This question has been raised since the U.S. has withdrawn its troops from Afghanistan and Iraq. It is in fact a good question.
Just how and why did the U.S. begin having its military serve as “police” in the Middle East?
CENTCOM WAS FORMED IN 1983 BECAUSE OF A PERCEIVED SOVIET THREAT TO THE PERSIAN GULF. Prior to CENTCOM, the U.S. had no pretentions of serving as The Policeman of the Persian Gulf. As it turned out, the Soviets did NOT present any serious threat to the Persian Gulf. They did not seek to control it with their military; and made, no efforts to do so. So, what to do? There had to be an enemy for CENTCOM to plan against. Who would that be? Iraq. Saddam had a big army but it turned out Iraq was not nearly the threat that the Soviets had been imagined to be. Besides, we took him down, unwisely. So, who would be the enemy now? Iran. But, Iran is not capable of controlling the oil flow out of the Persian Gulf. They can occasionally disrupt it; and, have somewhat. Even if they could, the UAE has built a pipeline for their oil to exit on the other side of the strait of Hormuz. Saudi Arabia’s main oil pipelines can ship oil either to their ports in the Persian Gulf or to their huge port at Jeddah in the Red Sea. So, why are we there?
CENTCOM WAS ALSO FORMED BECAUSE OF THE INHERENT ASSUMPTION THAT THE U.S. ALLIES AND FRIENDS WERE INCAPABLE OF FENDING FOR THEMSELVES. They need help that only the U.S. could provide. This assumption is questionable now as noted below.
FINALLY, IT WAS FORMED BECAUSE OF THE FUNDAMENTAL BELIEF THAT ONLY THE U.S. MILITARY COULD GUARANTEE ACCESS TO THE ENERGY NEEDS COMING OUT OF THE PERSIAN GULF THAT WERE ESSENTIAL FOR THE LIFESTYLES AND ECONOMIES OF ITSELF AND ITS FRIENDS. Thus, any threats to that supply could only be met by a U.S. military response. But, why only by our military at this point? Britain and France both have a naval presence in the Gulf. Britain’s base in on Bahrain and France’s is in the UAE. Britain’s naval warships regularly escort British merchant ships through the Strait of Hormuz. France is a large military arms salesman in the Gulf providing weapons to 4 of the 5 states there. They have signed weapons sale agreements worth billions with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and Kuwait. Israel has “special weapons” on their air-independent submarines which are regularly on duty as well in the Gulf. Their military capabilities are formidable compared to Iran’s. The UAE has stealth F-35I planes to use and is part of the Persian Gulf Coalition.
It may be that CENTCOM’s main raison d’etres no longer apply. But, does that mean we should withdraw all of our military from the ME?
To answer that we need to be aware of what our vital interests are in the ME
1) it is vital, non-negotiable, that no foreign power can control trade anywhere in the ME, most especially in the Persian Gulf since the free flow of oil is still needed in the U.S. along with our friends and allies. Freedom of the seas has long been a major issue for the U.S. That certainly impacts American relations with Iran. The ME matters because of location, location, location. It straddles the connections between three continents. Even if there were no oil, the U.S. would still keep some military in the ME and particularly in the Gulf. As a result of Benghazi, the U.S. has developed a rapid response military team capable of reaching any American installation in the ME within a few hours.
2) Ensure that no foreign power or even a power in the ME controls that Gulf or the Eastern Med. That is why our Sixth fleet is located in the Eastern Med and the Fifth fleet is based in Bahrain. Contrary to myth, the U.S. has not withdrawn from those bases located in the ME.
3) “A fair field for American businessmen in competition with foreign powers, especially China.” We are a mercantile people with heavy investments in the ME so those folks desire protection of their assets.
4) The U.S. has a fundamental, non-negotiable, commitment to the security of Israel. Our commitment there goes back to Wilson’s acceptance of the Balfour Declaration. We share democratic values; and, we cooperate at the highest levels militarily and in intelligence. We have a multi-year arms agreement with Israel to enable Israel to maintain a distinct qualitative edge over any ME adversaries.
5) The U.S. prefers a peaceful resolution of disputes by negotiation or by arbitration. Americans have believed that change happens for the best when it is peaceful. However, our own domestic politics have become so dysfunctional that it makes having a coherent foreign policy difficult to achieve. What can most Americans agree on, amicably? Hopefully that these interests outlined above are worth defending.
Further, as far as the ME is concerned, generally, Americans are ill informed or even misinformed about foreign affairs there, never mind geography. One of the first exercises I have had my ME students do is to place the names of the ME countries properly on a blank map of the ME that has the state boundaries in place. Very few can do it. In addition, Americans do not understand the complexities of the ME. How many would be able to give a correct answer to explain the main differences between Sunni and Shia Islam? Very, very few. They would not know that a major impediment to democracy there is the widespread custom of marrying one’s cousins. Almost none realize that Islam has at least 4 schools of thought about Sharia, not just one.
A very good example of a common belief is that the surge worked in Iraq; and, that the U.S. threw away something that worked. The reality was that the surge was not just intended to defeat ISIS in Iraq, which it did, BUT ALSO to provide the peace needed for the Shi’ite Iraqi government to work out a wealth and power sharing agreement between the Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds. That government has not been able to do that so what was gained by the surge was soon lost.
6) The U.S. has found that it was pretty good at taking down dictators and nasty regimes as in Libya and Iraq; but it has been utterly unsuccessful in finding a way to build some form of western style democracy in those countries. We should not try that again. If the U.S. and Israel succeeded in taking down the Iranian regime, is there any guarantee that the resulting regime would be any better?
To summarize, it is reasonable to assume that the U.S. is NOT withdrawing from the Persian Gulf let alone the ME. We can hope that our government will be wiser in the future about using our military there.