Why is the U.S. in the Middle East?

Jerusalem wants to see the US engaged, influential and active in the region. It doesn’t want to see it disengaged and concerned only about its own domestic problems.

November 28, 2018 22:10
4 minute read.
IDF troops drill alongside US Marines as part of Juniper Cobra 2018​

IDF troops drill alongside US Marines as part of Juniper Cobra 2018​. (photo credit: ANNA AHRONHEIM)


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In the run-up to the 2016 US presidential campaign, one concern heard in Jerusalem about then-candidate Donald Trump was that his “America First” policy contained the seeds of isolationism. And American isolationism is not good for Israel.

Since his election, however, those concerns were largely put to rest, as Trump took a number of steps that have been extremely good for Israel.

These include withdrawing from the Iranian nuclear agreement and turning the sanction screws on Tehran; moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem and challenging some of the long-held principles of how to reach an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians; and dramatically changing the tone toward Israel both in Washington and at the UN in New York.

The concerns about isolationism were largely put to rest, but not completely buried, and interviews such as the one Trump gave Tuesday to The Washington Post, where he discussed why the US is in the Mideast, have a tendency to bring them back to the surface.

Asked about whether sanctions should be imposed on Saudi Arabia for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey, Trump said, “I just feel that it’s very, very important to maintain that relationship [with Riyadh].

“It’s very important to have Saudi Arabia as an ally, if we’re going to stay in that part of the world. Now, are we going to stay in that part of the world? One reason to is Israel.

Oil is becoming less and less of a reason, because we’re producing more oil now than we’ve ever produced. So, you know, all of a sudden it gets to a point where you don’t have to stay there.”

There were two elements in that short answer that were problematic from a traditional Israeli point of view.

The first is his argument that Israel is the reason the US is in the Middle East.

The last thing Israel wants the average American to think is that US troops in the Middle East are risking their lives – and at times losing them – to protect Israel.

Israel has been careful never to ask for US troops to be deployed in the region. It has lobbied Washington long and hard for weapons and funds to buy arms, saying “Give us the wherewithal to defend ourselves.” But it has never asked America to do the actual defending.

Trump’s answer could be construed as meaning that the US is in the Mideast – its troops are engaged throughout the region – because of Israel.

Israel’s position is that the US is engaged in the Middle East because it is a US interest to be engaged in the Middle East, since it is vital for US security and for Washington’s strategic position in the world to be involved in this region, and keep it from falling into the hands of Islamic radicals – be they Sunni or Shia. Those radical forces would like nothing more than to see a Mideast without any US presence or influence.

The argument that the US is in the Mideast because of Israel may have a certain appeal to some of Trump’s Evangelical backers, who see this as a good enough reason since it fits their belief in God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis: “I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curses thee.” But for US Jews, the argument is uncomfortable. If America is in the Mideast because of Israel, then if something goes wrong – if US troops are killed – Israel is to blame, and that is definitely not something for which Israel wants to bear responsibility.

The second problematic aspect in Trump’s answer is that because of growing US oil independence, “all of a sudden it gets to a point where you don’t have to stay there.”

Jerusalem wants to see the US engaged, influential and active in the region. It doesn’t want to see it disengaged and concerned only about its own domestic problems.

This sentiment is in no way unique to Israel. Saudi Arabia, the rest of the Persian Gulf countries, Egypt and Jordan are all fearful of a situation where the US would withdraw within itself.

If that were to happen, other actors would fill the vacuum, as was the case in Syria, where in 2015 Russia moved in, as the US waffled during the Syrian civil war. And two things are certain if other actors fill the vacuum left by the US: First, those actors will be much less benign; second, they will be much less concerned about Israel’s interests.

Jerusalem wants the US to remain in the region, but it wants the US to do so because this is good for the US – even if it no longer is dependent on Mideast oil – not only because it is also good for Israel.

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