Some of the stuff Trump has done in the Middle East is shameful – “The deal of the century” – for Israel, abandonment of the Kurds and support for the murderous Saudi Arabia regime to name a few. But the direction of travel; basically, slowly exiting militarily, is probably correct from a purely realpolitik self-interested perspective, and is a continuation of Obama’s policy.
For what strategic interests is the USA in the Middle East? First, because of the Cold War – to keep USSR out. Secondly, because of the importance of oil to the world economy (and more generally to stop economic shocks caused by chaos in the region) and thirdly to protect an important export market for goods and services, in particular military equipment. Also, if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, then there is a potential threat to the USA homeland.
On the other hand, the US government spends a huge proportion of its budget on the military so it can act as the world’s policeman. Being in the Middle East exposes USA servicemen and others citizens to potential and real danger and its involvement in the Middle East has produced blowback, most notably the 9/11 attacks.
Most of the reasons for the US to be in the Middle East are no longer there – the cold war ended a while ago (more on Russia and Iran later), the USA is now energy independent, oil is not so important to the word’s economy and less so in the future as we move towards electric transport, and – excepting fossil fuels – the Middle East is a far less important trade region to the USA then East Asia, Europe and the Americas.
The gradual withdrawal and move away from being the world’s policeman will be a big economic gain in the long run – I know that the Republicans are wedded to high military spending, but it will be increasingly unjustifiable if the military does nothing. It will also make USA homeland and citizens safer as they will be less exposed to the wrath of people from the region.
On the negative side, USA will lose influence, and there is the risk that the region will descend into chaos or fall under the influence of other actors.
From a purely realpolitik point of view, so what? The USA pulling out of Iraq will gift Iraq to Iran for the time being. Iraq is no longer of strategic importance to the USA, and it then becomes Iran’s problem. Similarly, if Russia gains increasing influence in the region, keeping stability then becomes Russia’s headache and cost.
Also, whilst the USA is now energy independent, and could easily become more so if it ramped up electric vehicles and renewable energy, China is not, and the Middle East is increasingly important to it. Again, let China take over the cost and problems of policing.
From a moral perspective, if we look at the history since the USA took over from Britain as being the major power in the Middle East, US involvement has been a major cause of the chaos. Without the possibility of counterfactuals, it is impossible to say definitively if it had been worse if the USA was absent, but US Middle East interventions can hardly be viewed as a great success.
Indeed, when the US has refrained from intervening, such as over Suez or to remove Gaddafi in Libya; they have been proved correct with hindsight. The ordinary people of the Middle East (Israelis excepted) do not exactly view the USA with any affection. In fact, if you talk to a random Arab, they mostly think the USA is behind most, if not all, of their troubles. Anecdotally, the USA has no popular legitimacy for being in the region.
Then there is a threat of a nuclear Iran. The very harsh sanctions regime appears to be working. The only thing undermining it is USA’s continuing military involvement, for example assassinating General Soleimani. The USA pulling out of the region would actually remove the direct threat to the USA from Iran; Iran would realise with time that the Great Satan was no longer a threat and the sanctions would be more likely to work.
Sure, Israel and Saudi Arabia might still feel threatened, but again – without USA military backing – they might be forced to find a compromise with Iran. There is a role to play for USA as an honest broker and convener, but at the moment this is not possible because they are a participant and not an honest broker.
So the USA policy of pulling out of the Middle East is not stupid, definitely from a purely self-interested perspective but maybe also from a moral perspective. The problem with Trump’s current policy is when he doesn’t stick to it, for example by his outrageously biased backing of Israel and Saudi Arabia and assassinating Iranian generals.
It would also be a great idea to reduce military expenditure and instead support transition to a low carbon (and hence fossil fuel-less) economy – maybe a policy for the next president.