Washington is sending roughly 3,000 troops along with increased weapons aid to Saudi Arabia to counter Iran, the Pentagon announced last week. While then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford said in late September it was “fair to say not thousands” of Americans would be deployed to defend Saudi Arabia, it is now clear “thousands” is exactly the right term.
The pretext for putting U.S. troops on the ground in Saudi Arabia is a mid-September drone attack on key Saudi oil infrastructure, likely originating from Iran. But President Trump and his Pentagon are making a big mistake.
Putting U.S. boots on the ground in Saudi Arabia is the opposite of the “America First” foreign policy Trump promised on the campaign trail. It is the opposite of his justification on Wednesday for pulling troops from Syria: “It’s their part of the world. We’re 7,000 miles away. I campaigned on bringing our soldiers back home, and that’s what I’m doing.”
Saudi Arabia Can Protect Its Own Oil Infrastructure
First, the United States has no business placing its soldiers in harm’s way to protect Saudi oil infrastructure. Saudi Arabia is perfectly capable of defending this infrastructure itself, and the claim that defending this infrastructure serves U.S. interests doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
That thinking completely ignores the reality of the last 10 years: The United States has seen a tremendous increase in domestic oil production, is sitting on more oil than any other nation on earth, is closing in on energy independence, and is now a net exporter of crude. The nature of oil production in America has changed as well — hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, coupled with America’s deep capital markets and private property rights, allows American producers to respond quickly to increases in price.
Right after the Saudi drone attack, many wanted to say the U.S. energy independence narrative — which holds that the United States could afford to be less involved in the Middle East — was “up in smoke.” But while the attack on Saudi infrastructure caused oil prices to spike over fears of a sharp decline in Saudi crude output, oil prices soon moved even lower than before the attack.
A large reason for this was that the damage wasn’t as bad as was initially feared. Another reason is that U.S. swing-producers in the Permian Basin are ready to make up for lost Saudi output, which is already in secular decline. Because of growing American energy independence, we don’t need to fight for Saudi oil.
Others have argued the United States needs to support Saudi Arabia militarily to ensure Saudi Arabia keeps pricing its oil in dollars, which supports the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. If keeping the reserve currency is a concern, Washington should conserve its sanctions power, as ending the overuse of sanctions power is the low-hanging fruit in this regard.
Although reserve currency status gives Washington great power, there is evidence that the dollar’s status as the singular reserve for global central banks has harmed many American workers, especially manufacturing workers. Supporting the dollar isn’t worth the cost of subverting U.S. foreign policy to Saudi Arabia.
Troops in Saudi Arabia Heightens Conflict With Iran
Second, the United States shouldn’t side with Saudi Arabia in its de facto war with Iran, which is an outgrowth of the 1,400-year-old Sunni-Shia conflict within Islam. Saudi Arabia is only an occasional partner with the United States. It is not an ally like Israel, the United Kingdom, or France, and the value of its partnership is often dubious.
The Saudi regime has funded radical Sunni groups affiliated with al Qaeda, and elements of the Saudi government aided the 9/11 hijackers. And while the Washington foreign policy establishment rarely mentions the Saudis’ flagrant human rights abuses, they are no less real than the Chinese abuses that are more frequently and correctly criticized.
Iran is an adversary, of course, but putting our troops on Saudi soil will have the unintended consequence of encouraging the Saudi government to take more aggressive action toward Iran. That risks destabilizing the Middle East even further, and it puts American soldiers increasingly in harm’s way if Iran responds to the Saudis.
And if American soldiers are killed, a broader war is almost certain. Already, last week, Iran claimed one of its oil tankers was hit by missiles. This pushed oil higher, almost to where it was before the September attack on Saudi infrastructure.
Removing Troops From Saudi Arabia Will Be Difficult
Finally, once America puts troops on foreign soil, it is incredibly hard to remove them. In Washington, the path of least resistance is always to add more troops, while those who wish to exit decades-long entanglements are accused of enabling terror, threatening U.S. security, and even being disloyal to the country.
We’re seeing this in Syria right now. Initially, the White House moved several hundred American soldiers away from Syria’s border with Turkey. This relatively minor reshuffling resulted in Republicans, Democrats, and the media lambasting the Trump administration for daring to withdraw troops. Now, the administration is removing 1,000 from northern Syria, and the criticism is only getting louder.
The backdrop is that Turkey has wanted to invade Syria for some time, as it has a sizable Kurdish minority in southeastern Syria, and it fears Kurdish forces across its border with Syria. The onslaught the Kurds face is awful, and they will have to work with the Syrian government to fight the Turkish incursion.
But arguing that the United States should have kept those several hundred troops on the ground to act as human shields for the Kurds ignores the lessons of the last two decades of foreign policy failure in the Middle East. Imprudently delaying our exit from Syria after defeating the Islamic State is why we faced only two choices in Syria: (1) stay forever and risk war with Turkey, or (2) abandon the Kurds.
Trump was right to challenge the foreign policy status quo in Syria. He’s wrong to create a similar future problem by placing troops in Saudi Arabia.