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Opinion The U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East is a costly mirage

An antiwar protester holds an upside-down U.S. flag during a demonstration outside the White House on Jan. 4. (Alex Edelman/AFP/Getty Images)

The idea that U.S. interests in the Middle East have decreased, and so should U.S. involvement, has been around for almost a decade. In a recent Wall Street Journal essay, Martin Indyk presented its best articulation so far. Indyk, a veteran diplomat who devoted most of his career to the protection of U.S. interests in the Middle East, argues that these interests are no longer vital and do not justify the current level of American involvement there. Oil from the Middle East no longer constitutes as significant a percentage of American energy consumption. Israel’s military prowess makes it more self-reliant than ever before. And the American quest for an Arab-Israeli peace is futile. This does not mean the United States should completely withdraw from the Middle East, Indyk writes, but it should find a realistic policy alternative commensurate with the reduced importance of the region.

Indyk echoes not only President Trump’s repeated statements about the importance of disengaging from Middle Eastern conflicts but, more tellingly, President Barack Obama’s doctrine. During a lengthy interview with the Atlantic in 2016, Obama justified his position by arguing that United States has finite resources and has to choose where best to employ them. And, to his thinking, that would be Asia, not the Middle East. In Obama’s words, if the United States does not engage Asia because it is focused on “figuring out how to destroy or cordon off or control the malicious, nihilistic, violent parts of humanity,” then it is “missing the boat.”

Yet this view leaves out important parts of the story.

First, U.S. interests in the Middle East are not just about importing oil, defending Israel and achieving Arab-Israeli peace. The Middle East plays an important role in defining the United States’ global position. Ensuring freedom of navigation and trade, preventing competing powers from gaining undue influence in the region, being a decisive force in Middle Eastern peace and security, supporting its democratization and integration in the world economy and combating fanaticism are constituent parts of U.S. global leadership. Even U.S. interest in oil from the Middle East goes far beyond its own energy needs: Ensuring the stability of oil production and trade has a direct impact on the United States’ ability to continue shaping the global oil market and, therefore, its role in maintaining global economic stability and its leverage vis-a-vis Europe, Japan and China.

In short, the less influence the United States has in the Middle East, the more Russia, China and players aspiring for regional hegemony such as Iran and Turkey will expand theirs. The net result would be a higher degree of regional chaos and a power shift in favor of illiberal global powers.

The question, therefore, is how U.S. foreign policymakers view the country’s role in the world. Do they believe it still has the ability and desire to maintain and consolidate the global liberal order it helped build, or are they happy to share the burden of leadership with authoritarian powers and, in the process, allow the world to slide into a multipolar illiberal arena?

And even if U.S. foreign policymakers opt for the narrower, self-centered definition of U.S. interests and disengage from the Middle East, they would still be dragged right back in because the United States’ interests are not objects; they are also players.

Take Israel as an example. It is certainly capable of defending itself against its enemies. But it seems inconceivable that the United States would leave it to face an Iranian challenge on its own — partly out of concern for Israel’s security and partly to ensure that Israeli actions do not damage other U.S. interests in the region or drag it toward unwanted confrontations. The same goes for the Arab-Israeli conflict, where it is unlikely that the United States could stand by when the next round of conflict engulfs Israel and the Hamas-led Gaza or Hezbollah in Lebanon.

And even without a conflict, it is difficult to see how the United States can stand passively by as Israel faces what Dennis Ross and David Makovsky describe as the fundamental challenge to its identity. Will Americans who care deeply about Israel suddenly abstain from trying to help it? And if they do, will Israeli leaders let the United States disengage while they are mired in such a fateful struggle?

Nor will the United States’ Arab allies let it disengage. Whether it is about Persian Gulf security, the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, or inter-Arab politics, these governments will do everything they can to keep the United States by their side.

U.S. enemies, on the other hand, will exploit every American withdrawal to push for more, until the United States has no real option but to reengage. The current increase in Iranian pressure on the U.S. presence in Iraq is an example. Ultimately, as both Obama and Trump have learned, the United States cannot simply and suddenly disengage from Middle Eastern conflict.

The choice the United States is facing is not between engagement and withdrawal, but between being dragged into Middle Eastern conflicts reluctantly and unprepared, or developing a coherent framework for its inevitable involvement. And it must decide whether this framework would be focused on protecting narrow interests and reliant on military force, or whether it will be part of a broad political vision for the U.S. role in the world.

Read more:

Ezzedine C. Fishere: The Middle East’s warring factions need to find a way to coexist

Fareed Zakaria: The world is de-globalizing. Trump set the example.

Ezzedine C. Fishere: The Arab world faces more challenges than just toppling autocrats

Agon Maliqi: Remembering the U.S. intervention that worked