The Obama administration has clearly pulled back from the United States’ recent interventionism in the Middle East, notwithstanding the rise of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and the U.S.-led air war against it. Critics pin the change on the administration’s aversion to U.S. activism in the region, its unwillingness to engage in major combat operations, or President Barack Obama’s alleged ideological preference for diminished global engagement. But the reality is that Washington’s post-9/11 interventions in the region—especially the one in Iraq—were anomalous and shaped false perceptions of a “new normal” of American intervention, both at home and in the region. The administration’s unwillingness to use ground forces in Iraq or Syria constitutes not so much a withdrawal as a correction—an attempt to restore the stability that had endured for several decades thanks to American restraint, not American aggressiveness.
It’s possible to argue that pulling back is less a choice than a necessity. Some realist observers claim that in a time of economic uncertainty and cuts to the U.S. military budget, an expansive U.S. policy in the region has simply become too costly. According to that view, the United States, like the United Kingdom before it, is the victim of its own “imperial overstretch.” Others argue that U.S. policy initiatives, especially the recent negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, have distanced Washington from its traditional Middle Eastern allies; in other words, the United States isn’t pulling back so much as pushing away.
The long period of American primacy in the Middle East is ending.
In actuality, however, the main driver of the U.S. pullback is not what’s happening in Washington but what’s happening in the region. Political and economic developments in the Middle East have reduced the opportunities for effective American intervention to a vanishing point, and policymakers in Washington have been recognizing that and acting accordingly. Given this, the moderate U.S. pullback should be not reversed but rather continued, at least in the absence of a significant threat to core U.S. interests.