Considering the "Zero Option": Cold War Lessons on U.S. Basing in the Middle East

Summary of Study

Bottom Line: The United States should consider eliminating its permanent military bases in the Middle East. This "zero option" would not jeopardize U.S. strategic interests, and could ultimately encourage a much-needed troop withdrawal.

While there are occasional debates in Washington and among foreign policy figures about withdrawing troops from the Middle East, they rarely go anywhere. The country may first need to scale down American operations in the Middle East before it can undertake serious troop withdrawal and reconsider its Middle East policy.

Particularly, the United States should consider closing all permanent military bases in the Middle East. History shows that pursuing such a "zero-option" would help advance America's interests without putting our security at risk.

Towards the end of the Cold War, the United States began prioritizing access to Middle Eastern oil reserves keeping the region free of Soviet influence. The quest to achieve these twin goals shaped early Cold War foreign policy and military strategy in the Middle East.

While the United States established some military bases in the region, these facilities were in no way central to U.S. strategy. Other "levers of power -- including economic aid, military sales and equipment transfers, business investments, and covert operations" were employed in lieu of military tactics.

This is not to say that the United States eschewed military action in the Middle East during the Cold War. But it is crucial to note that even "at a time of extreme international uncertainty, with an essential geopolitical object at play," the U.S. successfully used "non-military means" to achieve its goals in the region.

"The minimalist basing architecture of the Cold War stands in stark contrast" to today's landscape, with around 50,000 troops deployed and dozens of massive, expensive bases spread throughout the region.

Such a large military presence costs the country money and is not "necessary for successful energy flow out of the region." Indeed, the importance of the Middle East as a source of oil has not changed much since the Cold War. Our military presence didn't need to change, either.

While bases today are frequently seen as "prizes," it is important to remember that they're really just means to an end. In addition to monetary costs, maintaining bases risks unnecessarily entangling the United States in foreign affairs and putting American lives at risk.

As the Middle East becomes more turbulent, and given the poor track record of U.S. presence in the region, the time has come to rethink the need for military bases. Considering a "zero-option" would force policymakers to reconsider U.S. strategy in the Middle East, and would require those who want to keep bases open to openly defend their positions.

While a zero-option would not mean the end of U.S. involvement in the region, it would mean a positive shift, and could even encourage America's Middle Eastern allies to shoulder a greater share of the security burden. Both would represent improvements on the status quo.

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