The US won’t pivot away from the Middle East

Neither realist arguments nor ethical considerations will lead to a US disengagement from the Middle East.

Smoke and flame rise after what fighters of the Syria Democratic Forces said were US-led air strikes on the mills of Manbij where ISIL are positioned, in Aleppo [REUTERS]
Smoke and flame rise after alleged US-led air strikes on the mills of Manbij where ISIL fighters are positioned, in Aleppo [Reuters]

A few years ago, US President Barack Obama made much of an American pivot to East Asia, a recognition of China’s emergence and regional assertiveness, and the related claim that the American role in the Asia-Pacific should be treated as a prime strategic interest that China needed to be made to respect.

The shift also involved the recognition by Obama that the United States had become overly engaged in Middle Eastern politics with very few positive results and that it was time to reset foreign policy priorities.

The 2012 pivot was an overdue correction of the neocon approach to the region during the presidency of George W Bush that climaxed with the disastrous 2003 intervention in Iraq. It was then that delusions of “democracy promotion” and the prospect of a warm welcome by the Iraqi people hit a stone wall of unexpected resistance.

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In retrospect, it seems evident that the US has not disengaged from the Middle East. Its policies are tied as ever to Israel, and it is fully engaged in the military campaigns taking place in Syria and against ISIL (also known as ISIS).

Why disengagement won’t happen

In a recent article in The National Interest, Mohammed Ayoob proposes a gradual US disengagement from the region.

He makes a strategic interest argument based on Israel’s military superiority, the reduced Western dependence on Gulf oil, and the nuclear agreement with Iran.

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In effect, Ayoob convincingly contends that circumstances no longer justify a major US engagement in the region, and that to extend the commitment aggravates Middle East turmoil in ways that harm US interests.

The US pivot to the Middle East after the Cold War was based on the geopolitical opportunism of Washington in a context of dramatic changing circumstances.


Ayoob’s reasoning is flawless, but disengagement won’t happen, and not because Americans are not smart enough to recognise changed circumstances. The pivot to East Asia was a recent instance of such an adjustment.

Actually, the depth of US involvement in the Middle East itself came about as an adjustment to changed circumstances.

After the Soviet collapse, the geopolitical preoccupation with Europe seemed outmoded, and the Middle East, with its oil, Israel, expanding Islamic influence and risky nuclear proliferation potential, seemed like a region where a strong US commitment would solidify its role as global leader.

This perception was reinforced after the al-Qaeda 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, which gave neocon hawks a pretext for a regime-changing attack on Iraq.

The undertaking failed miserably during the subsequent occupation that sought to reconstruct the government and economy to serve Western interests.

Geopolitical opportunism

The US pivot to the Middle East after the Cold War was based on the geopolitical opportunism of Washington in a context of dramatic changing circumstances.

September 11, 2001, smoke rising from the burning twin towers of the World Trade Center [AP]
September 11, 2001, smoke rising from the burning twin towers of the World Trade Center [AP]

So why the inflexibility with respect to the Middle East when disengagement brings major practical advantages?

Part of the explanation is surely governmental inertia, reinforced by the belief that the changes in conditions are not as clear and favourable as Ayoob contends, making disengagement geopolitically vulnerable to future charges that the Obama presidency was responsible for ‘”losing the Middle East”.

More to the point is a range of other reasons militating against disengagement. Perhaps most significant is the militarist bias of US foreign policy that refuses to acknowledge that the attacks on Iraq or Libya were failures.

Resistance to thinking outside the military box prevails in US policy circles, making the debate on what to do about Syria or ISIL centre on the single question of how much US military power should be deployed to resolve these conflicts.

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What Eisenhower called the military industrial complex has come to dominate the machinery of government in Washington, further abetted by the accretion of a huge homeland security bureaucracy since 9/11.


Real threats to US interests exist in the Middle East, and given this unwillingness to rely on political or diplomatic solutions for most disputes, virtually require the US to retain its military presence to ensure the availability of options to intervene militarily when the occasion arises in the future.

Then there is the anti-international mood that has taken over US domestic politics. It is hostile to every kind of international commitment other than military action against real and imagined Islamic enemies.

Additionally, the US Congress has been completely captured by the Israeli lobby, which puts a high premium on maintaining the US geopolitical engagement so as to share with Israel the burdens and risks associated with the management of regional turbulence.

As neither the Arab uprisings of 2011 nor the robust counterrevolutionary aftermath were anticipated, it is argued that there is too much uncertainty to risk disengagement.

Why disengagement should happen

Neither realist arguments about interests nor ethical considerations of principle will lead to an overdue US disengagement.

Washington refuses to understand why intervention by Western military forces in the post-colonial Middle East generates dangerous extremist forms of resistance (eg, ISIL), magnifying the problems that prompted intervention in the first place.

In essence, the intervention option is a lose/lose proposition, but without it American engagement makes no sense.

Unfortunately, for the US and the peoples throughout the Middle East, the US seems incapable of extricating itself from yet another geopolitical quagmire. And so, although disengagement is an attractive option, it won’t happen for a long, long time.

Richard Falk is Albert G Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Research Fellow, Orfalea Center of Global Studies. He is also former UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.