It’s been a while since I’ve looked at US involvement in the Middle East in depth. I’ve been doing a deep dive into the history of Yemen for months now, but that was mostly pre-1983, when the US decided to make the Middle East our daily problem with the founding of Centcom. Over the past month or so I’ve dived deep, not just into the “Greater War For the Middle East” (as Andrew Bacevich calls it) but also into the unified combatant command structure that is solidifying US empire all over the world. My view on all of this is… somewhat grim. I hope the video isn’t too much of a downer.
Video Transcript after the jump…
So you guys know the most powerful Middle Eastern Politician lives in Tampa Florida, right? I am talking about Michael E. Kurilla the Commander of the United States Central Command.
Over the past 75 years the Pentagon has divided the world up into progressively more and more heavily garrisoned imperial jurisdictions. Since 1986 the Senate confirmed leaders of these unified combatant commands have reported directly to the President, through the Defense Secretary, cutting out the rest of the military establishment. Reporters and historians tend to describe these figures as the equivalent of Roman proconsuls or British Viceroys. Democrat Presidents tend to defer to these commanders with a few legal reservations. Republican Presidents or at least Donald Trump, set them free to do whatever the hell they want. Thanks to 9-11, for the past two decades Central Command, or Centcom has been the most active of the commands. Two of the past three confirmed Defense Secretaries used Centcom leadership as a stepping stone to that role.
Now I guess you could disagree with me that Kurilla is the most powerful Middle Eastern Figure. I mean, I can’t think of anybody else who can kill pretty much anybody in the region, at any time, with more or less complete confidence that nobody will shoot him back, but your definitions may vary. I am bringing up General Kurilla to introduce the point of today’s video, that the United States is in no way withdrawing from the Middle East.
I mean sure, we are less committed compared to the absolute peak years, with 160,000 US troops in Iraq in 2007 or 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011. But those periods of time were obscenely expensive and have been proved by history to be a complete waste of time. Anybody who sees the Iraq or Afghanistan peaks as the standard the US should be aiming for needs to have their heads examined. The truth is that the US remains insanely over committed to the Middle East. We still have 10s of thousands of troops there, and we are maintaining an infrastructure for the launch of the US’s next pointless trillion dollar war. All we are waiting for is a spark, and all the US soldiers in the region, function as exactly the sorts of human targets that could provide that spark.
This is all especially frustrating, because this commitment is getting less necessary by the week. The US presence is supposedly about Oil and Israel, but neither of those interests are actually in any danger anymore, and when they were in danger, we didn’t need any trillion dollar war bait boots on the ground to protect them.
During the cold war, Israel was in real danger, for decades. It had serious military rivals on its borders, and those rivals were heavily backed by the Soviet Union, one of the world’s superpowers. Back then, the United States had no significant military presence on the ground in the Middle East. But that didn’t stop us from being able to save Israel with vital supplies during 1973’s Yom Kippur war. We can do everything we need to do to support Israel from our bases in Germany and Malta. That’s been historically proven. But our regional on the ground presence keeps growing, even as Israel has become one of the safer countries on the planet. The Soviet Union is long gone, Egypt has been working closely with the US and Israel since 1979, and Jordan signed a peace deal in 1994. Syria is in ruins, and Israel’s relationship with Syria’s Russian air force is so friendly, that the Israeli Air Force is able constantly bomb Syria’s government and its allies. Oh yeah, and Israel also has nukes. This is not a country that is currently in any danger.
Oil is even less of an issue. During the cold war, when we had vastly fewer troops on the ground in the Middle East, we did actually need oil from the region. And we were capable of protecting it with almost no presence on the ground. In the late 80s, we fought a fairly intense naval and air war against Iran to force them to allow Saddam Hussein and his allies to continue to export oil. The Tanker War doesn’t get talked about for a bunch of reasons. We are embarrassed that we put all that effort into saving Saddam a year or three before we fought him. We are horrified that the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian civilian airliner, killing 290 people. But I also suspect that we don’t like to talk about how easily We destroyed the Iranian Navy. It kind of makes basing troops on the Persian Gulf look redundant and silly. And that was back when we actually needed oil from the Middle East. We still use a bit of Saudi and Iraqi petroleum today, in California Specifically, but thanks to US production, we don’t actually need it.
And middle East oil security doesn’t need us either. This was demonstrated quite violently three years ago. In September of 2019, after years of Saudi terror bombing of Yemen, Iran and its Yemeni allies blew up Saudi oil facilities representing 5% of world oil production. This was an opportunity for the trillion dollar war with Iran that the Pentagon had been seeking for decades. But Donald Trump was in power, and in one of the best moves of his career, he simply chose not to do anything about it. And the result of the US not doing anything to “defend the oil” has been expanding peace and security. Now that MBS knows we won’t back him up, he has opened up diplomatically to Iran. The 2019 attacks also convinced Saudi Arabia to start pursuing peace in Yemen much more seriously, making 2022 the first year of the past 8 without heavy Saudi bombing of that poor country. The main constraint on the Middle East’s contribution to the world oil market remains Obama and Trump’s murderous sanctions on Iran.
So we don’t need US troops in the Middle East to defend either of our main interests there, the region actually gets more peaceful and safer the less involved we are, and the US public would prefer it if we weren’t there… but we are staying massively overcommitted.
I think most media sources, including this one, do the public a disservice by focusing on Iraq and Syria. Those missions are really bad, but they are barely the tip of the Iceberg. The estimated 2,500 troops we have in Iraq, and the completely illegal 900 troops we have in Syria are in the most danger. These are the human targets whose deaths are most likely launch our next trillion dollar war with Iran. It makes sense to focus on them, and they are often under attack by the Majority of Iraqis and Syrians who do not want them there. But if you focus on just this handful of troops, it’s easy to see the US as having withdrawn compared to earlier eras. That would be a mistake.
Focusing on a country or two misses the larger story of US empire, that Middle East expansion is just one small part of. In the middle of the 20th century, when the Combatant Command structure was set up, Washington DC wasn’t quite sure it wanted to be in the world running business. The commands were organized around defending the United States, and had names like Alaska Command, and Caribbean Command. The big exceptions back then were European and Pacific Commands that were built around World War two US troop deployments that had yet to leave Europe and Asia. Those US forces in Europe And Asia still still haven’t left today, and most Middle Eastern US forces aren’t going anywhere either.
Back in the 1940s the United States was more concerned about not looking too imperial. The formation of a Command for all of North America was deferred for decades because we didn’t want to offend Canada. Southcom was born out of the Caribbean Command in the 1960s to operate the US’s dirty wars against Communism in Latin America. But by the 1970s, when Vietnam made US imperialism domestically unpopular for a brief moment, most elements of the national security establishment agreed that Southcom should be disestablished. Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, for a variety of reasons the president just never got around to doing that. I think the Southcom story is important, because it illustrates how sticky US military control is. Cuba going Communist in the 60s inspired US military expansion in Latin America. In the 1970s everybody agreed that this was a bit excessive and should be rolled back, but somehow Southcom’s resources and administrative structures never got reallocated, and were still there for the first Bush to use in Panama, and Clinton to use in Colombia. A similar period of pretend withdrawal is what the Middle East is experiencing today.
At some point between Reagan’s evil empire battling in the 1980s and Obama’s Duty to Protect in the 2010s, the United States military stopped worrying about looking like an empire. The 1990s were especially important in this evolution, because after the cold war, the US military was desperate for reasons to exist, and more active combatant commands became necessary to providing those excuses, from Yugoslavia, to East Timor and Colombia. It may seem surprising that these Commands create more threats than they solve, but that’s honestly the point, creating imperial busy work that keeps the US military industrial complex ticking over. The US has no natural enemies, so our combatant commands go out into the world and create them. Before Centcom was founded in 1983 the US fought very few wars in the Middle East. Since 1983 we have been fighting Middle East wars constantly. First Centcom saved Saddam Hussein from Iran, then it fought two wars against Saddam with a decade of lucrative patrolling and bombing of Iraq in between. Centcom spent the 1990s defending SaudiArabia’s Jihadists from Saddam Hussein, then we spent two decades kind of fighting those Jihadists in the form of Al Qaeda. If you look at these four decades of fighting all together, as Andrew Bacevich does in his excellent book … it’s more than a little bit ridiculous. It would be funny if it wasn’t all so pointlessly and tragically violent.
By 9-11 the entire world was already explicitly divided into US areas of interest, and that day’s aftermath accelerated the process, driving enough US interest in Africa to give it its own US imperial administration, Africom. You guys know the names Africa and Asia come from Roman Imperial jurisdictions right? I am beginning to wonder if names like Centcom and Eucom will last for millennia as well… that’s how long lasting I am beginning to suspect US empire could be. But I digress.
Africom’s founding in 2008 led directly to widespread destruction, chaos and economic stagnation, but that’s a story I have told in a different video. It’s General Kurilla ‘s central Command that controls the Middle East, and CentCom is in a process of consolidation and expansion, not withdrawal.
Before we get into this, I have to point out the many grains of salt you should take all these numbers with. This video just has the most recent publicly disclosed numbers I could find. The Pentagon often hides these numbers. In some cases, like during most of the Trump administration, they were straight up lying to the President and the public about how many people they have in the region and their plans for them. But in other cases, in the name of national security, the Pentagon is open about not disclosing troop numbers. Most deployments in Africom and Centcom are small handfuls of special forces training foreign militaries. The Pentagon usually only tells us about larger bases. These numbers are also always changing. They are also undercounts because they don’t tend to include civilians and contractors who are not officially enlisted in the US military, but are also present on US bases. Oh, and even though we have had a solid century’s worth of reforms meant to deal with this problem, poor organization and bureaucratic infighting are big things at the Defense Department, and it’s entirely possible that even the US Military doesn’t have a complete picture of what the US military is up to. Enough caveats!
Tampa Florida’s military empire includes those few thousand guys in Iraq and Syria. Centcom’s local headquarters is in Qatar. For much of the past two decades this tiny country housed 13,000 US troops. Under the pressure of war in Europe and a hoped for war over Taiwan, that number has decreased dramatically under Biden, but we still have 8,000 troops there. That’s what withdrawal means, only a measly 8,000 troops uselessly defending one of the smallest countries in the world.
Moving North, we incredibly still have over 13,000 troops in Kuwait across numerous military installations. Apparently the focus in Kuwait is on US Army assets. The focus in Bahrain is the US Navy, where somewhere between 9 and 10 thousand US sailors and civilians are based. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are traditionally a little more prickly about hosting US troops. One Saudi Arabian in particular blew up Lower Manhattan over the issue 21 years ago. But because the two richest Gulf countries have done such a poor job crushing their poorest neighbor, 5,000 Us troops are now necessary to protect these monarchies from Yemen. So that’s most of 40,000 US troops right there. And it’s probably an undercount for all the reasons I listed earlier. Beyond these numbers, we also spend 10s of millions of dollars every year maintaining bases in even more countries, like Oman, staffed with skeleton crews of US personnel and local militaries that can be massively scaled up on a few weeks notice. It’s very hard to parse out how much all of this costs, but a plausible estimate I saw recently claims that Centcom related activities still cost US taxpayers 60 to 70 billion dollars a year. That’s something like twice as much money as we have spent on this year’s most important US imperial front, the war in Ukraine. Does that look like a Middle East withdrawal to you?
Beyond the formal administrative boundaries of Centcom and the US government, US empire in the Middle East is consolidating in many other ways, as some recent news stories make clear. In October the Washington Post revealed that the UAE is now an important part of the revolving door between the US military and the private sector, paying consulting fees to hundreds of retired US military personnel. Gulf influence in Washington DC is so massive and so corrupting that an alarmed US intelligence Community is actually beginning to push back a little bit. In June, a retired Marine General stepped down from his role as President of the Brookings Institution, possibly our most prestigious think tank, because the FBI accused him of acting as an unregistered lobbyist for Qatar. And just last month the national intelligence council took the extraordinary step of compiling and then leaking the existence of a report on the UAE’s many types of legal and illegal manipulation of the US political system.
It would be nice to see this as a crackdown on Gulf influence in Washington, DC,but I think it’s more likely that it’s more of a warning, and an attempt to establish some boundaries, and guidelines to keep the money flowing more safely. If we were seriously cracking down on this stuff, then Trump’s son in law and Middle East Policy lead Jared Kushner would currently be in jail for the three billion dollars his businesses have taken from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. My suspicion is that there is no media outcry over these bribes because Democrat linked figures are taking similar amounts of Gulf money, just in less idiotically obvious ways.
The sad facts are that Centcom is in the Middle East to stay, and the oil-rich Gulf monarchies will be in US politics for as long as there are oil-rich Gulf monarchies. The idea that we are withdrawing from the Middle East is a myth. As with the rest of the world, the US imperial presence there is consolidating, not diminishing.
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