According to a recent survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a solid majority of the American public feels less safe because of U.S. arms sales to other countries. That’s obviously not how the White House feels, with U.S. President Donald Trump continuing to push for more sales to enhance the security of allies and boost U.S. jobs at home. And his predecessors, except for President Jimmy Carter, agreed more with him than with average Americans.
Who’s right? Washington, or the American people? Well, neither. Arms sales should be viewed as only one part of the United States’ efforts to pursue its security objectives and cooperate with its allies. Excessive focus on this particular tool oversimplifies things and misses the point. The real question that should be asked is whether U.S. security cooperation and assistance is furthering U.S. goals. To be sure, that’s not an easy question, but at least it’s the right one. And it is possible to get some sense of the answer by limiting the focus to the Middle East, since that region buys American weapons more than any other in the world and is where the United States seems to encounter the most problems related to those sales.
Why is U.S. security cooperation important, and especially so in the Middle East? First, to effectively compete with China and Russia—the United States’ top priority—Washington will have to reallocate U.S. military resources from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific region and elsewhere. This in turn places a higher premium on cooperation with partners in the Middle East. In short, if the United States wishes to do less in the region, its partners will have to do more, and do it better, to prevent security vacuums.
Second, even if Washington weren’t worried about Russia and China, most Americans still want out of the Middle East. It’s not clear yet what that means specifically, or how the United States can pave a path out of the desert, as Middle East scholar Kenneth Pollack poignantly put it in his 2009 book, but it’s obvious that the United States wants to be less militarily involved in that part of the world (which is a good thing). The Middle East is less strategically vital to the United States than it was a decade ago: The United States doesn’t need its oil as much anymore, no regional power can threaten Israel’s existence (unless Iran gets a nuclear bomb), and preventing another 9/11 definitely doesn’t require the deployment of thousands of American soldiers overseas. U.S. overinvolvement in the region has also cost it dearly in blood and treasure, with very little to show in return.
Of course, U.S. Central Command, the war-fighting organization stationed in the Middle East, will vehemently object and argue that the Middle East is at the heart of the global power competition. There is truth in that, as the global price of oil is still heavily influenced by regional stability—witness rising oil prices after attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure this month—and China’s well-being relies on massive energy imports from the area. But Middle East fatigue in Washington is very real and seems durable. It is already guiding policy: Just look at how the United States watched Syria burn, how it has withdrawn most U.S. troops from Iraq despite the generals’ advice, and how it can’t wait to exit Afghanistan through a deal with a brutal gang that harbored terrorists who murdered nearly 3,000 Americans on 9/11. Those are not the behaviors of a United States that is committed to staying in the Middle East.