Despite significant financial expenditure and thousands of lives lost, the American military presence in the Middle East retains bipartisan US support and incurs remarkably little oversight or public debate. Key US activities in the region consist of weapons sales to allied governments, military-to-military training programmes, counterterrorism operations and long-term troop deployments.
The US military presence in the Middle East is the culmination of a common bargain with Middle Eastern governments: security cooperation and military assistance in exchange for US access to military bases in the region. As a result, the US has substantial influence in the Middle East and can project military power quickly. However, working with partners whose interests sometimes conflict with one another has occasionally harmed long-term US objectives.
Since 1980, when President Carter remarked that outside intervention in the interests of the US in the Middle East would be ‘repelled by any means necessary’, the US has maintained a permanent and significant military presence in the region.
Two main schools of thought – ‘offshore balancing’ and ‘forward engagement’ – characterize the debate over the US presence in the Middle East. The former position seeks to avoid backlash against the US by maintaining a strategic distance from the region and advocates the deployment of forces in the ‘global commons’, where the US military enjoys unparalleled supremacy. The latter group believes in the necessity of a robust military footprint to provide access to oil and gas markets and to prevent the emergence of a regional hegemon, such as Iran.
American public opinion is roughly evenly split on whether the US should maintain a military presence in the Middle East. However, the status quo enjoys wide support in elite US circles.
Despite President Trump’s criticism of major elements of the US military’s presence in the Middle East, US troop levels have increased since he took office. This demonstrates the difficulty in altering the status quo due to the risk of rupturing relations with friendly governments in the region.
Key US objectives include reducing instability in the region, containing Iran’s influence, preventing the emergence of safe havens for terrorist organizations, assuring the free flow of oil and natural gas, and building up the capacities of local militaries to defend their own territory. The goal of allowing the flow of oil has been largely successful, while the others have had decidedly mixed outcomes.