Case Study

The United States has long been referred to as the “indispensable nation” or the “world’s policeman.” Since World War II, America has promoted democracy and prosperity, and opposed dictatorships and human rights abuses, across the globe through its economic, diplomatic, and military engagement. The U.S. has served as a champion of universal freedom and human rights, a pillar of international security and order, and a deterrent to the aggression of rogue regimes.

Yet in the post-Cold War era, the question of what role the U.S. should play on the world stage, and the extent to which the U.S. can serve as “the world’s policeman,” continues to be debated, and has become a central component in conversations surrounding military spending and foreign policy.  Decreases in spending during the Obama administration (“leading from behind”) and the “America First” policy of the Trump administration represent shifts in foreign policy.

In his 2014 book America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder, Pulitzer-prize winning columnist Bret Stephens cautioned about some of the potentially dire consequences brought on by this foreign policy doctrine of isolationism.



Why the Middle East Matters

In recent years, turmoil has rocked the Middle East in the form of increased violence and volatility in the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings and the proliferation of Islamist-extremist terrorist groups with radical anti-Western ideologies. The region appears to be more unstable now than ever, with a wide range of conflicts and crises.

The Trump administration characterizes the region as “home to the world’s most dangerous terrorist organizations,” namely ISIS and al-Qaeda, and lists “Iranian expansion, state collapse, jihadist ideology, socio-economic stagnation, and regional rivalries” as chief among threats to U.S. security interests. As the Trump administration implements its National Security Strategy, the U.S. will have the opportunity to address challenges in the Middle East.


Putting it in Context

History and U.S. Involvement

U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East was relatively limited until the mid-1900s; prior to this time, European powers built relations in the Middle East, particularly through the League of Nations after World War I. During the 1950s, the Cold War heightened concern about the Middle East. In 1965, U.S. policy towards the region changed, reflected in more lenient immigration laws as people fled political crises in Iran, Palestine, Lebanon, and Afghanistan in the 1970s (PBS).


In the 1940s, British and Soviet troops occupied Iran. A communist plot to overthrow the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlevi failed in 1949, and was followed by tensions between him and the nationalist Prime Minister Mossadeq. After attempting to dismiss Mossadeq, the Shah was forced out of Iran. Based on fears of a communist takeover, a joint British-American operation in 1953 helped overthrow Mossadeq and returned the Shah to power (PBS). 

Protests against the Shah forced him to flee to the U.S. in January of 1979 and Islamic religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile to assume power. Demanding the return of the Shah to stand trial in Iran, a group of Iranian students seized the American Embassy in Tehran in November of 1979 and held embassy personnel hostage for 444 days. The U.S. froze Iranian assets and severed diplomatic ties. Tensions remained and escalated amidst sanctions and mistrust of Iran’s uranium enrichment during the mid-2000s (The Guardian). 

In 2013, Iranian President Rouhani and President Obama held the first phone conversation between the two countries since 1979. They began discussions for the eventual Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a controversial agreement “under which Iran agreed to curb its nuclear work in return for limited sanctions relief.” The U.S., Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia reached the agreement in July of 2015; however, the U.S. withdrew in May of 2018 (Reuters). The JCPOA is discussed further below.


Diplomatic relationships between the U.S. and Lebanon were established in the early 1800s. By the 1960s, the U.S. Embassy in Beirut was one of the largest in the Middle East and served as serving as headquarters for a number of U.S. agencies in the region. This changed during Lebanon’s civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990, and when Israel invaded Lebanon to pursue a Palestinian splinter group, Abu Nidal, that attempted to assassinate the Israeli ambassador to Britain in 1982. In 1983, over 200 American marines, sailors, and soldiers were killed by a suicide bomber, and two attacks on the U.S. Embassy in 1983 and 1984 forced it to close. It reopened in 1990 (State Department).

During the 1980s wars, a guerrilla group evolved into a major political party and military force known today as Hezbollah, which receives significant funding from Iran. According to the Counter Extremism Project, “Hezbollah has used its military strength, political power, and grassroots popularity to integrate itself into Lebanese society” and “has also created educational and social institutions that run parallel to the Lebanese state.” Hezbollah, but not the Lebanese state, is subject to international sanctions. Hezbollah’s military involvement in Syria with its close ally Iran “poses a growing asymmetric threat to the United States, Israel, Jordan, and other countries in the region” and complicates its position in Lebanon (CSIS).

Israel and Palestine

After WWI, “the League of Nations entrusted Great Britain with the Mandate for Palestine,” based on the 1917 Balfour Declaration that “asserted the British Government’s support for the creation ‘in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’” (State Department). In May of 1948, the UN’s Resolution 181 divided the former British Mandate into Jewish and Arab states, and the city of Jerusalem remained under international control. The U.S. immediately recognized the State of Israel, but the “resolution sparked conflict between Jewish and Arab groups within Palestine,” leading to the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. Palestinian guerrilla groups based in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan increased tensions between Israel and its neighbors, including Egypt and Iraq, resulting in years of conflict:  the Six Day War in 1967, the October 1973 Yom Kippur War, the 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the 2006 war with Lebanon (BBC).

Since the 1990s, the U.S. has engaged in helping facilitate a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 1994, Israel agreed with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to allow a Palestinian Authority (PA) limited rule over Gaza and certain areas of the West Bank, where the majority of Palestinians live. The PA still exercises this limited rule over areas of the West Bank, although Hamas, “a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization supported in part by Iran,” has had de facto control over Gaza since 2007. Conflict between Hamas and Israel keeps tensions high (CRS).

The following video dives deeper into the relationship between Israel and Palestine.


Saudi Arabia

The U.S. founded the Arabian American Oil company after oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia in 1938. Saudi Arabia gradually bought out shareholders and the company has been wholly owned by the Saudi government since 1980. U.S. companies including Chevron and ExxonMobil still have refineries in Saudi Arabia. In 1981, in retaliation for U.S. support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War, Saudi Arabia participated in an oil boycott aimed at the U.S. and other Western nations. Despite these tensions, Saudi Arabia remained the primary U.S. ally in the region after Iran’s 1979 Revolution (CFR). In 1990, after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Saudi Arabia’s King Fadh invited U.S. troops to use Saudi Arabia as a base for operations against Iraq (PBS). 

Saudi Arabia has also long been the top destination for U.S. defense sales. In recent years, many debate the continued sale of arms to Saudi Arabia since the nation intervened in Yemen’s civil war in 2015. Additionally, dissidents and activists have been arrested, prompting human rights criticisms. The most serious accusations came when the CIA concluded Saudi officials and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman were involved in the murder of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, whose family has a long and complicated relationship with the Saudi Royal family (CFR).


In 1990, the U.S.- and Saudi-backed Yemeni Arab Republic and the USSR-backed People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen united to form the modern Yemeni state. Ali Abdullah Saleh assumed leadership of the government, but later stepped down due to challenges from southern Yemeni movement Al-Hirak,  Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and the Houthi movement among Zaydi Shias in the north. The U.S. backed the 2013 UN-sponsored National Dialogue Conference “to formulate a new constitution agreeable to Yemen’s many factions,” but the conference ended “after delegates couldn’t resolve disputes over the distribution of power” and the interim government resigned under pressure after Houthi rebels seized power in September of 2014, setting off a civil war that has devastated the country and its people. The military split between the Houthis (with support from Iran) and the government forces (with support from Saudi Arabia). The U.S. backs the Saudi-led coalition (CFR).


In 1973, a military coup overthrew the country’s last king, brought the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan to power, and established the Republic of Afghanistan. In 1978, a member of the Afghan Communist Party seized control in another coup and rivalries grew among leaders. The USSR invaded Afghanistan to prop up the failing communist regime, prompting Mujahadeen (Afghan warlord rebels against the Soviet-backed government) to unite. 

In 1979, the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan was killed, and the U.S. stopped sending assistance to Afghanistan. By 1986, the U.S. was sending arms to the Mujahadeen. The U.S. signed peace accords with Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Soviet Union in 1989, guaranteeing Afghan independence and the withdrawal of Soviet troops, but disputes between rival factions remained unresolved. In 1995, the newly formed Islamic militia, the Taliban, rose to power with promises of peace. The Taliban ruled according to traditional Islamic values, curtailed the rights of women, and enforced Islamic law “via public executions and amputations.” The United States did not recognize the Taliban’s authority (PBS).


In August of 1990, Saddam Hussein led the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, instigating the Persian Gulf War. The U.S., along with Japan, the former Soviet Union, and most of Europe and the Middle East condemned the attack and joined to form a coalition. Operation Desert Storm brought an end to the war in March of 1991, when Kuwait was liberated.


At the end of the Persian Gulf War, Iraqi forces surrendered, but Saddam Hussein did not relinquish power. In 1998, Sadam Hussein refused to cooperate with UN inspectors in Iraq to survey weapons programs. In March of 2003, the US-led coalition invaded Iraq in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Forces captured Saddam Hussein by December of 2003, and remained in the country to bring stability to Iraq. The final U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq in December 2011 (AEI).

Fighting ensued quickly after troops withdrew, leaving a power vacuum in Iraq. In 2014, the al-Qaeda splinter group, ISIS, took control of Iraqi and Syrian territory and declared itself a caliphate. The territorial caliphate was declared defeated in March of 2019, but the group is still active and has claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks in the Middle East and around the world (History).


Syria has been on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terror since the list’s origin in 1979, based on “its continuing policies in supporting terrorism, its former occupation of Lebanon, pursuing weapons of mass destruction and missile programs, and undermining U.S. and international efforts to stabilize Iraq.” In 2011, the Assad regime’s brutality in response to protests sparked a civil war that has lasted more than seven years, and has been further complicated by the 2014 rise of ISIS. Along with the international community, the U.S. government has provided humanitarian and stabilization assistance to the displaced population and the Syrian opposition.


The Role of Government

Goals of U.S. Policy in the Middle East

National Security and Diplomacy

The Trump administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy asserts that “the interconnected problems of Iranian expansion, state collapse, jihadist ideology, socio-economic stagnation, and regional rivalries have convulsed the Middle East.” It lists jihadist terrorists as the “most dangerous terrorist threat to the Nation” and focuses on sharing intelligence and working with allies to disrupt digital, financial, and material networks that supply these groups. The U.S. was heavily involved in the Global Coalition to defeat ISIS, and while the U.S. remains a key player in the Middle East based on its alliances, the Trump administration has made efforts to recede from the region by withdrawing troops.


Economic and Trade Interests 

The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy stresses continued support for countries in the Middle East to “modernize their economies.” However, the administration also seeks to apply “maximum pressure” on the Iranian regime in the form of international sanctions, with the end goal of driving “Iran’s oil exports as close to zero as possible” (CRS). According to foreign relations analyst Martin Indyk, the U.S. is no longer dependent on Middle Eastern oil as it has focused on its own domestic natural gas production, which means ensuring “the free flow of oil from the Persian Gulf area at reasonable prices” is still important but no longer “a vital strategic interest.” 

Arms sales are also a central component of U.S. economic relations in the Middle East; between 2013 and 2017, almost half of U.S. arms exports went to the region, primarily to Saudi Arabia as well as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. The U.S. is also Israel’s single largest trading partner, primarily in semiconductors and telecommunications equipment.


Universal Human Rights

The State Department maintains that “a central goal of U.S. foreign policy has been the promotion of respect for human rights, as embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy explicitly notes that “there can be no greater action to advance the rights of individuals than to defeat jihadist terrorists and other groups that foment hatred.”

According to Amnesty International, across the Middle East “with virtually no exceptions governments have displayed a shocking intolerance for the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.” Protesters and activists across the region from the United Arab Emirates to Palestine to Lebanon have been detained for criticizing authorities or peacefully demonstrating. 

Civilians also suffer through armed conflicts in the region, particularly those caught in the civil wars in Syria and Yemen. Human Rights Watch reports that as of November 2018, there have been almost 7000 civilian deaths and almost 11,000 civilian injuries in Yemen and the UNHCR estimates over 12 million people have been displaced by the Syrian civil war. The Global Coalition seeks to stabilize areas liberated from ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but the US-led offensive against ISIS in Raqqa has also been accused of causing far more civilian deaths than had been acknowledged (NPR).


Current Challenges and Areas for Reform


Maintaining strong alliances in the Middle East is central to U.S. objectives of ensuring stability in the region. Allies include the Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional organization founded in 1981 that seeks to coordinate and connect its members’ political and economic issues. Members include the Kingdom of Bahrain, the State of Kuwait, the Sultanate of Oman, the State of Qatar, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The U.S. and the E.U. have looked to the council for trade and defense opportunities, but recent regional upheaval has strained relations among members. Oman in particular, however, has been cultivating diplomacy in the region.

The State Department says that Israel “has long been, and remains, America’s most reliable partner in the Middle East.” Israel and the U.S. signed a free trade agreement in 1985 and participate in joint military exercises, military research, and weapons development. The two also work together through the Joint Counterterrorism Group, “the State Department’s longest running strategic counterterrorism dialogue.” 

In Lebanon, the U.S. seeks to “help preserve its independence, sovereignty, national unity, and territorial integrity.” The U.S. is Lebanon’s primary security partner; it supports state institutions by providing bilateral foreign assistance to Lebanon to counter the influence of Hezbollah, which is largely funded by Iran, as well as that of ISIS near Lebanon’s border with Syria.

In 2018, the U.S. and Jordan signed a “non-binding Memorandum of Understanding” that made the U.S. Jordan’s single largest provider of bilateral assistance, which is used for development, education, infrastructure, agriculture, and humanitarian aid to communities in Jordan that host refugees from Syria.

The U.S. and Saudi Arabia generally share the same goals of “regional stability and containing Iran,” but disagreements surrounding regional conflicts and human rights violations have raised tensions (CFR). The two countries also have a strong economic relationship; the U.S. is Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner, particularly in arms sales, and Saudi Arabia is the U.S.’s leading source of imported oil from the region. 

U.S. troops maintained a presence in Iraq from the US-led invasion in 2003 until 2011. By 2013, sectarian violence and the rise of ISIS plagued the state, which prompted the Obama administration to re-deploy troops to assist the Iraqi Army (US Institute of Peace). The U.S. has designated Iraq “as a beneficiary developing country under the Generalized System of Preferences program,” through which a number of U.S. companies are involved in Iraq’s energy, defense, information technology, and transportation sectors. Iraq is the second leading source of U.S. imported oil from the Middle East (US Energy Information Administration).

Afghanistan is an important partner countering terrorism and has been designated a Major Non-NATO Ally of the U.S. The U.S. military has maintained  a presence in Afghanistan since 2001 after the 9/11 attacks and currently participates in a bilateral counterterrorism mission with Afghan forces as well as the NATO Resolute Support Mission.


The U.S. has not had diplomatic relations with Iran since the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was seized in 1979 during the Iranian Revolution, after which Iran “ground[ed] its identity and legitimacy in anti-Americanism.” Currently, the U.S. and Iran support opposing sides in several regional conflicts, including in Syria (the U.S. supports the Syrian Democratic Forces and Iran supports the Assad regime), Yemen (the U.S. has supported the Saudi-led coalition and Iran has reportedly supported the Houthi rebels), and Lebanon (Iran supports Hezbollah). Iran also poses a threat through its nuclear development program and missile program, which has prompted the U.S. to impose a number of sanctions (CFR).

Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based militia, and Israel continue to militarily engage with each other, creating another site of conflict in the region. Hezbollah’s ties to Iran also pose a threat; one analysis from May 2018 noted that if the “Israel-Iran conflict in Syria worsens and Iran feels cornered, it could look to gain leverage over Israel by having Hezbollah launch attacks from Lebanon” (CRS). Hamas in the Gaza Strip also poses a threat to Israel, as it refuses to recognize Israel and still engages in violence despite a reconciliation agreement with rival political group Fatah in 2017 (Counter Extremism Project).

In the aftermath of 9/11, the U.S. military began a campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. The Taliban government protected Osama bin Laden, but quickly lost control of the country before relocating across the southern border to Pakistan. For the past 18 years, “they have waged an insurgency against the Western-backed government in Kabul, international coalition troops, and Afghan national security forces.” Peace talks have been slow and plagued by continuous setbacks (CFR).

ISIS formed in 2013 as an al-Qaeda splinter group, and controlled large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014. U.S-backed Iraqi forces and Syrian Democratic Forces regained territory until the territorial caliphate was declared defeated in March of 2019. Despite the loss of physical territory, ISIS remains a global threat as it maintains a presence throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa and has inspired or claimed responsibility for lone-wolf attacks around the world, including in Turkey, Morocco, Lebanon, Indonesia, the Philippines, France, Belgium, and Sri Lanka (Counter Extremism Project).

In his speech at the American University in Cairo in January of 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “identified the United States’ enemies as radical Islam and Iran and its chief allies as Israel and the Sunni Arab states,” although as the U.S. seeks to lessen its imprint on the ground in the Middle East, it may require allies including Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Israel to “do much of the heavy lifting” in the region (CFR).


Troop Withdrawal

Today, there are only about 35,000 American soldiers in the Middle East, just a fraction of the 285,000 that President George W. Bush sent in 2003. This shrinking troop presence is evidence of 

“Washington’s declining enthusiasm for the Middle East,” according to Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.. The disorder in the region “limits how much the United States can shape its trajectory, no matter how much it invests.” Additionally, the U.S.’s so-called pivot to Asia to some extent has the potential to shift resources currently in the Middle East toward Asia (see The Policy Circle’s Foreign Policy: Asia Pacific Brief for more).

At the same time, Foreign Affairs also notes, “the potential for state-on-state conflict in the Middle East is higher today than at any point in the last two decades,” particularly between Israel and Iran as well as between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon.


Human Rights

Saudi Arabia

Tensions between the U.S. Senate and the Trump administration have risen in regard to relations with Saudi Arabia in recent months. In a March 2019 hearing to appoint a new ambassador to Saudi Arabia, both Republican and Democratic Senators called out “Riyadh’s role in the Yemen war” and the “detention and torture of women’s rights activists” (WSJ). Saudi Arabia also faced international backlash after the death of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist with ties to the Saudi Royal family who was killed at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. A UN report released in June of 2019 claimed “Saudi Arabia is responsible under international human rights law” for the death of Khashoggi, and that the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman should be investigated over the murder.


The U.N calls the conflict in Yemen between the Houthi rebel movement and the Saudi Arabian-led coalition the worst humanitarian disaster in the world. Currently, the U.S. supports the Saudi-led coalition with intelligence and training (CNBC). 

In April of 2019, Congress “passed a war powers resolution that would have required [President] Trump to withdraw U.S. military forces supporting the Saudi coalition” in Yemen, but President Trump vetoed the measure. Lawmakers have long expressed concern for the civilian deaths in Yemen that have largely been attributed on Saudi airstrikes, and the death of Jamal Khashoggi prompted further anger in Congress. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cited Iran’s support for the Houthi rebels for the need to continue to engage with Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and in May of 2019 the Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for multiple drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities.



In Iran, 2018 was designated the year of shame after authorities arrested over “7,000 protesters, students, journalists, environmental activists, workers and human rights defenders, many arbitrarily.”



Nuclear Threat

The international community did not believe Iran’s nuclear program was peaceful, even though Iran said it was. In 2015, under the Obama administration, Iran, the European Union, and the permanent U.N. Security Council members (the United States, the United Kingdom, China, France, and Russia plus Germany) negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), an agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear activities in return for eased economic sanctions.

The JCPOA was highly controversial and had critics on the right and the left alike. Primary criticisms were the fact that the JCPOA allowed Iran to continue some nuclear activities, did not address Iran’s missile development, offered Iran sanctions relief on a wide array of activities in exchange for restriction of only one area (nuclear capabilities), and that the sanctions relief was indefinite while many of the nuclear restrictions were limited to a number of years. Advocates argued that without the agreement, Iran could continue its nuclear activities unchecked, and that having an agreement in place would improve the overall security of the region and would open the door for the U.S. and its allies to deal with other security threats from Iran (The Harvard Belfer Center). 

For an overview and timeline of Iran’s nuclear activities, see CNN’s “Iran’s Nuclear Capabilities Fast Facts.” The videos below explain more about the nuclear agreement.



President Trump refused to recertify the JCPOA in October 2017 and officially withdrew the U.S. participation in May 2018, “citing a lack of progress limiting Iran’s nuclear weapons development program and a failure to adequately deal with Iran’s missile program” (CFR). Iran’s “ballistic missile program and support for terrorism and for regional actors like the Syrian government, Hezbollah and Hamas” have also been areas of increasing concern (NY Times).

In retaliation for the U.S. withdrawal, Iran announced in May 2019 that it was “scaling back curbs to its nuclear program” under the 2015 deal, and in January 2020 announced it was officially ending limits on enriching uranium. This prompted Britain, France, and Germany to formally accuse Iran of violating the terms of the JCPOA, which could result in reimposing UN sanctions. 


Escalating Tensions

The Trump administration also increased sanctions against Iranian companies, entities, and oil exports to pressure Tehran to curb its nuclear ambitions. Experts say these have succeeded in restricting Iran’s government and economic growth, but have failed to change Tehran’s behavior.

In June, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iran for attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman but dismissed concerns about military confrontations. One week later, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard shot down a U.S. surveillance drone in the Strait of Hormuz, “marking the first time the Islamic Republic directly attacked the American military amid tensions over Tehran’s unraveling nuclear deal with world powers.” Iran claims the drone entered Iranian airspace, although the the attack was in international airspace and unprovoked. President Trump retaliated with sanctions on Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, blocking Iran’s leadership access to the U.S. financial system. For more on conflict in the Gulf of Oman’s waterways, see the Council on Foreign Relations’ backgrounder on the Strait of Hormuz and this video from The Wall Street Journal.

Tensions from 2019 may very well carry into 2020. In December 2019, an American contractor was killed at an Iraqi military base in an attack believed to be carried out by an Iran-backed militia. The U.S. retaliated with airstrikes, after which protesters destroyed the American embassy in Baghdad. This siege was reportedly approved by Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s top general and head of the Quds Force (an internationally-sanctioned military group that has trained Shiite militias in Iraq and aided Hezbollah in Lebanon as well as the Assad regime in Syria).

In January 2020, President Trump ordered a drone strike that killed Qassem Soleimani. Since, Iran has targeted Iraqi bases where U.S. troops have been stationed and has admitted to accidentally shooting down a commercial plane bound for Ukraine from Tehran.

Peace Efforts and Stability


The U.S. hopes that discussions between Taliban representatives and the Afghan government will eventually lead to a peace agreement, but fighting continues. In fact, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reported that civilian casualties reached a record high in 2018. However, such statistics are limited now; in May of 2019, the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan announced it would no longer assess “district-level insurgent or government control or influence,” meaning the U.S. military would no longer be able to report on the statistics. The U.S. has spent over $840 billion on the war in Afghanistan (NPR).



In December of 2018, President Trump announced the immediate withdrawal of troops from Syria, although defense officials want to first guarantee the security of the U.S.’s Kurdish allies as well as address the 20,000 ISIS detainees in northeast Syria. Currently, troops are leaving Syria, but at a slow and staggered pace that will likely extend into 2020. In the northwest region, one of the last areas outside of government control, Russia and Turkey had negotiated a cease-fire between the Syrian rebels and government forces in June of 2019, but bombing and shelling resumed only days later.


Israel and Palestine

Israelis and Palestinians are caught in the Arab-Israeli conflict in the West Bank and Gaza. A June 2018 U.N. General Assembly resolution condemned both Israeli actions against Palestinian civilians as well as the firing of rockets from Gaza against Israeli civilians by Palestine (CRS).  

In a break from previous policy and international consensus, the Trump administration recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December of 2017 and moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jersulamen in May of 2018. The decision was “greeted warmly by Israel but rejected by Palestinians and many other international actors.”

Senior White House advisor Jared Kushner was tasked by President Trump with preparing a peace plan for the Middle East. In June 2019, the administration held a two-day “Peace to Prosperity Workshop” in Bahrain, detailing the plan which calls for $50 billion in public and private investment for improvements in areas such as transportation. The PA boycotted the event, as did many Palestinian business, real estate, and technology leaders, saying that “talking about economic improvement before finding a political solution was insulting.” Several Arab countries attended although they did not send their top officials.

“Arab states have historically refused formal diplomatic ties with Israel while its conflict with the Palestinians remains unresolved,” but Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, and Morocco all agreed to normalize relations with Israel in 2020, mainly due to “shared security interests and deals brokered by the Trump administration.”



The U.S. economic, national security, and diplomacy interests in the Middle East are greatly affected by terrorism, civil wars, and general instability in the region. Maintaining strong relationships with allies and understanding the nature of conflicts is key to achieving U.S. foreign policy goals in the region.


How to Get Involved/What You Can Do


U.S. foreign policy is crafted principally in the executive branch, with the White House setting the agenda and assembling a national security strategy. At the Cabinet level, the Secretaries of State and Defense also play key roles in shaping policy, determining priorities, and implementing strategy. The U.S. Foreign Service, under the aegis of the State Department, trains and employs our diplomats, who are posted at U.S. diplomatic missions throughout the world to carry out U.S. foreign policy.

In the legislative branch, lawmakers in the House and Senate do play an important role in foreign policy; elected representatives in Congress have Constitutionally-mandated responsibilities for foreign affairs, “including the right to declare war, fund the military, regulate international commerce, and approve treaties.  At least as important are such congressional authorities as the ability to convene hearings that provide oversight of foreign policy” (CFR). 

The best ways you can have an impact are:

  • Keep informed, through Policy Circle briefs and by regularly checking the sources referenced within.  Consider adding a scholar or journalist from this brief to your Twitter feed to follow their latest thoughts and articles.
  • Share information with friends and family about Foregin Policy.  Mention a development or share news article you find and see if they are familiar with the goings on in the Middle East.  
  • Make your voice heard.  To find out who your Congressional representative is, click here. To find out who your Senator is, click here.
    • See below for links to the Congressional and Senatorial committees which handle foreign policy, defense, and national security matters. If your representative serves on one of these committees, contact his or her office with questions or concerns you may have on foreign policy-related issues within the committee’s purview.

For guidance on how to write a letter to your rep, see this Policy Circle guide.

Suggestions for your Next Conversation

Explore the Series

This brief is part of a series of recommended conversations designed for circle's wishing to pursue a specific focus for the year. Each series recommends "5" briefs to provide a year of conversations.