The U.S. military should stay in the Middle East

Stay in the Middle East? Really? I wrote the article, and I don’t like the idea much either. U.S. troops in the Middle East bring to mind ISIS recruitment, war crimes and Dick Cheney with a mini-gun. But bear with me and lend me the patience of your ears. The U.S. needs to stay in the Middle East not because it is a great option, but because it is the least terrible option.

The U.S. military should stay for two reasons: to keep larger global adversaries such as Russia from having greater influence in the region and to prevent a resurgence of extremist paramilitaries. First, let us evaluate the current deployment of U.S. forces in the Middle East, where they are deployed and the numbers involved.

The soldiers, airmen, Marines and sailors in Afghanistan remain fighting the Taliban while our troops in Iraq are tasked with training the Iraqi and Kurdish militaries. There are approximately 5,500 troops stationed in Iraq and another 13,000 in Afghanistan. 

To put those numbers in perspective, the U.S. military has 2 million active-duty members. Therefore, 20,000 troops based in the Middle East is an amount that keeps costs down, can maintain our established bases and confirms U.S. presence to the surrounding population. 

As an example of the savings, the operating costs in Iraq in 2015 and 2016 were $17.5 billion per year. Compared to $150 billion per year during the height of the Iraq conflict, one realizes just how much the U.S. government saves compared to a more aggressive, active posture that demands increased manpower and material. 

Most importantly, there is the national defense argument for remaining in the Middle East as it pertains to the U.S. and force projection. We have two major geo-political rivals: China and Russia. The former is a threat in every sense, with the economic and military heft to truly endanger the U.S. The latter is a cyber threat and a poisoner of the well in our efforts to maintain relations with our allies. 

How much do Russia and China care about the Middle East? A great deal. 

Russia’s interest is threefold. The Middle East allows it access to warm water ports, expansion of influence in Europe and oil. Russia’s recent invasion of Crimea, or as they put it, “annexation,” was for these exact reasons. They badly desire a way to threaten potential enemies during winter, because icebreakers are otherwise necessary if they are to field their Navy. Now they have a port that does not freeze. It also has access to and control of an oil pipeline to Europe that, pre-annexation of Crimea, was owned by Ukraine.

For China the ability to put pressure on India — a rising competitor — from two sides has enormous value. 

Additionally, any bases or ports established in the Middle East and along the Persian Gulf make the job of monitoring Chinese expansionist impulses difficult as China would effectively be adding a western coastline. We would not have near the level of local allies to provide us with intelligence as we do with our close allies like Japan, the Philippines and Taiwan. Due to their proximity and understandable self-interest, these countries provide valuable information concerning the weapons platforms and islands the Chinese are building in the South China Sea. On this new western shore for China, we would have only Saudi Arabia, a fair-weather friend in the best of times.

Life is difficult, especially where bigotry and extremism thrive, and some of the worst perpetrators are paramilitary organizations. From white nationalists carrying out mass shootings here in the U.S. to the ISIS-sponsored bombings of Coptic Christians in Egypt, or the suppression and forced conversions by rival Muslim and Christian militias in Africa, there is a list miles long of the atrocities perpetrated against an array of minorities. 

The Middle East is home to three major terrorist paramilitary groups: ISIS, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. ISIS and Al-Qaeda concern themselves with forcibly creating a fundamentalist Muslim caliphate while the Taliban are a more geographically rigid group based in Afghanistan. What they all have in common is a hatred of the West and a desire for Muslims to live according to rigid understanding of Sharia Law that is particularly brutal towards women, religious minorities and the LGBTQIA+ community.

A continued U.S. military presence in the Middle East ensures a rapid and awe-inspiring dismantlement of any extremist growth in the region. To remove ourselves would create a power vacuum into which either of these groups would happily step in and metastasize to their previous levels. 

We have them beat. Why undo all the progress made at a cost of thousands of lives? Better to keep an ear to the ground, maintain the facilities that will act as staging grounds for a larger force if need be and crush this threat to liberty should this hydra of malice spring forth a new head.

I will readily admit the situation is not ideal. But as the world stands I will continue to argue for US involvement in the Middle-East, especially as Russia and China ratchet up their aggressive postures. Someone is going to be there; it had better be us.

I can be reached at abell@lawrence.edu with any criticisms, feedback or questions.

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