MERIP has offered critical analysis of US foreign policy in the Middle East for almost 50 years. Beginning with decades of work by co-founder Joe Stork and others, contributors to Middle East Report have documented US support for regimes that suppressed popular struggles for self-determination and popular sovereignty; the flow of arms, intelligence and military support for regional conflicts; expanding US power projection culminating in the disastrous imperialist wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; and global counterterrorism operations involving US forces and drones operating across the Middle East, North Africa, the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. Our authors also analyzed the consequences of these policies for civilian populations abroad and at home: Many fled war zones and state repression only to fall victim to discrimination, surveillance and hate crimes in the United States.

Alongside this ongoing critique, Middle East Report has also paid careful attention to the limits of the so-called Pax Americana, which the region experienced as a form of empire. We covered diverse forms of opposition and resistance to US policies in the Middle East as well as the erosion of consent to American supremacy—even among allied regimes—as the failures of US military power became increasingly visible.

In recent years, the American public as well as the political class have awakened to the enormous costs and failures of this imperial project. Overall, its post-September 11, 2001 wars have cost the United States $6.4 trillion, according to Brown University’s Costs of War project, while the annual budget of the US national security state accounts for half of all discretionary federal spending. Most US citizens, including veterans of recent conflicts, now feel that the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria have not been worth it. Four years ago, Donald Trump’s first presidential campaign successfully manipulated America’s war-weary sentiments to great effect, but since taking office he has only expanded defense spending and fueled conflicts abroad with more enormous weapons shipments and military deployments.

A growing movement that spans left and right is calling for the US to not only withdraw its troops but also most of its security commitments in the Middle East. With expanded US domestic energy production and clear Israeli control over Palestinian territory, many US policy experts even suggest that the region’s strategic importance is declining. Recognizing the failures and enormous costs of a hyper-militarized foreign policy, there are now calls to promote a return to diplomacy and an end to the global war on terror.

While these efforts are welcome, following a strategic logic of so-called restraint will not by itself lead to demilitarization in the United States and better chances for peace and security for the people of the region. The foreign policies of the United States in the Middle East have long been driven as much by domestic politics, narrow economic interests and American self-identity as by grand strategic goals.

The question of whether or how the United States should exit the Middle East—and what that actually means in practice—will face whoever occupies the White House in 2021. This is a critical time for voices on the left to engage in rethinking US policy in the Middle East and the future of America’s place in the world. In recent years, a collection of scattered voices has begun to define the basis for a more progressive orientation for US foreign policy. The presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren highlighted issues such as ending endless wars, shrinking defense spending and relying on multilateralism and international institutions while combating climate change, global economic inequality, the resurgence of authoritarianism and far right movements. Peace activists and NGOs have called for realigning US policy with progressive values such as social justice, human security and global solidarity. In an important effort, a special issue of the NACLA Report on the Americas offers a vision for “a truly progressive” policy that “abandons imperialistic militarism.”[1] The authors outline basic principles, some of which are already enshrined in international law but are nonetheless routinely violated by the United States and other imperial aspirants. NACLA also highlights principles such as allowing states “to choose whatever political system they desire,” while also presenting bold proposals, from reparations to compensate for the ecological and economic devastation wreaked by US imperialism, to promoting a global economic system that secures “shared prosperity for everyone around the world.”

We endorse these visions to help define a left-internationalist and anti-imperialist US foreign policy while recognizing, as legal scholar Aziz Rana notes, that such a redirection would “require a systematic transformation of the national security state, particularly a significant demobilization of its military footprint abroad and its security infrastructure at home. This security apparatus has fed American interventionism and criminalized dissent, and placed immigrant and Muslim communities under constant suspicion.”[2] As we go to press, hundreds of thousands of Americans continue to crowd the streets to protest police violence against Black Americans and the militarization of domestic police forces.

Rather than comprehensively mapping out an alternative US foreign policy in the Middle East, this issue of Middle East Report, “Exit Empire–Imagining New Paths for US Policy,” addresses the critical struggles to confront the domestic political, economic and ideological structures that are preventing a redirection of the United States away from imperial relations with the Middle East. The United States must begin by rethinking its self-understanding as the indispensable nation and recognize its role in bringing instability and turbulence to the region. Lasting change in US policy will necessitate limiting the profit-driven influence of the weapons and energy industries, while coming to terms with the impacts of non-military policy tools, such as disastrous economic sanctions and ruinous agricultural, trade and immigration policies that have devastated rural populations overseas and immiserated the working poor at home. And finally, we need to forge new solidarities between diverse political movements in the United States and in the region to challenge the connections between America’s endless foreign wars, its surveillance and repression of Arabs and Muslims and the rise of violence against dissenters here and abroad.





[1] Daniel Bessner and Vanessa Freije, “A Peoples’ Policy for the Americas,” NACLA Report on the Americas 52/1 (2020), pp. 1-4.

[2] Aziz Rana, “The Return of Left Internationalism,” Jacobin (February 6, 2019).

How to cite this article:

The Editors of Issue #294 "Exit Empire," Middle East Report 294 (Spring 2020).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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