The US Wanted Out of the Middle East. The Middle East Had Other Ideas.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III tours the flight deck of USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) with Ford Commanding Officer Capt. Rick Burgess.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III tours the flight deck of USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) with Ford Commanding Officer Capt. Rick Burgess, Dec. 20, 2023. (Chad J. McNeeley/Defense Department photo)

Facing a growing list of attacks against U.S. forces in the Middle East, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Charles "C.Q." Brown was pressed at a recent conference on why the American military wasn't responding more aggressively.

Two decades of war in the region, a war that much of the American public is eager to move on from, have made military leaders cautious when talking about battlefields that have claimed thousands of service members' lives.

"We're being very thoughtful about the approach we take, and I do that when I provide my advice on how best to respond but also not to broaden the conflict," Brown said on stage at the Reagan National Defense Forum at the beginning of the month.

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A day later, the list grew, with Iran-backed Houthi rebels launching one of their biggest drone attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea, prompting the destroyer USS Carney to shoot down multiple drones.

That same day, U.S. forces in Iraq killed five Iran-linked militants in a drone strike intended to prevent an imminent attack on American troops.

Since then, U.S. forces have faced dozens more attacks in Iraq and Syria, with the total topping 100 and at least 66 American troops suffering injuries. U.S. warships have also been called upon several more times to respond to continued Houthi attacks on commercial ships, and American military involvement in protecting commercial shipping is poised to grow with the announcement of a new multinational task force to patrol the Red Sea, an escalation as the year draws to a close.

Despite efforts to avoid a larger war and as the U.S. watches close ally Israel's ground campaign in Gaza continue, the American military by all appearances is, yet again, getting pulled deeper and deeper into the Middle East.

Taken as a whole, events since October demonstrate that, as much as the country has sought to extract itself from the Middle East in recent years, the region is not done with the United States, and 2024 is likely to see U.S. forces still confronting threats and facing the risk of casualties.

"The fact that there are several frozen conflicts in the region that have been unresolved, neither militarily nor politically, certainly creates an enabling environment for various cycles of violence to keep repeating themselves," said Merissa Khurma, director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center. "Everyone looks to the West for leadership in resolving these conflicts because that responsibility comes with the power the United States yields, both politically and militarily."

Further, the danger of a broader, conventional Middle East war still looms.

"It's sheer good luck that we have not lost any Americans in this growing number of attacks," said Mona Yacoubian, vice president of the Middle East and North Africa Center at the U.S. Institute of Peace. "This is far from over, and I think, unfortunately, we have not yet seen what the full scope of escalation looks like."

The start of the Biden administration saw a concerted effort to turn the page on America's so-called endless wars in the Middle East and South Asia, and in turn focus more on the Indo-Pacific region and America's strategic adversary of China.

Last year, a new National Defense Strategy named China as the United States' top "pacing challenge" while placing the threats that had consumed U.S. attention in the beginning of the 21st century, including terrorism and the Middle East, on a lower tier.

President Joe Biden withdrew the last remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan, despite warnings that came to fruition that doing so would lead to the Afghan government's collapse.

And while the administration left untouched about 2,500 troops in Iraq and about 900 troops in Syria to keep any remnants of the ISIS terrorist group at bay, Biden made a high-profile announcement in 2021 that the combat mission in Iraq was over, and officials rarely drew attention to U.S. military activities in Iraq and Syria.

Then Oct. 7 happened.

Hamas terrorists snuck across the border from the Gaza Strip to Israel, slaughtering about 1,200 people and abducting about 250 others in the bloodiest day in Israel's history. Americans were among both the dead and the hostages. The Israeli government responded by launching a war on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip that has included a blistering airstrike campaign and ground invasion.

Iranian proxy forces in the region have taken advantage of the chaos by launching a flurry of attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria and commercial shipping in the Red Sea. Israel and Hezbollah have also regularly been trading fire across the Israel-Lebanon border since Oct. 7.

The United States responded by rushing forces into the region in what officials described as an effort to deter a wider Middle East war. Two aircraft carriers and their associated strike groups steamed into the eastern Mediterranean Sea, and air defenses were bolstered throughout the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility, among other elements of the buildup.

Defense officials have stressed that no assets are being taken from the Indo-Pacific region to help the buildup in the Middle East. They also argue that they remain focused on China despite Gaza, as well as the war in Ukraine before that, consuming the most immediate attention.

"We've not lost any readiness," Gen. Charles Flynn, commanding general of U.S. Army Pacific, said at the Reagan forum when asked how competing priorities for weapons, particularly for the war in Ukraine, could affect his forces. "There's a lot of ways to weight your effort, and it's not just steel coming off of a production line."

Still, public attention has undeniably shifted recently, as has many U.S. leaders' rhetoric.

The Reagan National Defense Survey, released annually ahead of the conference, found the Middle East jumped as a priority for Americans in the last year. While 11% of respondents said in 2022 that the U.S. military should focus its forces in the Middle East, 31% said so this year. This year's iteration of the poll was taken weeks after the Hamas attack.

By comparison, 25% of respondents this year said the U.S. military should focus on East Asia, including China, compared to 31% last year.

When given free range to decide how to allocate U.S. military resources, poll respondents split forces fairly evenly between the Middle East and Asia. On average, respondents said about 19% of U.S. military resources should be focused on the Middle East and about 18% should be focused on East Asia.

Still, 51% said they believe China is the greatest threat to the United States, with the country retaining its perch atop the list from last year.

"It depends on what the leaders are talking about, that's what Americans are going to focus on," Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said on a panel at the Reagan forum about the poll results.

While the annual confab of military officials, lawmakers and defense contractors did not officially include any panels on the Middle East or the war in Israel, talk about the conflict permeated discussions at the Reagan Library.

During his speech at the conference, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke almost twice as long about Israel and the Middle East as he did about America's supposed priority theater of the Indo-Pacific.

"As we are working to stabilize the region, Iran is raising tensions," Austin said in his speech. "After attacks against U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria, our forces repeatedly struck facilities in Iraq and eastern Syria used by Iran's IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] and by militias affiliated with Iran. We will not tolerate attacks on American personnel. These attacks must stop. And until they do, we will do what we need to do to protect our troops -- and to impose costs on those who attack them."

Even with the tit-for-tat between U.S. forces and Iran-backed militias in the region, warnings at the beginning of the war in Israel that it could escalate into an all-out war in the Middle East haven't borne out. But regional experts say the skirmishes in Iraq and Syria, the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea and the violence on the Israel-Lebanon border all still risk spiraling into a more conventional war that would further entangle the United States.

"Nobody wants this to escalate further because they understand how high the risks are for contagion," said the Wilson Center's Khurma, who said she's spoken to regional diplomats who have open channels of communication with Iran. "It is very delicate. The risks remain high."

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