Why the US Military’s Messages Are Falling on Deaf Middle Eastern Ears
Its timeworn approach is out of step with the region, and with America.
Almost 40 years ago, a glam-rock band from California named Autograph released “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend Isn’t Me.” The lead singer wails that despite his devotion, “Her mind is stuck on wait and see.” Needless to say, the song doesn’t end well for him.
U.S. military officials spend a lot of time messaging their deep relations with allies and partners in the Middle East, but Middle Eastern rulers aren’t returning the love. The problem isn’t only that they see important opportunities elsewhere, or that they have been hearing for more than a decade that the United States is seeking to diminish its focus on them and concentrate on East Asia. They also see the White House, Congress, and the American public being persistently skeptical about their security needs. Not unreasonably seeing American support as a potentially volatile variable, they are increasingly investing in more diverse relationships and preparing to live in a more multipolar world.
Much as the U.S. military tries to ignore that inconvenient fact, it needs an approach that is step with the region’s worldview, and in step with U.S. politics. If not, the whole enterprise will come crashing down.
The military starts from the premise that the pax americana that U.S. dollars and U.S. soldiers helped secure has kept the region from tipping into chaos, and they offer more of the same. But many governments in the region think that the region has already tipped into chaos, and that the United States has been a central part of the problem. They look at places like Iraq, and they argue that the United States has both abetted conflict and opened the door to Iranian domination. They look at Iran’s regional behavior and its proliferation activities, and they wonder whether the United States is too weak or too uninterested—or both—to do anything about them. When Iranian missiles and drones attacked Saudi oil infrastructure in 2019, taking half of the country’s oil production off-line, President Donald Trump said, “That was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and that wasn’t an attack on us.” The reaction did not do much to reassure the Saudis.
Finally, these governments believe the biggest threats to their security are internal rather than external. They are unsettled by U.S. leaders’ calls for liberalization and democratization, and well remember the Obama administration’s quick abandonment of President Hosni Mubarak after almost 30 years of U.S.-Egyptian partnership.
The Ukraine war has made this tension worse. Few of these states ever bought into the Cold War paradigm of countries bound by a higher purpose, but to them, the rise of U.S. language calling to unite democracies to fight autocracy sounds vaguely threatening.
China is another issue. The Biden administration’s National Defense Strategy emphasizes the importance of U.S. strategic competition with China, and it has a chapter whose title advises “anchoring our strategy in regional allies and partners.” Yet the report glosses over an irony: many of the most important U.S. partners in the Middle East—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates—have also signed “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” agreements with China. How does the United States intend to square that circle? What does it mean to be partnered with the United States, and in particular, what does partnering with the United States mean for a country that also seeks to partner with China? It is a question no one really wants to confront squarely.
China and Russia offer quick solutions to regional states’ immediate problems, unencumbered by legislative oversight or human rights concerns. Weapons, surveillance equipment, nuclear reactors, and the like are all on offer, and sweetening the pot is the Russian and Chinese argument that they seek to help countries preserve their unique values, not remake them. This is a dog whistle to authoritarianism and homophobia, intended to build Middle Eastern societies’ resentment to the West, and it works. Further, they argue there is no need to pick sides, undermining precisely the sort of close security ties that the U.S. military is trying to promote.
But the biggest challenge the U.S. military faces in the Middle East isn’t overseas, it’s at home, where the White House and the Congress aren’t behind them. Middle Eastern rulers have the leeway to defy their publics, and when their publics’ approval ratings of the United States are in the low double digits, it need not shape the bilateral relationship. But both the White House and Congress have grown sharply critical of many Middle Eastern governments and critical of seemingly endless U.S. military commitments to the region. While many Gulf governments find the Biden White House especially skeptical, it was President Trump who said U.S. engagement in the Middle East “was the single biggest mistake made in the history of our country.”
The U.S. public’s view is more complicated. Some polls suggest sustained support for a U.S. troop commitment to the region in the abstract. When presented with specific issues, such as defending Saudi Arabia from Iranian attack or protecting Syrian enclaves from the depredations of Bashar al-Assad, that support quickly withers.
Seeing this, the military is still going full speed ahead. It makes promises the rest of the U.S. government doesn’t want to keep, and it warns countries away from engaging militarily with China and Russia while arguing for understanding when they do. Pentagon officials speak privately of doing the maximum without Congressional approval, given Congressional skepticism. The CENTCOM Commander, Gen. Erik Kurilla, can talk about how the U.S.-Saudi relationship “underpins our strategy in the Middle East,” but President Biden previewed his own trip to the Kingdom, describing “a strategic partnership going forward that's based on mutual interests and responsibilities, while also holding true to fundamental American values.” It is hard to ignore the implicit ranking in Kurilla’s statement that was absent in Biden’s.
Middle Eastern governments see the space between the military and the rest of the U.S. government, and they hedge. That pushes the military to attempt an even tighter embrace. Yet, the hedge creates greater distrust in Congress and the White House, and the gap widens.
It is hard to imagine how the U.S. military can sustain a long-term strategy toward the Middle East that doesn’t have political support. Given the openness of U.S. politics, it is difficult to imagine that Middle Eastern governments will fail to notice that U.S. political support for close security ties to the Middle East is diminishing. The Pentagon may feel it needs to keep up appearances of intimacy, but partners will not, and that will drive politicians in precisely the direction that the Pentagon doesn’t want. The Pentagon sees its principal targets being governments in the Middle East, but if it wants to sustain close ties in the region, winning support from politicians at home is both more urgent and more important.
Middle Eastern governments will doubt the value of any policy the U.S. military pursues without strong and durable political backing. They will look to supplement it with other relationships, even if the U.S. military trumpets its fealty, and they wouldn’t be wrong for doing so.