This morning, I was defending the continued presence of American military forces in Europe which I think is an important part of a mutually-beneficial relationship between democratic partners on both sides of the Atlantic. But one issue that’s frustratingly difficult to raise within the confined of the American foreign policy establishment is why is it necessary to maintain large military forces in what you might call the “greater Middle East” or just the CENTCOM area of operations or more loosely the “Muslim world”? Not “why do we need some soldiers in Afghanistan for a limited period of time to undertake a limited mission” but “why is there a gigantic long-term military presence” over there?
First, there is real ambivalence towards Al Qaeda and other groups that attack Americans in the Islamic World. Respondents in Egypt, Pakistan and Indonesia were asked to rank their personal feelings about groups that attack Americans on a scale of 0-10 (0 being negative and 10 being positive). In no country did a majority pick above 5 or below 5. And in fact a significant majority chose numbers between 4-6 with the overall mean being 4.3. This reflects a real ambivalence. The issue seems to be that in all three countries the population overwhelmingly disapprove of Al Qaeda’s tactics of attacking American civilians, who are in the United States or Muslim countries with less then 10% approving of attacks on civilians. On the other hand, there is a lot of resentment towards U.S. policies and especially our military posture in the Middle East. Al Qaeda’s goal of getting all U.S. forces to withdraw from Islamic countries is overwhelmingly popular (87% in Egypt, 65% in Indonesia, 62% in Pakistan). So basic deal is that neither Al Qaeda or the U.S. are all the popular in the Muslim World.
This strikes me as an unstable situation over the long run. If large US military forces remain indefinitely in the Muslim world, with the United States continuing to express a firm desire for an indefinite military presence in the region, then I see two things that could happen. One is that Muslims could decide they were wrong about this and welcome a U.S. military presence after all. The other is that Muslims could decide that they’re wrong about al-Qaeda, and that to get what they want they need to step-up anti-American activity. It strikes me as overwhelmingly likely that more people are going to move in direction two than in direction one. At the same time, I do see a strong short-term argument for continued military counter-terrorism operations in the Muslim world. But I think there’s fairly strong evidence that over the longer term, our presence will do more to generate terrorism than to fight it. Under the circumstances, it strikes me as vitally important that we both move decisively to end military operations that don’t have a vital counterterrorism component—by withdrawing completely and relatively swiftly from Iraq, for example—and also that we define our mission in Afghanistan in a concrete way that envisions the presence coming to an end on some realistic time frame.
Far-flung military bases can be useful for many things. But at the end of the day, maintaining military forces where they’re not wanted is an extremely costly policy. Not only does it turn public opinion against us, but it makes us dependent on autocratic regimes and that, in turn, breeds skepticism about our real motives and intentions in the region. There are situations where ignoring local sentiments may be necessary, but it’s something we should be cautious about. Instead, we’re doing it profligately and without any real thought or debate about the costs and benefits.