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For over a decade, the United States has been attempting to reduce its involvement in Middle Eastern wars and shift its attention to Asia. Recent attempts to divest U.S. military resources from the Middle East—including withdrawals that never occurred and a beefed-up force presence to “restore deterrence”—have faltered. Now, the new U.S. administration under President Joe Biden intends to revise what it views as an outmoded U.S. military posture in the Middle East in order to free up resources needed to better compete against China. It seems increasingly clear that the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East will change. But it is less apparent how the U.S. posture should change and how it could be altered in a responsible manner that will preserve core U.S. interests.

The Rationale for U.S. Presence

The roots of U.S. security in the Middle East arguably emerged during World War II, when expanding military operations drove an increased need for new and abundant sources of oil. This opened the door for a quid pro quo: U.S. access to regional energy sources in return for security. Little presence, however, was needed to maintain this relationship. For much of the Cold War, the Middle East featured a small U.S. presence intended to pare back encroaching Soviet influence and hedge against a potential Soviet invasion. But the 1980 Carter Doctrine, attacks on oil tankers during the Iran-Iraq War, and the need to contain Iraqi aggression following the first Gulf War all required a larger continuous presence, which formed the roots of the current U.S. posture in the Middle East. In the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and successive conflicts in the Middle East, that basing structure continued to grow extensively. Installations like Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar and Camp Arifjan in Kuwait swelled in size and became permanent, major operating bases.

Today, the expansive constellation of U.S. bases in the Middle East serve a number of requirements. Ongoing operations in Afghanistan and against the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria have further reinforced the need for these operational hubs. They also meet peacetime demands, such as supporting deterrence missions against Iran and security cooperation activities intended to strengthen the military capabilities of regional partners. These activities have been buttressed by robust arms sales to regional partners, particularly the Gulf states, amid the return to great-power competition with China and Russia. More so, these bases and the U.S. personnel who serve on them act as a persistent reminder of the long-standing U.S. security guarantee that is critical for reassuring partners.

Shifting U.S. Security Priorities

U.S. military posture in the Middle East has not always advanced U.S. goals or served to support its core interests, suggesting a need to rethink the link between strategic interests and presence. Preserving stability and access to Middle Eastern oil has been a long-stated interest of the United States. But a global diversification of energy sources, including America’s own shale revolution, coupled with a decrease in oil consumption, have weakened the Gulf states’ ability to control the price of oil. While many countries like China still rely on the Middle East to meet their energy needs, this is no longer the case for the United States.

Becca Wasser
Becca Wasser is a fellow in the defense program at the Center for a New American Security.

Protecting the U.S. homeland is an enduring American interest. With this in mind, ensuring Middle East stability remains a priority. Ongoing conflicts may create the conditions that breed or create safe havens for terrorists. Should a state-based threat like Iran metastasize or embolden its global proxy network, it could pose a threat to the U.S. homeland. But U.S. regional basing architecture, originally developed to counter state-based threats, is ill-suited to meet the unique threat posed by nonstate actors, which remain the greatest risk to U.S. domestic security.

Lastly, although the United States has spent decades mired in the Middle East and embroiled in regional conflicts, it may finally be achieving its long-sought pivot to Asia. The 2018 National Defense Strategy made clear that great-power competitors China and Russia posed the most significant long-term threat to the U.S.-led international order. Recent comments by Biden suggest that China will be the focus of his administration. This augurs a shift in forces, capabilities, and resources to Asia, which will inevitably impact U.S. posture in the Middle East.

The Case Against U.S. Bases

From a strategic standpoint, U.S. presence in the Middle East is not directly linked to core U.S. interests. Critics argue that continued U.S. presence contributes to, if not fuels, the ongoing instability in the Middle East, often driving U.S. operations. Such arguments cite diminishing U.S. reliance on oil and gas originating in the Middle East and the emergence of regional terrorist organizations intent on attacking U.S. troops specifically to force a military withdrawal.

Operationally, continued U.S. military presence in the Middle East comes directly at the expense of U.S. forces in other, more critical regions. At the same time, critics argue that continued U.S. presence contributes to the inability or unwillingness of regional states to develop their own military capabilities. They also highlight the growing risks to U.S. forces as the capabilities of regional adversaries like Iran advance, and claim that forward presence is no longer required thanks to new technological advancements in warfare.

The supporting evidence bears out these arguments. U.S. troops have been attacked by terrorist organizations, notably the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996 and the more recent rocket attacks by Iranian-backed groups in Iraq. The U.S. military presence has also added to the security of Middle Eastern autocracies, which has emboldened these authoritarian regimes to crackdown on their citizens—for example, in Bahrain after the February 14, 2011, uprisings.

The presence of U.S. forces and the unspoken U.S. security commitment has also meant that many regional countries have not invested heavily in building up their militaries. Some partners, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have used their nascent capabilities in ways that work against U.S. interests.

Furthermore, the growing capabilities of regional adversaries has placed U.S. military installations at risk. Iran, especially, poses a risk to the survivability of U.S. forces and could impede U.S. military operations, as Tehran builds up its missile capabilities, employs new technologies like unmanned aerial vehicles, and proliferates its capabilities to proxy forces. Moreover, while advancements in U.S. military capabilities enable remote operations, they are unlikely and unable to replace forward-based operations in the Middle East—either in the case of an Iran contingency or to respond to terrorist threats.

Linking Interests to Missions

Any changes to U.S. posture in the Middle East will need to be done responsibly to not impinge on core U.S. interests or military operations and keep relationships with regional partners intact. This is a tall order, but one that is well overdue. The U.S. Global Force Posture Review announced by U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in February 2021 is an opportunity to set the groundwork for a revision of U.S. presence in the Middle East, as the review seeks to better link the global U.S. military footprint to national interests.

The importance of the initial interests that undergirded U.S. presence in the region have faded over time, with energy no longer holding the same salience it once did. Moving forward, the U.S. military presence should be driven by current strategic value, rather than supporting legacy targets, with core U.S. interests and objectives directly mapped to missions. This should, in turn, dictate the number and location of forces and the capabilities required to achieve those missions.

For example, ensuring the freedom of navigation in critical maritime chokepoints throughout the Middle East is now arguably a secondary objective. With this in mind, rethinking the appropriate level of effort and resources required for this responsibility is in order, especially against the backdrop of eroding U.S. naval readiness and overtaxed intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets. Such a mission should not require a carrier strike group, nor should it be the justification for a continuous carrier presence in the region. Performing this mission with a different level of resourcing would require regional partners and other allies—many of whom also have an interest in maintaining the free flow of energy—to take on additional responsibilities.

In the current strategic landscape, the most crucial U.S. objective in the Middle East has become stability, as linked to the core U.S. interest of protecting its homeland. With this in mind, the United States needs to retain access to a few key bases in the Middle East in case of contingencies involving Iran or a nonstate actor, to conduct limited counterterrorism operations, and to undertake peacetime security cooperation activities. This will undoubtedly alter the location, size, and type of forces that make up the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East.

Achieving a Responsible Military Drawdown

Mapping forces to the key missions as outlined above will determine where the United States will need to maintain a military presence in some form, although this presence need not be permanent. The key will be to retain enough forces and capabilities in the Middle East, and negotiate the right access arrangements to manage ongoing operations against the Islamic State and a range of potential contingencies, including other nonstate actors or Iran.

Instead of relying on major operating bases, the United States should embrace a distributed basing structure. This would involve developing a constellation of smaller bases located throughout the region—especially those farther away from Iranian territory, like Muwaffaq Salti Air Base in Jordan or Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia—to host rotations of U.S. forces. Many of these would be so-called warm bases, operated and maintained by host nations with the United States retaining contingency access. Washington would also shift several installations deemed unessential for key U.S. missions from “hot” to warm, and return these bases to host nations.

The U.S. footprint at larger operating bases—particularly those within range of Iranian weapons—should be reduced. This includes bases like Camp Arifjan and Al Udeid, which are largely bloated vestiges of older wars. Personnel and capabilities in the region should also be rightsized to reflect updated requirements. For instance, the number of personnel at the U.S. Fifth Fleet in Bahrain could be reduced without impacting naval operations, while the Armored Brigade Combat Team earmarked for the Middle East—once needed for ground operations in Iraq—would be reassigned to another region. Meanwhile, rotational forces would cycle in for security cooperation activities intended to strengthen partner capabilities and limited counterterrorism operations.

Additionally, the United States would pre-position equipment identified as necessary to defend against a range of threats or required for potential contingencies at these bases, as well as the logistics equipment required to enable these missions. Limited numbers of key capabilities and forces required for critical intelligence or counterterrorism missions, such as ISR and special operations forces, would remain in theater, with an emphasis on assets able to fulfill multiple requirements, such as remotely piloted aircraft that can be used for ISR and airstrikes.

The preservation of U.S. military access and overflight is critical to providing the United States the flexibility it requires to untie itself from permanent presence at brick-and-mortar bases in the Middle East. This task is, arguably, difficult—bases have become symbols of the U.S. security commitment and act as tripwires in case of adversary aggression. Conveying to regional partners that this is rightsizing rather than retrenchment, so as to not damage these relationships, will be no small feat, but one that is critically important to the success of any future U.S. footprint. To ensure that the United States does not find itself embroiled in regional conflicts that would again require an outsized military footprint, diplomacy will be essential to preserving U.S. relationships with key regional partners and guaranteeing continued U.S. military access.