The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

The withdrawal of American forces from the Middle East may have strategic merits. The rationale for a contracted global military seems to match what American strategists have termed “offshore balancing,” which means that the U.S. holds fewer overseas bases but maintains its military capability to intervene in distant regions when necessary.

In early July, President Biden informed the American people of the coming withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan after a 20-year military involvement, signaling Biden’s plan to lower America’s profile in the Greater Middle East. The actual withdrawal was a military and political debacle. Similarly, President Biden finalized an agreement in July to end the U.S. combat mission in Iraq by the end of the year, with remaining troops limited to training and advising. 

And on the Iran nuclear quandary, the Biden administration appears eager to remove the issue from its foreign policy agenda, even at the price of making concessions that will keep Iran close to a nuclear breakout capability. 

These foreign policy decisions seem to constitute a long-term trend to reduce U.S. involvement in the Middle East. This movement began during the tenure of President Obama and reflected the weariness of foreign involvement coming after two unsuccessful wars (Iraq and Afghanistan). 

The isolationist impulses currently present within much of the American public also support the lowering of America’s military profile abroad. Reinforcing this is the diminishing importance of the oil-rich Middle East to the U.S. since it has become less dependent upon foreign energy. Finally, the American shift of focus to the challenges posed by China requires a drastic change of priorities and military deployment around the globe. 

The withdrawal of American forces from the Middle East may have strategic merits. The rationale for a contracted global military seems to match what American strategists have termed “offshore balancing,” which means that the U.S. holds fewer overseas bases but maintains its military capability to intervene in distant regions when necessary. In this way, American forces will be less vulnerable to the whims and provocations of regional actors and used only if vital American interests are at stake. 

Unfortunately, the U.S. moves in the Middle East are not seen by all as a change of strategy in the quest to retain its superpower status. The widespread perception is that the U.S. is weakened, preoccupied with domestic issues, and unprepared to lead the free world. Some of America’s allies question its reliability. Many leaders perceive America to be retreating from its role as a global policeman.

Such assessments were aired in the past, but the U.S. held on to its superpower status. One of Biden’s top goals includes restoring American leadership abroad. This challenge appears greater than ever.

Indeed, we see an increasingly assertive China, which has expanded its hold on the South China Sea despite a ruling by The Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in 2016 that pronounced China’s activities within the sea zone of The Philippines an infringement on the country’s sovereignty. Moreover, China recently has escalated its rhetoric and actions regarding Taiwan. 

Russia invaded Crimea, has amassed 175,000 troops along the Ukraine border and wages a low-intensity war in the Eastern part of the country, adopting a saber-rattling posture. In addition, Russia sent its air force to assist the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and its mercenaries operate in several countries. 

Even smaller powers, allies or foes of the U.S., have acted with little consideration for Washington’s preferences. Turkey intervened militarily in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Azerbaijan. Pakistan flirts with Islamic radicals in Afghanistan. Cuba and Venezuela are active bastions of anti-Americanism. Iran has armed proxies seeking to take over the Middle East, and even attacks American targets with impunity.

Adopting an offshore balancing strategy commensurate with a superpower status requires a military force able to project power globally. Moreover, it requires American leadership that is credibly intent to use force — if needed — in the Hobbesian world we inhabit. 

A recent Pentagon report underscored the impressive modernization and strengthening of the Chinese military. The U.S. is outgunned in several weapons categories, such as ground-launched ballistic missiles (GLBMs) and ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs). China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile in August, showing a capability that apparently caught U.S. intelligence by surprise.

An American military build-up to maintain an edge in Asia would take time and more money. Even if the fear of deteriorating U.S. military superiority is exaggerated, America’s will to act remains in question abroad. 

The U.S. can rebuild its superpower status by demonstrating its determination to use military force to pursue its national interests when necessary. The place to take a stand and change the impression of a weakened U.S. is with Iran.  

Obama cut a deal with Iran that encouraged its quest for hegemony and its drive for nuclear weapons. The 2015 nuclear deal bought time, with the hope that Iran would not harass the United States. In contrast, former President Trump understood that the Islamic Republic of Iran is an enemy of the United States and is resolved to acquire a nuclear weapon. But his methods for forcing Iran to change its policies — primarily diplomatic and economic pressures — were unrealistic.

The Biden administration seeks a compromise in a new deal with Tehran. However, it ignores that Iran is determined to progress on the nuclear path and continue circumventing sanctions. Its survival depends upon achieving this goal. North Korea is the model. 

Moreover, Iran perceives the U.S. as weakened, not having the guts to use force if needed. Therefore, Tehran humiliated Washington by excluding its presence in the ongoing talks and employing delay tactics to draw out the process. 

There are times in international relations when the military option may be the only one left. Washington declared its strong opposition to an Iranian nuclear bomb. Its European allies back this position. Even Russia and China have no interest in seeing Tehran go nuclear.

Washington must instill fear in the hearts of its enemies if it is to leave the Middle East with as little damage as possible to U.S. standing and security. The American military still has enough punch to punish regional opponents and generate fear if necessary. There may come a time soon when the Biden administration has to demonstrate a willingness to use force with Iran, to send a clear message that America is still serious about being a superpower.

 This article appeared first in The Hill, December 12/22/21.

JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.

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