NEW YORK – What does the sad story of Jamal Khashoggi — the Saudi journalist who went into the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul and never came out — have to do with debates about U.S. policy in the Middle East? Quite a lot.
For those who think Washington can simply turn over the management of Middle Eastern geopolitics to the countries of the region, Khashoggi’s disappearance is one more reminder that things are not so simple. A post-American Middle East will not be stable and peaceful. It will be even nastier and more turbulent than it is today.
The basic argument to pull back from the Middle East runs like this: The United States should not exert such vast energies to confront challenges like terrorism and Iranian expansionism because the countries of the region should and can do it themselves. Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf kingdoms have more than enough wealth and military power to prevent Iran from dominating the region or terrorist groups from running wild; and they have an even greater interest in avoiding these outcomes than does the U.S. By taking so much responsibility for regional affairs, Washington simply allows these countries to ride on its coattails.
The only way to correct this situation is through retrenchment. In the more moderate formulation, retrenchment means simply withdrawing U.S. ground forces and swearing off any significant use of American military power. In the more radical formulation, it might entail liquidating the entire U.S. military presence, including naval forces, and exercising less diplomatic influence as well.
This argument is popular within the professoriate, particularly among self-styled international relations “realists.” But in one way or another, it has also animated the policies of the last two presidents.
Barack Obama derided the Saudis and other U.S. partners as free-riders and called for a more organic regional equilibrium in which Tehran and Riyadh would balance each other’s influence. Donald Trump, while a staunch supporter of the Arab states in their rivalry with Iran, has repeatedly demanded that they take more responsibility so the U.S. can take less. “The fate of the region lies in the hands of its own people,” he said in April; other nations must “step up” so that the American military presence can be wound down.
The desire to get more out of U.S. allies and partners is sensible enough, as is the notion that America cannot fight full-scale counterinsurgencies in the Middle East forever. Yet the idea that Washington can simply hand off the responsibility for the Mideast’s regional order rests on a fatally flawed assumption: that these allies will behave as responsibly and competently as the U.S. wants them to behave after it has largely left the region.
To see why this assumption is so flawed, just look at the recent behavior of Saudi Arabia. It is by far the richest state in the region with by far the largest military budget — third largest in the world by some estimates. It already plays an important role in Middle Eastern geopolitics; it could and probably would play a far larger role were the U.S. less involved in the region’s affairs. Yet that prospect is not reassuring, because Saudi conduct since 2015 has been destabilizing in the extreme.
In March of that year, the Saudis responded to a real but manageable security threat — the takeover of Yemen by Iranian-supported Houthi rebels — with a poorly planned and executed invasion. The war has had not only catastrophic humanitarian effects but also led to increased Iranian influence in Yemen. In January 2016, the Saudis executed Nimr al-Nimr, a Shiite cleric with a large following in the kingdom’s eastern provinces, inflaming sectarian tensions in much of the region.
In June 2017, Riyadh engineered a diplomatic showdown with Qatar, meant to make that small country a vassal state. The showdown backfired, causing a rift with the State Department and Pentagon — if not the White House — and leading Qatar to deepen its ties with Iran and Turkey. That November, the Saudi government effectively kidnapped Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad Hariri, in a dispute over Iranian influence in his country. That gambit, too, backfired, further destabilizing Lebanon and provoking international condemnation.
And on Oct. 2, the Saudi security services reportedly detained — and allegedly murdered — Khashoggi, a fierce critic of the current government, led by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. If the allegations are true, the Saudi regime carried out an extrajudicial killing of an internationally recognized figure in a way that is sure to infuriate Turkey, another regional power. If this is how one of America’s closest friends in the Mideast is behaving, who needs enemies?
Much of Saudi Arabia’s recent behavior has been linked to the rise of Salman, who seems driven by a combination of ambition, arrogance and recklessness. Yet it is not a coincidence that Saudi misdeeds have accumulated at a time when the U.S. is widely seen to be drawing down in the Middle East.
The Saudi invasion of Yemen, for instance, seems to have been motivated by a perception that the Obama administration was no longer committed to containing Iran, so the kingdom would have to do that job itself. The confrontation with Qatar came as the Trump administration — or at least the Trump family — signaled that it was giving Saudi Arabia free rein and retreating from the traditional U.S. role of suppressing, rather than encouraging, fights between its friends.
As the U.S. has pulled back modestly, the Saudis have indeed rushed forward, with mostly lamentable results. It is not pleasing to imagine what a regional order in which Saudi Arabia is more empowered and independent would look like.
This last point touches on one of the dirty secrets of America’s role in the Middle East and other key regions. The U.S. maintains a presence not simply to deter competitors such as Iran, Russia and China. It also manages conflicts between allies — whether Japan and South Korea in East Asia, or Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors — and steers them away from dangerous behavior.
Yet this approach only works if the U.S. is present and committed. If it retreats from the Middle East, it will lose whatever restraining leverage it once had over allies and competitors alike. It will leave behind not tranquility, but a more chaotic, rivalrous environment in which other nations feel forced to fend for themselves.
In fairness, the problem in the Middle East goes well beyond Saudi Arabia. The Gulf monarchies have always feuded bitterly, but what security and diplomatic cooperation they have achieved has come largely because Washington has been there to tamp down competition and provide reassurance. And as aggressive as Iran’s behavior has been in recent years, its rulers still have had to operate in the shadow of American power. Take away that restraining influence, and the upshot will be behavior that is more provocative still.
Americans would not be able, indefinitely, to insulate themselves from the resulting upheaval. As long as energy is traded on a global market and terrorism is an exportable commodity, Middle Eastern chaos will eventually reach out and touch the U.S.
The U.S. is entering a period in which its national security resources will be stretched thin, and there will be continuing calls to withdraw from a region that has been the source of such trouble. But those who advocate retrenchment need to be honest about what will follow: a Middle East even more dangerous than the one we know now.
Bloomberg columnist Hal Brands is the Henry Kissinger distinguished professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. His newest book is “American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump.”
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