Event Summary: US Role in the Middle East in the Age of Coronavirus
On Monday, April 27, 2020, the SETA Foundation at Washington, DC hosted a virtual panel discussion on the ‘US Role in the Middle East in the Age of Coronavirus.’ The discussion featured General Mark Kimmitt, defense consultant for MTK Defense Consultants, and Mike Doran, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. The panel was moderated by Kadir Ustun, Executive Director at SETA DC.
At the outset of the discussion, General Kimmitt described his recently published piece on the relationship between COVID-19 and the East of Suez crisis in 1967. He believes that it would be rash to conclude that the pandemic is similar to Britain’s financial collapse in the 1960s. Today, US interests in the Middle East are far less existential than in the past. The threats of terrorism have evolved and now the US is focusing on great power competition with China and increased Russian aggression. He calls on the US to use this inflection point as a reason to reassess national interests; this is evident by the massive amounts of people filing for unemployment. While it is common to argue that the US is abandoning the world order and moving toward retrenchment, General Kimmitt believes that a US withdrawal from the Middle East would reverberate worldwide. It would create a vacuum that would not be filled by US allies, and the Russians would jump at the opportunity to increase their foothold.
Doran explained that while many details of the impacts of COVID-19 are muddy, there are two results of the crisis that are in fact clear. First, the US will come out of this with an intensified competition with China. The two states were moving in that direction before the pandemic, but the dangers of open-ended engagement with China bring this to the fore. As a result, competition with China will become a much clearer strategic principle. Second, Doran states that Iran will be severely weakened. The Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign along with COVID-19 have created the biggest crisis in Iranian history. He believes that the US’s number one goal in the Middle East is to weaken the Iranian regime, and right now it is being forced to take resources away from activities that threaten the US. The regime is losing legitimacy at home and abroad. Along with these predictions, Doran believes that many factors will keep the US engaged in the Middle East, but there will be an immense amount of pressure to pull back troop commitments. He calls for greater support for Turkey in Idlib and their fight against the YPG along their southern border; this will allow the US and Turkey to arrive at a common strategic picture. He suggests that the US returns to a more traditional understanding of international politics being a game of states.