Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


APRIL 2017

Donald Trump's national security team (NSC) is scrapping Barack Obama's plan to withdraw from the Middle East; but it accepts two lessons learned from the Bush and Obama experiences: First, large combat troops will not change the region's political/strategic landscape; and two, a small, specialized military presence is essential to prevent Russia and Iran from dominating the Persian Gulf region and the Arab countries to the west.

The U.S. missile strike on a Syrian airbase last Friday is a signal that Mr. Trump is prepared to employ more force to persuade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down.

Hundreds of Special Forces have been inserted into northern Iraq to support Iraqi troops battling to oust ISIS from its stronghold at Mosul. And others recently joined Syrian rebels and Kurdish fighters in their drive to dislodge ISIS from its capital, Raqqa. To the south in Yemen, U.S. aircraft and Special Forces are ready to support Saudi and UAE (United Arab Emirates) fighters battling Iran-backed Houthi insurgents and restore a pro-west government to power.

The NSC has now persuaded the president that Iran is a major threat to U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf, among them Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, and Yemen and potentially Egypt to the west. Iran expects to install an allied government in Iraq when U.S. forces eventually leave. Russia's 2015 intervention in Syria greatly increased its influence in the Near East, and Vladimir Putin's recently hosted a visit by Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani, highlights their collaboration.

Some question why Trump is sending more troops to the Middle East when Barack Obama, then supported by public opinion, decided the U.S. had no vital national interests in the region that warranted U.S. troops. He also rejected a plan in 2012 to send several thousand troops into northern Syria to carve out a safe zone for refugees. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other senior officials favored the idea.

Has public opinion shifted on the Middle East? Probably not. But the political/strategic climate surely has. That reality convinced not only Trump but also prominent Democrats to conclude the United States should not abandon its responsibilities in the region.

But what are U.S. responsibilities? Are they vital national interests that require U.S. forces?

Proponents argue that if America doesn't stay engaged in the Middle East, Iran and Russia will exercise political and economic domination. In this view, Iran would subvert Arab governments in the Gulf States and eventually force a regime change in Saudi Arabia. Yemen is part of this scenario. To the west, Vladimir Putin's Russia would consolidate its stake in Syria by adding troops and air power to shore up Basher al-Assad and extend its influence to neighboring Lebanon.

Those who oppose U.S. intervention argue that America is no longer dependent on Persian Gulf oil and doesn't need the Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain to protect its flow. They think oil-rich Emirates, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia have autocratic governments that couldn't survive without American arms and security guarantees. They think Moscow, not Washington, should deal with Syria's ongoing civil war and take the lead in fighting ISIS.

Withdrawal advocates overlook, however, the crucial importance of Israel and Turkey in America's long-term strategic interests. Few believe Israel faced with an Iran moving to incorporate Persian Gulf countries into its sphere of influence would not take military action against Iran. That could be dangerous and costly for Israel, but its government would view this as its survival interest.

Another key factor is Turkey, a NATO ally with the strongest military in the Middle East. If Washington decides not to stay involved militarily in the region, Ankara's current leadership would make its peace with Moscow and deny Washington use of key bases in Turkey.

Trump's overriding reason for increasing U.S. involvement in the Middle East is this: To ensure that Russia and Iran will not decide the future of the Middle East without full U.S. participation. We'll soon know how many additional Special Forces and what additional air power will be needed to achieve that objective.

File last modified on Tuesday, 11-APR-2017 8:45 AM EST

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