Increasingly Questionable US military presence in the Middle East
By Ghassan Michel Rubeiz
The expanding US military presence in the Mideast reveals a number of central problems. The threats of ISIS lie dormant. The new discoveries of vast fields of natural gas and oil in the Mediterranean Levant basin (and elsewhere) are temptations for state rivalry rather than opportunities for cooperation. Lucrative US sales of arms to Iran-allergic, insecure Arab States continue to play a major role in Washington’s foreign policy. The growing military and economic penetration of Russia and China into the region has driven Washington to rely more on rough -and unfair- rather than soft diplomacy.
Israel’s growing ambition for annexing Arab land has moved the US from the position of mediation in peace issues to a position of nearly blind support to Tel-Aviv. And finally, Iran has become the most explosive foreign policy issue for Washington since president Trump took office.
Despite Trump’s talk of returning US troops home and Pentagon’s desire to shift its focus to the Southeastern region, the number of American troops have grown from about 60,000 to more than 80,000 over the past few months. The addition of troops to the region reflects the escalation of risk of war.
The assassination of a top Iranian general in Iraq by the US triggered Tehran’s retaliation with accurate ballistic missiles on two US bases in Iraq. This crisis is leading to an Iran-led war of attrition against the US presence in Iraq, and reinforcing hostilities in Yemen, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Syria. Should the US troops leave Iraq under pressure, the already split Gulf Cooperation Council- a union of six Arab states- would be under severe threat.
Iran is overwhelmed by the US sanctions but the Persian state may have the capacity to disrupt the entire US foreign policy of the region. The Islamic Republic of Iran is twice the size of the entire Arab Gulf area in population and it is far better mobilized militarily.
Is the region moving into a dangerous stage?
Washington’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal (JPOAC), the imposing of additional severe sanctions on Iran and the recent reckless act of assassination of General Soleimani have triggered a Tehran-coordinated process of anti Western mobilization to drive US troops out of the Middle East. America has relatively delicate roots and artificial partnerships in the Gulf region. US critics argue that Washington’s extensive military presence in the Arab world serves neither the interests of Americans nor the people of the region. But few say that America is not welcomed in the region. In fact, the shining educational and cultural programs of the US in Lebanon, Egypt, Qatar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait are very much cherished by the Arab populations served. This form of cultural exchange is also fulfilling for Americans. Regrettably, since the 1960’s the emphasis of American presence in the region has shifted from the humanitarian and cultural to the military and business domain. The outcome of this shift is not positive.
The Arab Gulf states have relied extensively on US military and political protection to maintain their autocratic regimes which squander national resources and control personal freedoms. For the Arab world, the largest amount of US military and financial aid goes to Egypt; the oppressive regime in Cairo has few friends outside Washington. Egypt is rewarded simply for being friendly to Israel. The disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003 has emboldened Washington to expand its military deployments in the region. America’s unconditional military and financial support of Israel is presumably tied to Israel’s security, but in fact unconditional US support is driving Israel to apartheid. Israel is encouraged to continue its territorial annexation of Arab territory. The Trump peace plan released last month is no more than a package of unworkable proposals which reinforce Washington’s declining credibility in peace making.
Where are the US troops located?
US troops in the Middle East are situated largely in the Arab Gulf states. The table below shows the distribution of American troops with their specific missions and vulnerabilities.
Table 1, US Military Presence in the Middle East: Mission and Issues
|6,000||ISIS, Kurds, Oil||No longer accepted by host|
|13,000||Pentagon hub||No specific mission since 1991 first Gulf war|
|7,000||5th Fleet Headquarters||Domestic sectarian tension|
|13,000||Central command of air base||A nation of nearly 300,000 citizens|
|5,000||Protection of a business||National army of mercenaries|
|600||Intelligence and Diplomacy||New leadership|
|3,000||Arm sales and oil interests||Tension with Iran toxic, Yemen war genocidal,|
|3,000||For intervention in Syria||Large Palestinian population|
|800||ISIS, Syrian Regime, Oil||US troops considered occupation|
|2,500||NATO Nuclear facility||Kurdish issue is a perpetual multi-border problem|
|Technical||Strategic ally||Israel’s occupation compromises US policy|
The second table shows rough estimates of vast expatriate labor in relatively small populations of native citizens. The concentration of US troops states that are demographically thin and highly dependent on expatriate labor poses strategic problems for the US in the future. This table also shows serious issues, and disastrous wars of choice. The suffering in Yemen’s war, for example, is the new Darfur, Rwanda and Bosnia. Collectively, about 50% of Arab Gulf populations are expatriates. How can a state be built by foreigners, and how can the US build durable partnerships with nations dominated by expatriate labor?
Table 2, Expatriate Labor in Gulf States (rough estimates; 4th column very subjective observations)
Issues with Iran, Yemen and Qatar
Issues with Yemen and Qatar
Minority rule, tension with Qatar
Meddling in external affairs
Debt rising. No major regional issues.
Walks diplomatic tightrope.
How lucrative are US arms sales to the Gulf?
The sale of US arms to the region is connected to US military presence. More than half of US exports of arms goes to the Middle East. Saudi Arabia alone, in 2017, contracted the purchase of US$ 350 billion of US arms over ten years.
The US sells arms to Israel, but its donations of arms to Tel-Aviv is practically unlimited. According to the Foundation for Middle East Peace in 2019, the House passed legislation introduced by Congressman Ted Deutch (D-FL), HR 1837, “which gives the President authority to provide unlimited (in quantity and type) defense articles and services to Israel — with no accountability to any U.S. law, no financial limits, and no oversight by Congress — in cases where he determines there is an ongoing or imminent military attack (with that term not defined).”
An assassination to remember: The assassination of two top generals from Iran and Iraq in Bagdad in early 2020 may turn out to be a game-changing event in the Middle East. Suddenly America’s presence in the Middle East becomes a subject of debate and a source of anger for many in the region. On the fifth of January, the Iraqi parliament officially requested Washington to withdraw its troops from Iraq. Naturally the US has taken a defensive posture, arguing for the moment that the parliament and the care-taker government do not speak for the Iraqi people. The massive demonstrations against US presence in Iraq and Iran are not convincing to President Trump. The US is threatening to use sanctions on Iraq if it asks for troop withdrawal: The Wall Street Journal reports the Trump administration warned Iraq that if it kicks US forces out of the country, Washington could respond by shutting down Baghdad’s access to a key account Iraq’s central bank holds with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York – an account that is crucial to the management of Iraq’s oil revenues and its overall financial stability.
Is military presence turning to an occupation?
There are ample signs that Iran is mobilizing its national forces as well as its allies in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan to pressure Washington to withdraw from Iraq. Friends of Iran in the Middle East are seriously talking about driving American troops from the entire region. While this is a tall order, the region is now set up for a new war of attrition, if it does not degenerate in to a third Gulf war. Such a war could easily involve the US and Israel, on one side, and Iran and its allies in the region. There will be no winners in such a war. But ultimately, US military presence will decrease given its self- serving character, its artificial partnerships and the rise in awareness of the people of the region.
A prosperous Iran would liberate itself
The rising military presence of the US is closely tied to its foreign policy toward Iran and Israel. Is this policy rational? Sober analysts would argue that the smart way to liberate the Iranians from their authoritarian regime is to embrace and indirectly empower the people rather than sanction them. Pauperization of Iran will only make the Islamic Republic more nationalistic, politically rigid and risk prone. Another key to the settling of the Iran “mess” is the miraculous but inevitable forging of an entente between Tehran and Riyadh. US policy in the region of rallying the stick on self-assertive regimes, and offering the carrot to regimes of compliance, is counterproductive. Excessive use of US military power is not working.
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