US unlikely to reduce Middle East presence: analyst

Despite President Trump's hardline rhetoric, Chatham House argue strategic plans too strong to change outlook

US President Donald Trump speaks during a luncheon with Republican members of Congress at the White House on June 26, 2018. / AFP / Nicholas Kamm
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Despite President Donald Trump’s repeated calls to lessen US security involvement in the Middle East, if anything, under his leadership the footprint has increased, a paper by the leading think-tank Chatham House has said.

This is because doing so could damage relations with powerful Gulf countries and other influential regional players, whose territory the US needs to undertake its core activities in the region.

“Despite President Trump’s strident belief that Middle East governments are ‘ripping off’ the US, and that the United States should receive some form of reimbursement or that US troops should return home, in the first 18 months of his presidency he has directed no noticeable shift in military policy towards the region,” Micah Zenk, a senior fellow at Chatham House’s America’s programme, said in the report.

“That President Trump has proven unwilling to or incapable of altering America’s military policy in the Middle East – all the while decrying it publicly and repeatedly – demonstrates the policy’s bipartisan political endorsement, as well as the unspoken approval of Pentagon officials. Even when a president has the support of their own political base to change this policy, they may struggle to do so,” he added.

Mr Zenk argued this was because there was a fear that advancing on Mr Trump’s position could “rupture” relations with strategic allies whose permission was needed to operate military bases on their sovereign soil.

Maintaining this presence was motivated by a number of core principles the paper said: Military engagements that influenced political and security outcomes; training up the forces of the countries where operations were based; deterring the movement of hostile forces through a show of strength in peacetime; special forces operations, and using the countries as a strategic base when full-scale military operations were underway.

“To effectively conduct any of these core activities requires reliable and assured access to the Middle East. This mandates a well-established command and control structure, an enduring and tolerated permanent presence,” said Mr Zenk.

“The US military is indeed ‘stuck’ in the region, with all of the associated human and financial costs, unintended consequences, and opportunities to shape and influence political and security outcomes. A fundamental shift in this military policy remains unimaginable at present,” he added.