Seapower and US Forward Presence in the Middle East: Retrenchment in Perspective

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The winding down of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan has prompted a scholarly debate around America’s evolving stra- tegic role and posture in the broader Middle East. Allegedly, its isolated geographical position and “seapower” condition would allow the US to behave as an “offshore balancer”, by pulling back militarily, retreating from alliances and formal security commit- ments and relying on the different regional powers to balance each other. However, it remains unclear to what extent a sea- power like the US would be able to effectively manipulate the balance of power in the Middle East from offshore. An examina- tion of US strategy in the Middle East from 2009 to 2015 suggests that the main puzzle Washington confronts is not so much whether to retreat offshore or remain engaged onshore, but rather to work out the terms of onshore engagement. As this article shows, current US strategy in the Middle East revolves around the need to reconcile two seemingly contradictory sets of pressures. The first is that war fatigue, financial pressures and the ongoing reorientation of military-strategic resources towards the Asia-Pacific theatre do require that the US cuts back on its engagement elsewhere, including in the Middle East. The second relates to Washington’s deep-seated conviction that there is a direct correlation between US forward presence and the preserva- tion of a favourable balance of power in the Middle East, which is itself critical to the security of other regions, including the Asia- Pacific. By discussing the relationship between seapower and forward presence, this article places US strategic retrenchment in the Middle East in perspective. In particular, the article trans- cends the rather vague notion of “balancing” and concentrates on US perceptions about which geographical areas in the Middle East need to be balanced, and how, i.e., through which alliances, instruments and policies.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)115-147
Number of pages33
JournalJournal of Geopolitics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 16 Feb 2016


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