President Joe Biden will travel to the Middle East on Wednesday in an attempt to strengthen ties with some countries and address threats posed by others. Key stops include Israel and Saudi Arabia—neither of which is without controversy.
Biden took to the pages of The Washington Post to justify the trip in advance and outline what he sees as his administration's wins in the Middle East, which he called "more stable and secure than the one [his] administration inherited 18 months ago." One of his successes, Biden wrote, has been keeping American soldiers out of conflicts: "Next week, I will be the first president to visit the Middle East since 9/11 without U.S. troops engaged in a combat mission there," he said. "It's my aim to keep it that way."
That's true on some level. Biden announced the full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan last April, stuck to his August 31 deadline, and ended America's longest war. It was an overdue move and one that undoubtedly helped spare U.S. soldiers from bloody conflict down the line.
But the Middle East is far larger than just Afghanistan, and so is America's involvement in the region. In truth, U.S. troops are engaged in all sorts of activities there—not all of them peaceful.
Biden: "Next week, I will be the first president to visit the Middle East since 9/11 without U.S. troops engaged in a combat mission there." Hard to see how this is not misleading, unless he is removing U.S. troops from Iraq, Syria, and Yemen within days. https://t.co/SXpIUqVXrq
— Stephen Wertheim (@stephenwertheim) July 10, 2022
Biden himself sent a letter to Congress last month to keep lawmakers "informed about deployments of United States Armed Forces equipped for combat." He outlined a bevy of activities involving American soldiers across the Middle East (many of which sound a lot like U.S. troops engaged in combat missions). "No United States Armed Forces are in Afghanistan," Biden noted, but they are "working by, with, and through local partners to conduct operations against ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria and against al-Qa'ida in Syria." Some American soldiers remain "in strategically significant locations in Syria to conduct operations" against terrorist threats there.
American military personnel are also "deployed to Yemen to conduct operations against al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS." Approximately 2,733 U.S. forces are present in Saudi Arabia, where they "protect United States forces and interests in the region against hostile action by Iran and Iran-backed groups" and "provide air and missile defense capabilities" to the kingdom. Nearly 3,000 American military personnel are in Jordan under the guise of helping to fight ISIS, and some are in Turkey doing the same.
None of that even begins to touch on U.S.-led operations in the Middle East that involve activities short of involvement in war but look like combat nonetheless. Arms deals to Saudi Arabia that translate to civilian deaths in Yemen, airstrikes on Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria—these are far enough outside the boundaries of Biden's claim that U.S. troops aren't involved in combat missions, allowing him to claim relative peace. Such lawyering is a major part of how presidents have skated constitutional restrictions on war powers and kept the U.S. involved in conflicts.
Take Biden's decision last summer to end the U.S. combat mission in Iraq. At face value, it sounded like U.S. troops might be exiting hostilities in the country. But instead, the Pentagon said it would only remove a small number of the 2,500 American soldiers there, redesignating the remaining troops on paper as being in "training and advising" roles. Ultimately, there was no truly meaningful change to American involvement in Iraq.
Withdrawing from Afghanistan gave the Biden administration's foreign policy a patina of restraint that has since proven largely misleading. A more prudent U.S. approach to the Middle East requires politicians to be realistic about American engagement. Refusing to call a spade a spade will only complicate diplomatic efforts.
"Biden rejected 'forever wars' when he terminated the war in Afghanistan, but he has not applied the principle anywhere else," said Stephen Wertheim, a senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Denying the existence of U.S. wars positively participates in their continuation as invisible and endless operations."