“Should I Stay or Should I Go?” – US Stuck in the Middle East, Devoid of Deterrence Power

Yves here. There’s something way too Norma Desmond about the desperate US efforts to turn its fading star around in the Middle East. As we said before. hitting 85 targets in retaliation for the deaths of three servicemembers looks both mad and desperate. Hitting some number around 10 with many of them going boom (ideally ammo depots) would have looked sufficiently punitive. And that’s before considering that we put these soldiers in harm’s way by them almost certainly having been in Syria, meaning illegally.

And showing that the US can’t kick its bad habits, we then struck in Baghdad, which in case anyone forgot is a sovereign state at which we are no longer at war but we still fancy we occupy by virtue of doggedly refusing to pull our last troops out. Yes, it was “only” a drone attack against a militia leader in Kataib Hezbollah. But excuses like that don’t get you far. This is no different, substantively, than the alleged murder by India of a separatist Sikh leader in Canada, which had the Western media pillorying Modi for weeks.

And Iraq is predictably Not Happy. From Agence France-Presse:

Iraqi authorities slammed the strike as a “blatant assassination” in a residential neighbourhood of Baghdad.

“The international coalition is completely overstepping the reasons and objectives for which it is present on our territory,” said Yehia Rasool, the military spokesman for Iraq’s prime minister.

And it wan’t just the militia leader that died. From the same account:

An interior ministry official said a total of three people — two Kataeb Hezbollah leaders and their driver — had died in the strike, which was carried out by a drone in the east Baghdad neighbourhood of Mashtal.

And this act is just getting the US mired deeper:

Iraq’s pro-Iran Al-Nujaba movement promised a “targeted retaliation”, saying that “these crimes will not go unpunished”.

The post below explains further why the US is unwilling to extricate itself from the Middle East.

By Uriel Araujo, researcher with a focus on international and ethnic conflicts. Originally published at InfoBRICS

In yet another instance of American attacks against Iran-backed organizations in the Levant, the  US Central Command (CENTCOM) confirmed in a statement on February 7 that it “conducted a unilateral strike in Iraq in response to the attacks on US service members, killing a Kata’ib Hezbollah commander responsible for directly planning and participating in attacks on US forces in the region.” The US drone strike targeted Abu Baqir al-Saadi, the influential commander of  Iran-backed Kata’ib Hezbollah militia, suspected of carrying out the attack on an American base in Jordan. Yesterday, Yehia Rasool, the spokesperson for the commander in chief of the Iraqi Armed Forces, described this American military action as a “blatant assassination”, adding that the US-led international coalition in the country has “become a factor of instability”, and that “the American forces jeopardize civil peace, violate Iraqi sovereignty, and disregard the safety and lives of our citizens.”

On February 3 Washington started airstriking the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and other targets in Syria and Iraq, as a response to the January 28 drone attack in Jordan that killed three American personnel. According to Pentagon deputy press Secretary Sabrina Singh, the attack had the “footprints” of the Iran-backed Kata’ib Hezbollah militia.

The assassination of the aforementioned militia commander, largely seen as a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty (which it is), triggered wide condemnation and protests in Baghdad, thereby escalating US-Iraq tensions. As I wrote, since last month top Iraqi authorities including Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani have been reiterating their calls for US troops to leave the country. And now Baghdhad is seriously threatening to expel the American forces. Washington had already “left” the country but in a way paradoxically, as it seems, it never really left.

The past American occupation of Iraq, complete with “nation-building” efforts, is often described as a (failed) “neocolonial” endeavor. That occupation might have come to an end in 2011, after eight years, but the presence of US troops in that Levantine nation is still at the center of a major controversy. As I argued last year, an emboldened and empowered Islamic Republic of Iran emerged as the main winner of this US disaster in Iraq. Tehran in fact is arguably today’s main power in the Middle East – and not Washington. The Persian nation’s rising influence today is also felt in the wider West Asian region, as we have recently seen with regards to Pakistan-Iranian tensions over both countries having struck each other’s territory while targeting a terrorist group that operates on their shared border (the two nations have recently resumed their diplomatic relations).

Back to the series of attacks carried out by the United States in the Levant and also in the Red Sea, one can argue they are indeed part of an escalating US-Iran confrontation involving Iranian “proxies” or regional partners and the so-called axis of resistance. The rising tensions have much to do with Washington’ support for its Israeli ally: a large part of the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East today after all is about the escalation of the long going “fuel war” and of the so-called shadow war between Iran and the Jewish state. Today’s escalation is in any case mostly a spillover effect of the US-backed disastrous Israeli military campaign in Palestine, as I detailed elsewhere.

Since 2011, that is, for over a decade, Washington has been mostly “withdrawing” from the Middle East, a trend that became abundantly clear ten years later, when its troops left Afghanistan in 2021 – the latest developments however could all arguably be seen as signs that it is making a “come-back” in the area. In a way, from Washington’s perspective, the region keeps pulling it back in – to a large degree thanks to an Israel ally the US cannot quite control or curb.

US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on February 4 that the strikes against Iranian allies were “the beginning, not the end.” The problem, from an American perspective, is that such a retaliatory campaign has no deterrence effect. With regards to the ongoing Red Sea crisis, in particular, the world has recently learned that for about three months Washington basically begged its Chinese rival to help by pressuring Iran into curbing the Houthi rebels – in a clear display of weakness. Beijing, in any case, simply has no reason, as I’ve explained, to exert too much pressure, the mess being largely a problem caused by American foreign policy mistakes.

According to a recent The Economist piece, one of the reasons American deterrence against Iran is not working pertains to the fact that Washington, in the larger Middle Eastern context, simply cannot decide whether it will “leave” or “stay” and basically does not seem  to know what to do in the region. The clearly overburdened Atlantic superpower could be described as being “stuck” in West Asia. As I wrote before, Washington, it appears, wishes to pivot away from the Middle East towards the Indo-Pacific and Eastern Europe plus part of Central Asia – even while its naval supremacy seems to be coming to an end.

The idea that the Middle East should no longer be a priority for Washington began with former president Barack Obama and kept evolving under Donald Trump, to then gain clearer contours under Joe Biden’s administration. The United States however do not wish to give up its role of “global policeman”, as the American Establishment sees it, and thus it is faced with a conundrum: according to Sedat Laçiner, a Turkish academic specialist on the Middle East, “given the geostrategic and cultural significance it embodies, it would not be an overstatement to assert that sustained global leadership is unattainable for any power that fails to exert dominance over the Middle East region in the long term”. Laçiner’s reasoning is that the North American superpower simply cannot “leave” the area, a center of oil and petrodollars. However it is not quite welcome “back” there, as the local actors are pursuing new relationships.

According to the aforementioned The Economist piece, “in the Middle East America is torn between leaving and staying and cannot decide what to do with the forces it still has in the region.” Moreover, it desires “to pivot away from the region while simultaneously keeping troops in it”, thus maintaining a “military presence” that invites tensions but fails to “constrain” its Iranian rival. The world is a complex place with many points of tension, but an undecided declining superpower that refuses to show restraintcertainly contributes a lot to bringing stability to the planet – including in the Middle East.

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  1. furnace

    Nasrallah had a point in saying that the real root cause of the conflict was the US and not Israel. The problem is that the US still thinks it’s 1991 (or even 2003) and it can go and make a mess around the world without substantial consequences. But when your enemies have missiles and drones, and are willing to fight and die to the last in order to expel you, things are quite a bit different; this is, of course, without mentioning the abysmal state of the US military, currently with a shortage of literally everything, including most importantly personnel.

      1. Polar Socialist

        Maybe the best military tons and tons of money can buy is not the same as The Best Military, after all.

        1. Ignacio

          Now some realise that instead… not instead, besides, ultra-expensive aircraft and plus ultra expensive fleets, some investment in old fashion artillery tubes is necessary. More money for the military needed ASAP!

    1. Alan Roxdale

      Don’t forget underground tunnel networks (negating air superiority) and every citizen having an internet connected smartphone (negating traditional mass media propaganda). A lot has changed since 1991.

  2. The Rev Kev

    The situation in Syria and Iraq is getting kinda like rickety scaffolding. The US cannot really pull out of Iraq just yet as then they would have no real way to supply and support those bases in Syria. They could pull out of Syria but that would eliminate all leverage that they think that they have with Syria. If it happened, the main road between Damascus and Baghdad would no longer be blocked and all the oil and wheat belt regions would revert back to the Syrian who would be able to quickly rebuild their country. In addition, ISIS would be put on the endangered species list overnight. And there may be another factor. All that oil that the US is stealing from Syria is sent to Turkiye where it probably goes to Israel so perhaps Israel will therefore press the US not to leave as they want to keep on receiving that Syrian oil. Brian from New Atlas talks about this situation and I recommend watching the section at the 13:15 mark to listen to Dana Stroul of the Syria Study Group-

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iPoYzPu2e6E (31:22 mins)

        1. JonnyJames

          Interesting that IS/ISIL/ISIS or whatever they call it, always acts in the interests of Israel and the US.

        2. Oh

          Word has it that ISIS was created by the CIA. How else would they receive all those brand new Toyota trucks often shown in the news reels?

  3. Es s Ce tera

    The key thing, for me, is that the US, as an occupying force, like the Nazis in WW2, has yet to come to the realization or understanding that it cannot fight cell-based resistance movements. They cannot possibly keep all of the population under surveillance all of the time, control all movements, inspect all luggage and belongings, routinely search homes, control all aspects of the lives of a population, in order to control for resistance.

    And, fundamentally, the US also errs in thinking these organizations are structured like hierarchies with leaders on top, so take out the leaders and you take out the organization, which is clearly not the case. When has taking out resistance leaders ever destroyed any of these organizations? They’re designed to be amorphous precisely because a leader-based hierarchy is a vulnerability when anyone could be captured and interrogated or assasinated.

    Lord knows, the Nazis and the Israelis have tried and very clearly failed. The obvious lesson is not being learned.

    Putin, on the other hand, learned the lesson with the Chechans and carries the knowledge forward.

    I think the Americans in invading Iraq thought they could get everyone to love them, even after 500,000 civilian “collateral” deaths which were demonstrably not so collateral, by giving out chocolate bars.

  4. nippersdad

    From what I have read the only reason that US forces were not thrown out of the country after the Soleimani assassination was because the US held their foreign reserves hostage. I wonder to what extent Iraq has removed those savings from New York banks since then, and with BRICS rising how long it will matter to them.

    1. JonnyJames

      Yeah, I wonder whatever happened to Afghanistan’s (poorest country in the world, or close to it) central bank reserves that were “seized” by the US? What happened to Iran, Venezuela and Libya’ s gold reserves?

  5. Pym of Nantucket

    It is much easier to grow things than to decline or shrink. In decline every retraction of resources is resisted by stakeholders while in growth, you just have to reward the structures in the organization you want. This applies to many many organizations of all sizes. The cascading retrenchment as each successive step down triggers more penury leads to spontaneous choices with no alternatives. In war it’s related to the operational initiative where the side that has choices sets the tempo, while the side with fewer choices reacts.

    The US “empire” (or whatever it is) is facing a loss of initiative on many fronts. To retake the initiative would require less denial, sacred cows, hidden promises, geriatric leaders with poor understanding of the true nature of the situation and above all humility. I won’t say it cannot happen but it sure seems unlikely. As they always say, the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.

    NC has had great articles about why the leadership class is so crippled in the West. I think getting to the bottom of why denial is such a fundamental reflex in the upper echelons of the West would be a real positive step. (This is probably a repeat of a 100 comments seen on this site, my apologies to those who read the last 99 versions)

    1. Synoia

      The British empire was wound upon a scheduled time frame, and apart form Asen and Malaya, it was achieved with more grace that the US retreats .

      I went to university with British Officers who had served with these campaigns, and received an understanding the British disengagement, and see little of the same from the US or its’ military.

      1. Schopsi

        There’s this pretty common argument that the British disassembled their formal Empire so comparatively gracefully because the british ruling classes knew that the Americans would take over and calculated (possibly even started preparing for it since the late nineteenth century at least, with people like Cecil Rhodes working to “convert” the american power elites more and more to a perspective of a common anglosaxon imperialism (even if at that point they may still have hoped that Britain itself would continue to play first fiddle in the relationship, but one can easily see this morphing relatively seamlessly into an attractive plan B, one so cunning that it would justify a LOT congratulating each other for their collective brilliance even when it wasn’t really all planned from the start) where they would b
        eventually be able to continue to excert power through the US, formally the junior partner but behind the scenes the brain of the whole operation.

        In a way I think the European bigshots tend to think similarly in general, even though unlike possibly the Brits they never really had any measurable sway over the american establishment.

        With them at least it’s really more a psychological thing that contributes a lot to their idiotic, suicidal “Nibelungentreue”.

        They live vicariously through America and it’s power and dominance.

        Europe may “unfortunately” no longer be the center of the universe, but as long as Europe’s wunderkind progeny still bestrides the world like a colossus they live safely in the knowledge that their worldviews, their “civilisation” is still supreme over everything and everyone.

        But this time there is no new anglo or european settler colony great power waiting in the wings to keep carrying the torch.

        This time the end of american hegemony will truly mean the end of the hegemony of the West as such, probably forever, which might be a much bigger blow to the vanity of the Collective West’s rulers while for the Brits it might be like losing their Empire a second time, only this time without any cunning (or insidious) masterplan to secretly claw back power in a different way.

        This arguably would would put the british withdrawel from their Empire in a different and much less flattering light.

        And them being almost more hysterical about the seeming loss of american power than even the Americans themselves, certainly much more shrill then previous british elite generations were, would fit the picture perfectly as well.

        1. digi_owl

          It may well be that they do not see in terms of empire, after all British control of India came thanks to the British East India company going bankrupt and getting nationalized, but in terms of financial flow.

          They do not care what nation is nominally in control as long as it can be expected to honor the financial claims of Wall Street and City.

  6. JonnyJames

    Always interesting to discuss foreign policy and geostrategy. Here’s my two cents (twenty bucks, adjusted for inflation)

    The US was never the “global policeman”, that’s a bit of a puerile euphemism; it has been the global hegemon since 1945. The term “nation building” is also a euphemism. The US is not noted for building anything, just destroying, regime changing, and mass murdering. (But the US empire is the offspring of the British Empire in many ways and the British were also bloody, pun intended)

    The unipolar empire can no longer maintain its legions across the globe. The classic Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (Paul Kennedy) comes to mind. Imperial overstretch. Michael Hudson’s classic, Super Imperialism is also a great source that explains financial hegemony. The US enjoyed special privileges as being the only major power not destroyed by WWII, and the “splendid isolation” it enjoyed geographically.

    The rogue empire violates its own laws, simply ignores the facts that the occupations of Syria, Iraq, shipping weapons to Israel, Ukraine, imposing unilateral siege warfare on Venezuela, Cuba, Iran, etc. is illegal.

    I would also add that the TRILLIONS of dollars that have been transferred from public coffers into private hands just since 2001, and is a huge motivation for imperial occupations, wars, etc. Trillions is not chump-change, and provides a huge incentive for imperial hubris. It seems the two go hand-in-hand. The institutional corruption of the US in general, and Congress in particular means that financial incentives, not only geostrategic factors, determine US foreign policy, Israel policy included. The short-signed greed, hubris and corruption will be the downfall of the US and will have catastrophic consequences for denizens of the “homeland”. If we all survive, that is. A desperate and declining empire is doing very dangerous and reckless acts, it is good that China and Russia are more grounded and “cool headed” or we would all be vaporized by now.

    However, what is not mentioned: blocking Belt and Road, control of pipelines, and blocking Chinese and Russian influence in the ME and Central Asia region appears to be a big factor. Some say that US foreign policy is dictated by Israel and The Lobby, but that is too simplistic.

    As Zbig B outlined in The Grand Chessboard (1998), the US must maintain hegemony by the “Pivot to Asia” aka containing China ( I think he coined that term), prying Ukraine from Russia, and maintaining influence/control over global energy flows. Zbig’s geostrategic goals were largely pursued by the US, but the tactics were not what he would have liked.

    Zbig was from the so-called Realist school of IR (as was Henry K.) and differed with the so-called neoconservatives on tactics. The long term goal of maintaining hegemony is shared by most of the foreign policy establishment. (NSC, CFR, Atlantic Council, CIA etc.)

    The US military can’t meet recruitment goals due to the poor physical/mental health of young people in the US, as well as the skyrocketing obesity rates among even young people.

    The US National Defense Strategy puts China as the biggest “threat”. This assessement, despite the cheap rhetoric, was shared by the BO, DT, and JB regimes.

    If/when DT becomes POTUS again, the focus will be on China and not Russia. I believe it was Zbig. B. who coined the term “pivot to Asia” and the last desperate attempt of the US empire to “contain China” will end in failure. As the article points out, US naval power is declining. Ever since “Britannia Ruled the Waves” global dominance hinged on dominance of the seas. But that was before Belt and Road.

    As far as “conrol” of the ME: My crude prediction is that if KSA or any OPEC members refuse to accept USD for petro products, we can expect a major military backlash from the US. As we know, financial imperialism is the core of US power

  7. Aurelien

    This episode demonstrates two fundamental truths about intervention in someone else’s country. (1) It’s a lot easier to get in than to get out and (2) Heisenberg-like, intervention changes the nature of the problem, and if and when you leave, it never goes back to what it was like before.

    In many cases, as here, you even forget why you ever got in, in the first place. The original US objective, securing an important role in a post-Assad Syria, by supporting his opponents, has obviously failed, but, like other western states, the US cannot accept this, and clings to the idea that if they carry on long enough, a miracle will happen. And as is always the case with interventions, the interventionists have become the tail and not the dog. To their credit, the Turks, who are another large part of the jigsaw, do seem to be ready to contemplate getting out: there have been plausible rumours of contacts between Ankara and Damascus over the PKK issue. But the West doesn’t seem so pragmatic.

  8. KD

    Keeping troops in Iraq and Syria is crazy, you have a few thousand troops with what, eight hundred miles of logistics from Kuwait to some of these places. Put aside hostile militias, there is no way to secure logistics for these bases, and even to get to Kuwait, you have to get through the Straits of Hormuz. You are not going to have the forces to secure the sea and land to supply the troops reliably unless you set up a new settler colony in the Persian Gulf, with 100K in troops and a carrier group The US is not staying, its only a question of how many soldiers have to die before we pull out. Hopefully, its not another Beirut bombing.

    1. JonnyJames

      Crazy for whom? And a question of how many 100s of billions can be transferred from the public coffers into private hands in the meantime. Some are killed, and some make a killing.

  9. Glen

    Hmm, consulting the oracle is required here, let’s see what they say:

    The Clash – Should I Stay or Should I Go

    If I go, there will be trouble
    And if I stay, it will be double

    And to be further noted, the flip side to the single is Straight to Hell.

    I think the oracle has spoken.

    W and Cheney’s Excellent Middle East Adventure, along with Obama’s Thin Red Line of Lies in Syria are both long past their sell buy date and well into full on neoliberalcon “let’s take advantage of two large oceans for defense and wreck America’s military for profit” rot. Yeah, it’s been fun, but it’s always best to leave under your own power rather than stay until kicked out. This will be tricky because American oligarchs are more large and in charge in America than ever and refuse to admit that they have wrecked their own country including it’s military.

    1. Rip Van Winkle

      I agree. Since the W-Cheney-Rummy-MIC regime, I would no more recommend to a young adult thinking of joining the U.S. military as working handyman jobs for John Wayne Gacy.

  10. Susan the other

    War never makes sense but it seems extra odd that Hezbollah would choose an outpost as it’s target, an outpost, Tower 22, in Jordan where the US is legally locating its personnel. Whereas if Hezbollah had struck an American facility in Syria where it is illegally occupying Syrian territory, then clearly the US would not have any legal recourse to “defend itself.” Just saying. I’m sure it has been pointed out.

    1. fjallstrom

      I understand it as the Jordan government denying the attack took place in Jordan, so maybe they did take place across the border. I think Tower 22 and Al Tanf are close, though formally separated by the border.

      Though of course the Jordan government could be lying to avoid escalating the situation. Or the US government is lying in order to escalate the situation.

    2. elkern

      Also, be careful not to conflate “Kataib Hezbollah” (the Iraqi militia named by US as being mainly responsible for killing the US Troops at Tower 22 [or At Tanf?]) with the Lebanese group “Hezbollah” which is in a tepid war with Israel but has not been accused of attacking US troops recently.

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