The United States has hundreds of military bases across the globe. It set bases in several countries such as Italy, Japan, Honduras, Burkina Faso, Iraq, Thailand, and Philippines. The military presence secures US interest and regional stability. Yet the US faces obstacles to maintain the status quo. In Iraq, internal unrest and violent confrontation against protesters continue. Officials are debating the legal statues of US forces in the country. Popular pressure mounts against US military presence in Iraq. This represents problems and challenges for the United States. What are the problems regarding military presence in the region? What are the reasons for maintaining military presence?
The situation of US encounters in Iraq and The Middle East Region
There are plenty of situations and problems that the United States encounters. First, anti-base protests occur frequently. Also, anti-US sentiments have become normal in Iraq politics. Additionally, terrorism is still a concern in the region. Besides, balance of power and regional conflicts require more resources to be projected to the Middle East, but the inconsistent American Foreign Policy complicates the situation.
The US military presence has touched the feeling of local residents from Asia-Pacific to the Middle East. In the case of Iraq, anti-government protests happened in October 2019 and anti-US protests that happened in January 2020 are the problems. The October anti-government protests were against foreign interference and aimed to overhaul the post-2003 political system established by the US military intervention. The January anti-US protests demand all foreign troops out of the country.
Even inside the Iraqi government, as officials raise more concern on sovereignty rather than security, anti-US opinion would not fade away. Iraq has declared that it would not allow its territory to be used as a launching pad against its neighbors. The Iraqi President Salih stated that “It’s our sovereign responsibility to abide by our constitution, not — Iraq not to be used as a base for any threat against our neighbors. Another example is Karim Alawi, a member of the Iraqi parliament security and defense committee made the statements that the US was going to bring “more than a thousand terrorists from Syria to Iraq through gaps in our borders and airspace” . President Salih and Karim Alawi’s speech indicate that the Iraqi government contains some reinforced internal opponents against the United States military presence.
Third, the inconsistency of the US foreign policy has worsened the situation. US alliances which used to rely on U.S. promise and generousness, start to question the validity of their tie with the US. Security is the main reason for countries to allow US military bases in their countries. However, it is unclear whether the US military presence secures the countries or increases hostility to neighbors. Iraq is extremely cautious about the US missile launched inside the country. Iraq was disappointed to witness the killing of Soleimani in Bagdad.
Fourth, radical extremism and terrorism are also problematic. Despite the defeat of ISIS, the elimination of terrorism has a long way to go. Radical extremists mobilize fighters under the name of jihad. The psychology of radicalism can trace back the Gulf War, in which most Middle East countries were furious about the successful involvement of the United States. The sense of Jihadism reemerged to defend the Muslim world from Western Invaders. On the one hand, the insecurity of a person, a family, and a state make the terrorism and extremism a choice. On the other hand, the unstable political environment enables the soil for terrorism to grow. Radical extremists and terrorists are then able to utilize religion as a political tool to achieve goals. They cause hundreds of civilians and US soldiers dead and wounded.
Fifth, from a grand strategy perspective, the balance of power in the Middle East is the problem for the US to maintain a military presence. As Russia and China seek more influence in the region, it would affect the US strategy. When considering regional affairs, countries do not rely on the United States anymore as they were. Rather, they prefer to gain benefits from both sides. The involvement of other powers undermines the effectiveness of US strategy. For instance, the US wants to sanction Iran and prohibit other countries from purchasing oil products. Iran now would have a choice to trade with China or other buyers. Since August 2019, China and Iran have discussed trade oil in Chinese yuan. It is said that China will invest $280 billion into Iran’s oil economy; an extra $120 billion will go toward improving transport infrastructure.
Reasons of United States Military presence in Iraq and the Middle East Region
Since 2011, the “Arab spring” historic changes have taken place in the Middle East: the Islamic extremist forces represented by ISIS emerged in the Middle East; the de facto fragmentation and failure of Iraq and Syria; losing its bellwether of the Arab world, Egypt was replaced by Saudi Arabia and Turkey; marginalization of the Israeli – Palestinian conflict; Iran’s rapid rise. Within America’s existence in the Middle East, Russia and China jumped in the region for their own stakes. The chaos in the Middle East remains the same, but the pattern has changed dramatically. Because of its great concerns, the United States persists in its military presence in the Middle East and North African Region, especially in Iraq. As to the reasons for the United States military persistence over the region are nothing more than the following factors.
First of all, The emerging issue of terrorism makes United States keep its military, United States is committed to fighting against terrorism in Iraq and Syria. The most obvious example is its limited low-intensity war with ISIS and Al-Qaeda. ISIS has been taking up the north part of Iraq and the east of Syria until last year that the United States and Syria government defeated all of them. Therefore, keeping a military presence is useful for United States to combat terrorism in Iraq and the region. Further, considering the sunk cost in the international political economy, the United States has invested trillions of dollars in building a regional order and hierarchy. If the order and hierarchy of the region were destroyed due to terrorism, the investment would become sunk cost, then United States national interest will be violated.
Second, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey see themselves as the heirs of the Persian, Arab and Ottoman empires, Israel as a symbol of the strong restoration of Zionism, and the region’s struggle for dominance has never ceased. The complex ethnic, religious and geographical conflicts in the Middle East determine that the balance of power in the region will always be a dynamic balance. In order to deter Iran, Palestine, Syria, the United States needs to stay in the region to support its alliances, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iraqi government. America’s interest is in overthrowing Syria’s secular Government and replacing it with one that would be acceptable to the fundamentalist-Sunni Saud family who own Saudi Arabia. In order to do this, America will therefore need to keep its forces in Iraq.
Third, to prevent other great powers from intervening in the region power vacuum after the US’s withdrawal, the United States needs to present its military force in the region. Other great powers such as Russia and China, from their own economic or security perspective, aims to build their networks and relationships. The game between China and US, US and Russia threaten the United States grand strategy to maintain its dominance in the region. At the same time, military force presence can deter Iran and Syria.
Fourth, military presence can secure United States economic interests and contain emerging countries. As is known to us all that United States dollars is the global currency since the 1970s. The economic hegemony is tightly connected and maintained by United States dollars, which greatly influenced by Iraq and the Middle East OPEC members. The demands of oil is soaring with the industrialization and globalization, the world demand per day in 2000 is 75.8 million barrels, while in 2018, according to data published by OPEC, the demand mb/d (Million barrels/day) is 98.82, in total 30.3% increasement tells the story of the surge of oil demand. Therefore, OPEC member states have the power to set discourse on the oil price and a certain capacity to affect America’s currency security. Given the fact that the United States used to be the No.1 country to import the oil from the region, to assure its oil security, it was reasonable for the United States to present their military force in the region. However, Shale gas revolution has endowed the United States independence of energy. China replaced the United States and became the No.1 oil-importing country around the world. Considering East Asia is the region that imports the most oil, to contain China and ensure Japan and South Korea to comply with the United States, U.S. should keep its military force to grasp the lifeblood of oil imports of East Asia.
Luo Yusen, M.A in United Nations and Global Policy Studies, Political Science, Rutgers University, United States.