasingly centralized authority has reduced the confidence and eagerness of outside investors in his economic plans. That means that there is good reason for the United States to keep a close eye on this relationship and prepare for the likelihood, seen elsewhere in the region, that repression may not prove a recipe for long-term stability or success.

What not to do

As the United States seeks to focus its more modest regional engagement on areas where it can make a meaningful difference, it must also work to avoid triggering crises that will upend regional stability and demand U.S. engagement to mitigate. Most notably, Washington must avoid a conflagration in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. Trump’s greenlighting of Israeli annexation, alienation of the Palestinian leadership, and cutoff of aid crucial for Palestinian health, welfare, and stability were profoundly counterproductive. They set back any hope for conflict resolution, and set negative conditions for pandemic response, security cooperation, and leadership succession amidst volatility in both Israeli and Palestinian politics. As I have detailed with colleagues in a new report, the United States must stand strong in refusing to encourage or recognize any Israeli annexation of territory in the West Bank, and must work to rebuild its relations with the Palestinians and restart the painstaking work of laying a new foundation for constructive negotiations. But this urgent work does not mean that the Israeli-Palestinian issue should be a front-burner concern for the new president, whose top priority will inevitably be confronting the ongoing pandemic. No high-level envoy should be appointed in 2021.

Second, and despite Iran’s heavy hand, Washington should not walk entirely away from Syria and Lebanon. While both are profoundly dysfunctional — the horrific Syrian war is entering its second decade and Lebanon’s political and economic crises are hitting a nadir — U.S. involvement can still have a limited impact. Maintaining the small presence of U.S. forces on the Syrian-Iraqi border and sustaining sanctions on both Syria and Iran may offer more leverage as Syrian President Bashar Assad begins more earnestly to seek resources for reconstruction, as Russia and Iran struggle for dominance over Assad’s weakened regime, and as both states feel increasingly constrained in the resources they are willing to put into the game. In Lebanon, the devastating Beirut blast precipitated a crisis that Washington should not waste. Working with France and others, the United States should mobilize economic support conditioned on meaningful political and economic reform, support Lebanon’s civil society, and continue investment in the military’s work against mutually agreed threats like IS.

Washington should avoid looking at its role in the Middle East solely through the lens of its geopolitical competition with Russia and China, and assuming that regional governments will choose sides.

Washington should avoid looking at its role in the Middle East solely through the lens of its geopolitical competition with Russia and China, and assuming that regional governments will choose sides. Both countries still have largely transactional relationships with regional actors, and America’s friends want to diversify while maintaining their special relationships with Washington. In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, harder domestic constraints may limit Russian and Chinese involvement, and so Moscow and Beijing may be less actively engaged in shaping regional politics. The United States should keep a wary eye on Chinese and Russian activities in the region, but avoid viewing it as a zero-sum game. Washington should actively monitor Russian military bases that are increasingly enabling Russian power projection and keep an eye on Chinese Belt and Road Initiative projects that could ultimately do so as well. China has demonstrated a keenness for economic ties in Israel and across the Arab world, but has shown no desire to be a powerbroker or dirty its hands in the complex muddle of regional affairs. China’s technology cooperation with Israel and the Arab Gulf countries remains a real source of concern, but Beijing’s strategic focus is still largely limited to the Horn of Africa. Geopolitical competition around the region is real; however, it should be understood in the context of broader interests, not overwhelm them.

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In a region where the United States long reigned as hegemon, the reality Mara Karlin and I described in late 2018 — of reduced priority, diminished interests, and resulting diminished influence — is painful for many in U.S. policy circles to accept. But history is instructive about the policy tools that have brought the United States is greatest strategic gains in this region. It was American diplomacy that pulled Egypt out of the Soviet sphere and into a negotiated peace with Israel; and it was diplomacy, along with the superb U.S. military effort, that brought together a historic 38-nation coalition to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait and set the stage for the Madrid Peace Conference. With COVID-19, among other things, having shifted the Middle East’s dynamics, the United States enjoys opportunities for progress toward a more stable region that do not require expensive or long-term commitments. A focus on constraining geopolitical competition within the region, confronting Iranian behavior more effectively, and wielding diplomacy to resolve conflicts where possible should enable Washington to do less and not have its regional dominance threatened. Risks and challenges for American interests remain, and the virus is a reminder of how fragile governance and social services are in too many parts of the Middle East, posing a long-term challenge to stability and security. The United States may have found a path out of purgatory, but it is not yet clear if that road is headed uphill or down.

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  • Acknowledgements and disclosures

    I am grateful to Mara Karlin for her intellectual partnership, to Kevin Huggard for research assistance, and to Ted Reinert for his skillful editing.