Amidst the horror of President Donald Trump’s reckless actions in the Middle East there is an urgent need to not only oppose his policies, but also to envision a new path for the United States. Trump has endorsed the Israeli annexation of Palestinian territory, supported the Saudi-led war in Yemen, lavished praise and deadly weapons on repressive autocrats, banned Syrian refugees from entering the United States and risked conflict with Iran through “maximum pressure” and targeted killings. Trump has even weaponized the COVID-19 pandemic by continuing brutal economic sanctions as Iran struggles to respond to the crisis.

Members of the US military board an Air Force C-130 transport plane to leave Iraq,  Baghdad, December 15, 2011. Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

The real danger is not only the risk of another war. These seemingly incoherent policies reflect a damaging effort to reshape how the United States engages the Middle East and how Americans understand the US role in the world. As a result, the debate about US foreign policy needs to be not only about redefining US interests and strategy but also focused on how to transform America’s self-identity and the domestic political and economic structures that shape US interactions abroad.

US foreign policy toward the Middle East has always been driven as much by domestic politics and American self-identity as by different conceptions of strategic interest. During and after the Cold War, policy makers viewed US engagement in the Middle East as critical to the US role as a global hegemon providing public goods such as the flow of oil to the global economy, containing revisionist states that challenge the global order and defeating violent non-state actors. This role was sustained by popular ideas of American exceptionalism and of the United States as the indispensable nation for protecting global security and the openness of the global economy. Many Americans also supported these policies as they assumed access to Middle East oil was vital to their own economic wellbeing, identified with Israelis and their military prowess and feared the threats posed by what the US government identified as terrorist organizations.

In recent years, however, a diverse set of policy makers, scholars and large segments of the US public, have grown deeply concerned about the high economic and human cost of US interventions in the Middle East. Trump even sought office vowing to end endless wars. America’s overly militarized approach, they argue, has not brought stability or peace to the region. Many also suggest that the longstanding US national interests at stake, such as the flow of oil and Israeli security, no longer seem to be at risk while many US goals—such as a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians, the rollback of Iranian influence and the elimination of terrorism—no longer look achievable.

As a result, much of the mainstream opposition to Trump’s foreign policy in the Middle East has focused on the questions of how much the US should decrease its stake in the Middle East and how high a bar it should set for intervention.[1] The terms of this debate, however, are troubling. While most on the left support abandoning the country’s military posture and security commitments in the region, the proposed strategic logic unwittingly accommodates aspects of the nationalist attitudes on which Trump’s support has been built. Calls for the United States to pull back reject US intervention and hegemony in the Middle East, but they also seek to insulate the United States from the damage past policies have inflicted on the region and distance Americans from the peoples impacted. To set the United States on a path to seek peace, security and equality within and between states in the Middle East requires transforming the domestic political and economic forces that would otherwise continue to shape US ties to the region even after a withdrawal of US military forces.

Rather than renegotiate US security commitments and assist regional conflict resolution, Trump has used foreign policy as a tool for largely domestic purposes to redefine America’s global identity through an aggressively nationalist, America First vision. He talks about bringing the troops home and retreating from America’s global hegemonic role while also expanding defense spending and depicting the world as hostile to the United States. In the process, Trump erodes the domestic foundations and transnational connections that are needed to build a new US foreign policy based on global interdependence and common security to address the ongoing global crisis and regional Middle East insecurity.


The Global Roots of America First


The recent emergence of a figure like Donald Trump as president should not be surprising, argues international relations scholar Randall L. Schweller, who wrote in 2016 that, “the world is becoming more competitive…as it transitions from unipolarity to emerging multipolarity.”[2] The decline of US hegemony and its dominance of global economic and political systems, Schweller explains, has led Americans to “demand a more narrowly self-interested foreign policy” that seeks to insulate Americans from “the vagaries of markets and globalization.” The animating logic of America First, however, does not focus on the country’s global role as much as on the view embraced by Trump’s populist support base that US policy should counter the (perceived) threats posed by transnational flows and interdependence. Trump’s securitization of issues of trade, immigration and global institutions presents them not as threats to American interests abroad, but rather as threats to the identity and wellbeing of Americans domestically. These fears strike at the heart of what Walter Russell Mead refers to as “Jacksonian America,” defined by self-identified white Americans who feel they have not benefited from the globalization of the US economy and are fearful of its growing ethnic and cultural diversity.[3]

Trump has sought to replace ideas about America’s global interests and its role as a geopolitical hegemon within the liberal international order with a view of globalized connections as a series of zero-sum bilateral relations. Rather than sustain the interdependent system that has long benefited US power and wealth, especially for its elite, Trump seeks to leverage US power to restrict and restructure these connections. He suggests current “threats” can be addressed by building walls, banning travelers, maintaining a large military, pulling out of multilateral agreements and restructuring transnational flows with tariffs and bilateral trade deals, or else targeting uncowed “bad actors,” such as Iran and China, through coercive sanctions, military swagger and arms deals enabling allies (rather than the US) to engage in regional wars.


Pulling Back America’s Military Empire


Foreign policy has gained little attention as an issue in the 2020 election, beyond the campaigns of some progressives such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Much of the mainstream foreign policy debate in opposition to Trump has revolved around voices advocating for the US to return to a more modest, more multilateral version of its role as a global hegemon that seeks to rebuild the liberal international order.[4] Others are calling for an all-out mobilization against the rise of China and Russia.[5]

A growing and politically diverse wave of scholars, policy analysts and think tanks have been advocating for the United States to relinquish global primacy, extensive security commitments abroad and its tendency toward highly interventionist, military-focused policies.
Most critically, a growing and politically diverse wave of scholars, policy analysts and think tanks, notably the newly established Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft that includes some voices on the left, have been advocating for the United States to relinquish global primacy, extensive security commitments abroad and its tendency toward highly interventionist, military-focused policies. They understand that the political and economic problems Americans face cannot be solved by a preponderance of American military power. This approach, commonly referred to as restraint, is based on a narrow definition of vital American interests and the recognition that the US remains a powerful global actor facing no major threats to the security of its homeland.[6]

Support for restraint has accelerated with recognition of the declining strategic importance of the Middle East and the absence of major threats from the region to core US interests. With the massive expansion of US domestic energy production, Americans increasingly question the US military presence in the Persian Gulf and security commitment to allies in the region. Meanwhile, with unchallenged Israeli control over Palestinian territories, its military capacity that includes nuclear weapons and growing ties between Israel and Arab Gulf states, Israel is in a more secure strategic position than it has ever been. Advocates of restraint also understand that Iran has a limited ability to project conventional military power and even if it wielded a nuclear weapon, its use could be deterred. Lastly, restraint recognizes that the hyper-militarized approach of the global war on terror engages US forces in continuous military operations that are politically unaccountable and often exacerbate the political and socioeconomic conditions that foster armed non-state actors and political violence in the first place.


The Limits of Restraint


The replacement of Trump’s America First approach with the adoption of a grand strategy of restraint would have many benefits for the United States and the world. Restraint could lead the United States to reengage in diplomatic approaches, redirect economic resources to domestic needs and define a new basis for US involvement in the Middle East as well as in Europe and Asia. Many of these policy shifts find support on the US left. The adoption of this understanding of American strategic interests, however, does only half the work of redirecting the US to a new path in the Middle East. The structures underlying US politics, economics and identity that shape diverse aspects of US foreign relations would also need to be transformed. It is unclear how far the strategic logic of restraint alone can guide such efforts, and where they would lead.

The diminishing importance of the region to US global strategy has already allowed Middle East policy to become increasingly subject to domestic special interests, ill-informed popular sentiments and presidential whims.
The diminishing importance of the region to US global strategy has already allowed Middle East policy to become increasingly subject to domestic special interests, ill-informed popular sentiments and presidential whims. Rather than challenging the self-identity of American exceptionalism, restraint replaces a US commitment to global order with a self-assured sense of America’s own security as disconnected from the security of others. Restraint thus offers little political leverage in undoing the political transformations unleashed by Trump’s America First approach. At the same time, restraint fails to address the legacies of past US involvement in the region. The hope of insulating the United States from regional instability and future conflicts is also unlikely to be sustainable in the long run.

Consider US policy toward Israel and Palestine. Following the 1978 Camp David Accords, the United States sought to build a pro-US regional security architecture based on Arab-Israeli peace (on Israel’s terms) culminating in extensive US-led negotiations in the 1990s. But with increasing recognition under President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama that a two-state solution was no longer feasible, US policy makers saw diminishing strategic benefits in advancing a peace process with the Palestinians. As a result, the Israeli right and their US supporters—including the evangelical right and Islamophobic populists—have been unconstrained in their efforts to shape US goals and policies based on a close identification with the Israeli right and Israeli militarism at the expense of the Palestinians. Trump has not only continued massive military aid to Israel but he also enacted policies such as moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, equating criticism of Israeli policies with anti-Semitism and cutting off aid to the Palestinians. While advocates of restraint have long opposed excessive US backing of Israel, without the mobilization of domestic political forces that seek to dissociate the United States from Israeli militarism and support Palestinian human rights, a future US president dedicated to restraint will likely find little strategic value or political support for reversing current policies beyond trimming the price tag.

Restructuring the US relationship with Arab Gulf states will also be a major challenge. US-Saudi relations have long faced periodic crises and US domestic energy abundance is enabling expanded scrutiny. Trump, however, has been able to maintain close ties to the Saudi regime and other Arab Gulf states through flows of petrodollar recycling in the form of massive arms sales that sustain American jobs, corporate profits and campaign donations. Just as the American oil firms that established ARAMCO in Saudi Arabia in the early twentieth century helped shape US security ties to the kingdom and the notion of energy security, today US ties to the Gulf are being shaped by invented security rationales and material interests. Networks of arms sales, private military contractors, logistics firms and Gulf-funded think tanks—often with cooperation from Israel and its backers—have defined US policies by portraying Iran as a strategic threat, supporting arms sales in the name of so-called economic security and defending the strategic importance of protecting the rule of autocratic elites. At the same time, many segments of the US military and national security state have deeply rooted interests in maintaining bases and military-to-military ties in the region.

Advocates of restraint recognize that cultivating a new generation of strategic thinkers and expanding congressional oversight over US policy are critical. But Americans inside and outside of government will not quickly abandon the benefits they receive from economic, military and political ties to Gulf rulers. Sustained reform in US relations would require, for example, extensive campaign finance reform and the regulation of economic sectors such as energy, arms manufacturing and logistics that have strong links to the region. Moreover, a new approach should not be built on abandoning no-longer useful ruling elites in the Gulf but through the positive formulation of polices that consider the wellbeing of populations long denied popular sovereignty due to British and American regional strategy.


America’s Turbulent Wake


A broader challenge for restraint would be how to address the continuing causes of regional instability. Many advocates of restraint suggest that with a US retreat, Middle East geopolitics will become more stable as states work to balance and accommodate each other. Some assume that the United States would have increased diplomatic leverage if it relocates its forces “over the horizon,” but retains the capacity to deploy them in the region if a threat to vital interests emerges. In contrast, other advocates of restraint argue that the United States should fully abandon the conflict-prone region to insulate the country from the expected fallout. None of these approaches fully recognize the legacies of past US efforts to remake the region or offer adequate tools to address them.

In the foreseeable future, the Middle East will likely experience more instability and conflict due to, in large part, the legacy of US policies over the past two decades.
In the foreseeable future, the Middle East will likely experience more instability and conflict due to, in large part, the legacy of US policies over the past two decades, which include the invasion of Iraq, interventions in Libya and Syria, the fostering of proxy wars, the promotion of neoliberal economic reforms, massive arms sales and support for aggressive actions by regional allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. As many advocates of restraint also recognize, these actions have helped erode norms of sovereignty and debilitated the diplomatic channels and balancing mechanisms that previously constrained inter-regional conflict and the use of force. Moreover, the increased capacities for self-organization by armed non-state actors has helped sustain the regional environment of turbulence. In this situation, states’ definitions of their interests, and their capacity to achieve desired goals, is diminished as they must negotiate a multidimensional geography of rival forces and actors within the context of increasingly multipolar global politics.[7] Meanwhile, populations subject to repressive governments, declining socioeconomic conditions and collapsed social welfare infrastructures—not to mention civil wars, occupations and health crises—experience highly insecure lives and represent ongoing threats to political stability and regime security.

Addressing these security concerns and ending regional conflicts is a difficult task. It is unlikely that the United States could reclaim the diplomatic credibility needed to rebuild norms of restraint and balancing after having embraced militarism and unilateralism for so long. Its official rhetoric notwithstanding, as Thomas Wright recognizes, “there was virtually nothing liberal about the US-led order in the Middle East.”[8]  Thus many regional actors view the United States as uninterested in a negotiated, rules-based regional order. It is unclear how much diplomatic leverage the United States would have in conflict resolution and domestic reform since in the past its leverage was largely based on its ability to impose a regional security architecture by force, to provide military and economic aid and its commitment to protect the regime security of allies. There is little reason to think that a future US administration devoted to restraint would be willing to take the needed and risky diplomatic moves—such as normalizing relations with Iran or committing adequate resources to support conflict resolution and economic reconstruction—in a region of declining strategic importance.

Abandoning the Middle East might sound like an appealing way to end America’s endless wars, but this approach risks the United States being directly or indirectly drawn back into an even more turbulent region. Even if the United States no longer claims vital interests in the Middle East, private US firms and political groups will likely continue to have stakes in the region and to pressure the US government to serve their narrow interests. Moreover, developments in the region will likely impact other US interests relating to the global economy, rivalry with China, climate change, nuclear proliferation and refugee flows. Support for Trump’s America First approach has been built from anxieties over the declining ability of the United States to control such developments and their effects. And while the ideological and media infrastructure that mobilized fears to build the spurious case for the Iraq war have been temporarily disrupted, similar processes could be activated in the future to convert fears, such as of an Iranian cyberwar capability, a Chinese naval base in the region, or a resurgence of ISIS, into a strategic threat requiring a US response. The tendency of many advocates of restraint to portray the Middle East as unruly and impossible to reform, even as they argue the United States has no need to intervene, reinforces images of otherness and danger.

The tragic results of half-measures of restraint seen in Obama’s effort to rebalance US commitments in the Middle East offer some warning. Obama came to office with the goal of turning the page on the destructive post-September 11, 2001 policies of George W. Bush and sought a “new beginning” in US relations with the Islamic world. During the Arab uprisings that began in 2011, Obama eventually embraced—at least rhetorically—the democratic protest movements and sought to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran. These moves, however, signaled to Saudi Arabia a decline in US security commitments leading the kingdom to respond with an aggressive revisionist strategy, which Obama was unable or unwilling to contain, that further destabilized the Middle East.[9] Obama also vowed to reduce the US military footprint in the region. While he evacuated troops from Iraq, he also supported (and later regretted) military intervention in Libya and unapologetically embraced a lighter footprint for US power projection and counterterrorism operations through the use of drones, special forces and proxy militias. While Obama was able to keep the United States out of direct military conflict against Syria by declaring US vital interests were not at stake in the Syrian civil war, many Americans came to view the conflict as a product of sectarian divisions that the United States was unable to resolve, as well as a source of insecurity through refugee flows and the rise of ISIS. These views allowed Trump to implement the Muslim ban, which was supported by the anti-immigrant xenophobia of his base and justified by his administration, in the face of legal challenges, as serving a national security interest.


The Exit from Empire Begins at Home


With the decline of the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, the range of public debate about the future of US foreign policy has shrunk. Most on the left would prefer a US approach to the Middle East defined by restraint rather than Trump’s erratic belligerence and militarism, or an effort led by Joe Biden to rebuild US leverage and influence to advance its remaining interests the region. In either case, pressure for restraint from all directions will be an important fight. But the work of forging an alternative path for the United States in the Middle East, one that embraces sustainable anti-imperialism and demilitarization, must go beyond redefining US strategic interests to transforming domestic political, economic and ideological forces that shape US ties to the Middle East.

The work of forging an alternative path that embraces sustainable anti-imperialism and demilitarization, must go beyond redefining US strategic interests to transforming domestic political, economic and ideological forces that shape US ties to the Middle East.

Rather than follow the logic of restraint, progressives should work toward a path that seeks peace, security and equality within and between states based on global interdependence and common security. In recent years, scattered voices on the left have begun the work of defining 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 and the resurgence of authoritarianism and far right movements. Peace activists and non-governmental organizations have more ambitiously declared that the United States should realign its foreign policy based on progressive values such as social justice, human security and global solidarity. In an important effort, contributors to a special issue of the NACLA Report on the Americas outline principles for “anti-imperialist” foreign policy including allowing states “to choose whatever political system they desire,” providing reparations to compensate for the ecological and economic devastation wreaked by US imperialism and promoting a global economic system that secures “shared prosperity for everyone around the world.”[10] Realizing such a left-internationalist agenda, argues international law scholar Aziz Rana, 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.”[11]

The fight to realize such a path for the United States requires not only making a case for the goals of restraint, such as ending US primacy and military dominance, but also a transformation in how Americans understand the US relationship to the world. In Notes on a Foreign Country, Suzy Hansen tries to diagnose the current era of anxiety and confusion felt by Americans living in an era when aspects of US exceptionalism and global hegemony are waning. She writes, “It is also perhaps the first time Americans are confronting a powerlessness that the rest of the world has always felt, not only within their own borders but as pawns in a larger international game. Globalization, it turns out, has not meant the Americanization of the world; it has made Americans, in some ways, more like everyone else.”[12] Trump’s mobilization of popular support for America First represents a response to this seeming powerlessness. The effort to envision an alternative, post-exceptionalist US role in the world requires refashioning the debate so that Americans come to view the insecurities experienced by societies abroad as counterparts to the challenges Americans face at home. To address common global problems such as human insecurity, political instability and socioeconomic welfare requires not isolation from or leverage over other states, but collective solutions based on transnational collaboration between diverse states and societies to limit conflicts, ensure welfare and promote equality within and between states.

In the Middle East, the United States should work to repair the damage inflicted by past policies, help resolve regional conflicts and build regional and global institutions that allow states and societies to mitigate the sources of insecurity they experience. Such a strategy would be focused on defusing and resolving regional and civil conflicts with limited regard for past or future political alignments of the parties. This effort would depend not on US leverage or leadership but on interest in working collectively with regional and global actors. Within the turbulent Middle East regional system, efforts to promote security would require not only an end to US military primacy and dominance but also a limit on regional and external interventions, the demobilization of the numerous armed non-state militias and proxy forces and a reversal of processes of state erosion and territorial fragmentation.

To reimagine the US role in the Middle East and the world would require a geopolitical perestroika that restructures the US relationship to the Middle East and global politics in the way Mikhail Gorbachev sought to restructure the relationship of the Soviet Union to the United States in the midst of Cold War era global politics. This process entails a collective reimagining of international institutions and norms and a new understanding of the US role in the world. The United States must accept the complexity of the emerging world order where no single actor can shape the rules, while the interests of diverse actors need to be accommodated. As Amitav Acharya argues, “America and its Western allies must give up exclusive privileges in return for their trust and cooperation in order to make the system work.” [13]

Rather than turning inward through the aggressive posture of America First or the ambivalence of restraint, Americans need to envision a new internationalism that no longer seeks to remake the world in the American image but defines a new way for living within it.


[Waleed Hazbun teaches international relations at the University of Alabama and is a founding member of the working group on Critical Security Studies in the Arab Region supported by the Beirut-based Arab Council for the Social Sciences (ACSS).]





[1] Daniel Benaim and Jake Sullivan, “America’s Opportunity in the Middle East: Diplomacy Could Succeed Where Military Force Has Failed,” Foreign Affairs (May 22, 2020).

[2] Randall L. Schweller, “A Third-Image Explanation for Why Trump Now,” ISSF Policy Series: America and the World—2017 and Beyond (January 2, 2017).

[3] Walter Russell Mead, “The Jacksonian Revolt: American Populism and the Liberal Order,” Foreign Affairs (March/April 2017).

[4] Thomas Wright, “The Folly of Retrenchment: Why America Can’t Withdraw from the World,” Foreign Affairs (March/April 2020).

[5] Hal Brands, “Democracy vs. Authoritarianism: How Ideology Shapes Great-Power Conflict,” Survival (October/November 2018).

[6] The most comprehensive statement is Barry R. Posen, Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014). See also Benjamin H. Friedman, “Restraint: A Post-Covid-19 US National Security Strategy,” Defense Priorities (May 2020). For related arguments, see Stephen Wertheim, “The Price of Primacy: Why America Shouldn’t Dominate the World,” Foreign Affairs (March/April 2020); Emma Ashford, “Unbalanced: Rethinking America’s Commitment to the Middle East,” Strategic Studies Quarterly (Spring 2018).

[7] Waleed Hazbun, “In America’s Wake: Turbulence and Insecurity in the Middle East,” in Marc Lynch and Amaney Jamal, eds. POMEPS Studies 34: Shifting Global Politics and the Middle East (Washington DC: Project on Middle East Political Science, 2019), pp. 14-17.

[8] Thomas Wright, All Measures Short of War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), p. 99.

[9] Obama claimed that the orthodoxy of the Washington foreign policy elite, with backing from Gulf states, constrained his options. See Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Obama Doctrine,” The Atlantic (April 2016).

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

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

[12] Suzy Hansen, Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017), p. 23-24.

[13] Amitav Acharya, The End of American World Order (Cambridge UK: Policy Press, 2018), p. xv.

How to cite this article:

Waleed Hazbun "Reimagining US Engagement with a Turbulent Middle East," 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.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This