Elephants in the Room
The Pentagon Tries to Pivot out of the Middle East—Again
Confusion over the removal of missiles and aircraft from Saudi Arabia could invite the aggression the United States is trying to avoid.
When the U.S. Defense Department announced, on May 7, that it would withdraw two Patriot missile batteries and several fighter aircraft from Saudi Arabia, it looked like an ominous development in the tense relationship between Washington and Riyadh. Speculation was rife that it was an effort by the Trump administration to punish the kingdom for starting an oil price war that—in concert with collapsing oil demand due to the coronavirus pandemic—has wreaked havoc in the U.S. shale oil industry.
After all, angry Republican Senators had already introduced legislation calling for a complete U.S. military withdrawal, including the Patriot batteries. There were also credible reports that Trump himself had used these threats in negotiations with Riyadh to achieve the historic April 12 deal to cut oil production by 9.7 million barrels per day in an attempt to prop up prices and save U.S. shale.
But widespread anger in Washington at Saudi Arabia—over the oil price war, over the war in Yemen, over the killing of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi—doesn’t make the speculation correct. The withdrawal was much less about punishing the kingdom than about the Pentagon’s effort to manage its finite resources and shift many of them elsewhere from the Middle East.
But just like previous attempts to pivot, this one also comes with dangers. While withdrawing some forces from the region may be a manageable and necessary risk, pulling out too many could send the wrong message about U.S. capabilities and invite the increased regional conflict that the Pentagon most wants to avoid.
The withdrawal reverses, at least in part, a significant U.S. military buildup in the Middle East that began last year to counter the threat from Iran. Privately, U.S. officials explained that these additional deployments to Saudi Arabia were always a temporary measure to augment Saudi defense capabilities and address a spike in Iranian aggression. Once adequate arrangements were in place to close the gap in Saudi defenses, the emergency deployment was, by definition, to end.
The defensive missiles and fighter aircraft were clearly purposed to ward off threats from Iran. Following Tehran’s Sept. 14 attacks on Saudi Arabia’s Khurais oil field and Abqaiq oil processing facility, the Pentagon sent a significant number of additional military personnel and equipment to Saudi Arabia. These U.S. deployments included Patriot missile batteries to augment the kingdom’s own missile defense capabilities, which had failed to prevent Tehran’s drones and cruise missiles from attacking the world’s largest oil processing facility. The two departing Patriot batteries were guarding the oil facilities. Another two batteries guarding Prince Sultan Air Base, where U.S. forces are stationed, will reportedly stay in place for now.
If the withdrawal confused allies and unleashed speculation about the motives behind it, Washington only had itself to blame. From the Pentagon to the State Department to the White House, no one seemed prepared to provide an authoritative public explanation for the withdrawal and to underscore the United States’ commitment to regional partners. Consequently, an information vacuum emerged that was quickly filled by rumors and speculation.
In an unsuccessful attempt at damage control, Pentagon spokesperson Cmdr. Sean Robertson described the withdrawal as part of a global redeployment process that “routinely circulates troops and assets to address emerging threats and maintain readiness.” In the context of an ongoing campaign of maximum pressure on Iran, however, a badly executed or poorly justified withdrawal could quickly become anything but routine. Even if there are now fewer attacks by Iran and its proxies, more than four decades of history suggest it is likely a fleeting tactical or operational pause rather than a durable and strategic change of course.
Only last month, Tehran sent 11 gunboats to harass U.S. ships in a move the U.S. Navy called “dangerous and provocative.” In March, Tehran’s proxies in Iraq launched multiple rocket attacks at bases hosting U.S. forces. And in Syria, Israel has conducted repeated strikes to counter Iran’s relentless efforts to equip Lebanon’s Hezbollah with precision munitions.
The Pentagon insists it is staying vigilant and has forces ready. The United States retains “robust in-theater capabilities, including air defense, to address any Iran-related contingencies as needed,” Robertson said. “We also maintain the capability to augment these forces on short notice.” That’s a point Washington and its regional allies should emphasize. Otherwise, Tehran could perceive the withdrawal as a waning commitment to defend U.S. partners and regional interests—inviting more of the aggression Washington wants to avoid.
Saudi sources emphasized last week that Riyadh will be deploying its own Patriot systems to backfill the departing U.S. batteries. The Saudis have used the intervening months to strengthen their defenses and conduct additional training with U.S. advisors. It clearly makes sense for the Saudis to utilize their own air defense arsenal to protect the kingdom’s vital economic assets.
Given the growing missile threats to U.S. forces, it is easy to see why the Patriots are so much in demand. In January, Iran launched 16 ballistic missiles at bases housing American troops in Iraq. The Pentagon had decided to deploy its limited inventory of Patriot systems elsewhere, so U.S. troops had no choice but to brace for impact. After the attack injured more than 100 Americans, the Pentagon finally deployed Patriots to Iraq.
The U.S. Congress and the Trump administration must ensure that sufficient air and missile defense capabilities are procured and deployed in order to avoid leaving large concentrations of U.S. personnel and equipment unprotected while they are in easy reach of a hostile regime with ample missile capability.
In the meantime, many in the Pentagon note that every deployment to the Middle East is a military asset that is not available to deter China in the Pacific. The 2018 National Defense Strategy anticipated this tension: While the strategy identified China and Russia as the Pentagon’s “principal priorities,” it also emphasized that the U.S. military must “sustain its efforts to deter and counter” Iran.
Finding the right balance to deter both Iran and China is much easier said than done, even for the world’s best military. Too many U.S. military forces in the Middle East will deprive the Pentagon of resources needed elsewhere, but too few will leave U.S. interests, personnel, and allies insufficiently protected. That could permit the resurgence of the Islamic State or invite increased aggression from Iran. Either could spark a larger conflict in the Middle East that would pull U.S. military personnel and assets needed to meet the Pentagon’s priorities in the Pacific.
In 2018, then-Defense Secretary James Mattis pulled four Patriot batteries and a U.S. aircraft carrier out of the Middle East for redeployment to Asia. Less than a year later, those assets and more had to be rushed back to the Gulf to counter a spike in Iranian aggression—including the precision strike on Saudi oil facilities. That should serve as a cautionary tale: If the Pentagon goes too far in withdrawing forces, expect them to be returning soon when the next crisis emerges.
John Hannah is a senior counselor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney.