Flashpoints | Diplomacy

To Face Down China, Should the United States Turn Away From the Middle East?

It’s not that simple. Any effort to characterize China as an existential threat implies a level of conflict that will provide justification for U.S. intervention anywhere in the world. 

Robert Farley
To Face Down China, Should the United States Turn Away From the Middle East?
Credit: USDA photo by Lance Cheung

Should the United States de-emphasize its commitments to the Middle East in favor of a more robust competitive stance toward China? As the American political class has grown weary of “forever wars,” calls for disengagement from the Middle East have often revolved around the need to spend more resources in the Western Pacific. One recent framing of this ideas comes from Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo), who argues that America’s commitment to global liberal hegemony went hand in hand with the waging of endless war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. 

Harshly critical of Bush- and Obama-era foreign policy, Hawley calls for the U.S. to redistribute its efforts toward Asia, arguing that China represents a generational threat that may exceed the Soviet Union in magnitude. Hawley’s solution is to build military capacity in East Asia, prioritize alliances with partners across the region, and “[counter] malign Chinese influence in other areas, from Africa to Latin America to our colleges and universities at home.” 

This may sound like an expansive program for a self-declared anti-imperialist, but even granting that Hawley’s commitment to both anti-imperialism and an exit from the Middle East are limited and opportunistic (he supports continued arms sales to the UAE, and continued U.S. military engagement with Saudi Arabia, as well as withdrawal from the JCPOA, and endless military action against Iran) we can nevertheless wonder whether such principles, if sincerely held, would lay out an actionable pathway for avoiding militarized confrontation and “forever war” in the Middle East.

Sadly, Hawley’s framing (even if taken sincerely) is self-contradictory and represents a false choice. Even for those of us who most feverishly wish it to be so, the prospect of the United States disengaging in any substantial way from the Middle East remains uncertain at best. Hawley gives away the game by citing Africa, Latin America, and the Western Pacific as areas of competition with China. All of these regions may indeed offer battlegrounds for influence between Beijing and the United States, but the idea that the U.S. can or will prioritize these areas over the Middle East is fantasy. 

The Middle East continues to offer control over the world’s most important energy resource, and its abiding political divisions offer plentiful opportunities for superpower meddling. The United States does not need to pick sides in the Saudi-Iran dispute as vigorously as it has done in recent years, and obviously should not remove or prop up regimes elsewhere in the region. But the conflict between Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Iran will inevitably involve the United States and China. We don’t have to believe that geopolitical competition between the United States and China will in all, or even most, respects copy the dynamics of the Cold War, but any discussion that frames China as an enormous and direct threat to the United States will necessarily lay the foundation for global competition. Focusing on China will not lead to an end of imperialism, or of endless wars in the Middle East. Indeed, to the extent that U.S.-China competition involves anything like the dynamics of the Cold War, we will see every conflict in the world rhetorically weaponized as an opportunity to fight Chinese influence.

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The problem is straightforward: Any effort to characterize China as an existential threat to the United States necessarily implies a level of conflict that will (as it did during the Cold War) provide justification for U.S. intervention anywhere in the world. The solution for a less interventionist foreign policy is not to play up the threat of Beijing in the hopes the U.S. will stop intervening elsewhere, but rather to carefully rethink what constitutes a threat to U.S. core values, and what the United States must sacrifice to meet that threat.