How Should the U.S. Prioritize Its Involvement in the Middle East?

Holden Lamberson

Geographically, the Middle East sits between major world powers such as China, Russia, and the member states of NATO. Each of these global powers has spent the last decade becoming more and more involved in proxy wars, civil wars, and on occasion, outright attempts at territorial conquests in the Middle East often due to a specific state’s resources or strategic position. With the persistence of global conflicts in this region, a longstanding question has been how should the U.S. involve itself in the Middle East. This question is particularly relevant now considering the recent U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan following its withdrawal from Syria in 2019. More specifically, what are the benefits and costs of its involvement in this region and analyzing where the U.S. can get the most “value” for its commitments abroad.

Based on a five-year-average of U.S. expenditures in the Middle East and North Africa, the U.S. spends roughly 7 billion dollars a year annually on its international commitments in these two regions, which constitutes about 0.1% of America’s 2020 budget of $6.6 trillion. Most U.S. spending occurs in Egypt, Israel, and Jordan, however, the U.S. gives a significant amount of financial support to ten or so countries in these regions, ranging from as far west as Morocco to as far east as Iraq. This is not to say that U.S. support is completely one-sided; most, if not all, of the states in the Middle East that the U.S. assists also provide benefits in return. For example, U.S. exports to Saudi Arabia, namely, military equipment, are worth more in financial gains than the total amount the U.S. spends on the entire Middle East each year. Furthermore, Israel works directly with the U.S. on joint military exercises and counterterrorism operations. While few other nations in the Middle East offer anywhere near this level of reciprocal benefits as do these two countries, many other nations in this region are valuable U.S. trade partners and allies. 

That said, the current shift in global power dynamics is threatening these U.S relationships. Both China and Russia are attempting to build relationships with Middle Eastern states by offering either military support or foreign investment, or both. While neither China nor Russia is as influential as the U.S. in the Middle East, both countries have been filling the recent void the U.S. has created by withdrawing some of its support from the Middle East. For instance, the Chinese government declared its support for the Taliban Government in Afghanistan shortly after the U.S. withdrew its troops from Afghanistan and the Taliban capitulated the existing government. 

This begs the question of how should the U.S. prioritize its relationships with Middle Eastern nations? One lens through which we can attempt to answer these questions is to examine the importance of U.S. relationships in the Middle East in terms of strategic value. While the argument can be made that the U.S. benefits when every nation in the Middle East is an ally rather than a rival, it’s not feasible for the U.S. to implement such a large-scale plan as there are some countries, including Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan, Libia, Tunisia, and Yemen, that are too small, too unstable, or geographically located in areas with which the U.S. has few, if any, strategically-driven interests to warrant future involvement at this time. A strategic value lens employs a more focused analysis: Which states are good allies? Which states control geographically important locations that the U.S. needs to secure for trade? Which states share an important border with a potential U.S. rival? When using a strictly strategic approach, it becomes readily apparent that a few Middle Eastern states rank higher on the priority list than others. Turkey, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates control three of the most important waterways in the world for commerce: the Bosphorus, the Suez Canal, and the Strait of Hormuz, respectively. Additionally, strong existing alliances with powerful states such as Israel and Saudi Arabia justify continued U.S. involvement. To be sure, any substantiated review of the U.S.-Middle Eastern foreign policy should be comprehensive and not just limited to strategic objectives; however, to be effective, a strategic analysis of the value of U.S. relationships with states in this region should be a top priority. Furthermore, U.S. policies in this region must be flexible and ready to adapt to shifts in global power dynamics as they occur.

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