Much has been said about ending wars in the Middle East, yet an actual shift in budgets and strategy has failed to materialize. Meanwhile, the expansive U.S. basing presence in the region remains a questionable testament to three decades of trying to manage stability and security in the Middle East through military means alone.

Thirty years ago, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait prompted a massive deployment of U.S. forces as part of a multinational effort to defend Saudi Arabia and ultimately liberate Kuwait. In the years since the first Gulf War, despite ebbs and flows in troop levels, U.S. forces never truly left the Middle East. Instead, America’s footprint in the region — its basing presence — deepened.

Recent tensions with Iran, sparked by “maximum pressure,” have only resulted in new U.S. force deployments. After the killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the Pentagon deployed 4,500 new troops to the region, mostly to Kuwait, bringing the total of U.S. forces in the region to more than 50,000.

As others have argued, an evaluation of U.S. basing in the Middle East is long overdue. Ideally, such an assessment should examine a broad array of options, including a complete withdrawal, conducted responsibly over a number of years. At a minimum, it is worth considering drawing back down to a modest posture similar to that maintained by the United States during the Cold War.

Today, the United States operates from more than a dozen major facilities in the Middle East, including the headquarters of the 5th Fleet at Manama, Bahrain, and air bases in countries such as Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. Kuwait alone hosts five major bases in support of U.S. Army and Air Force deployments and is now home to more American personnel than any other foreign country in the world, save Germany, Japan and South Korea.

Yet, prior to the 1990 deployment, the United States spent the preceding 40 years with only two long-standing bases in the region: the air base at Incirlik in Turkey — which was used primarily for NATO operations — and the naval base at Manama. The latter hosted only a handful of ships and wasn’t even formally a U.S. outpost until 1971 when Britain ceded its position to America before formally leaving the region.

Despite that limited posture, America effectively pursued its twin strategic goals of countering Soviet influence in the region and ensuring a steady flow of energy to U.S. allies. It did so through a combination of measures — including economic assistance, military aid, covert action and diplomacy — but largely eschewed direct employment of military force.

To be sure, U.S. actions during the Cold War were not always successful and some had unwanted side effects that persist to this day — as seen most prominently in its poisoned relationship with Iran. But the point stands: For 40 years, while engaged in a global struggle against another superpower, the United States was able to achieve its objectives in a strategically vital area of the world without excessive reliance on military force and absent a large network of fixed bases.

That lesson — that instruments of national power other than military force can be the primary means of attaining vital objectives — is imperative as America contemplates its future in the Middle East. It also could be a useful guide in assessing how many bases the United States really needs. Such a discussion should legitimately ask whether the United States requires any such facilities in the region, at least over the long term.

Closing U.S. bases in the Middle East might seem like foreign policy blasphemy given the centrality of the region in geopolitical thought for almost 80 years — but the relevance of the region has diminished. Though it still remains an important source of energy, it is no longer as essential due to increased U.S. domestic production and Europe’s (admittedly questionable) turn toward Russian energy sources. The Middle East accounts for just 4.2% of global GDP. The policy community in Washington has been slow to recognize this.

Ideally, force posture should derive from strategy, but given the reluctance for a truly fulsome debate on U.S. goals in the Middle East, an examination of the basing network could suffice as a forcing function to better enunciate policy objectives in the region. A careful examination of the U.S. basing architecture in the Middle East could spur an overdue debate on U.S. regional aims and where they rank compared to contending military demands (in places like East Asia) and compelling domestic concerns (like ballooning national debt).

Any reduction in the U.S. basing architecture needn’t be undertaken precipitously. U.S. withdrawal from even a portion of its current bases will have ripple effects as profound as when we entered — the region will need time to adjust. But a 10-year horizon isn’t unreasonable for dramatically decreasing the number of U.S. bases and perhaps eliminating them entirely.

Not only might this be prudent, but also it could be necessary if political and societal change in the Middle East accelerates.

Next year will mark 10 years since the protests of the Arab Spring. The grievances that sparked those protests have not been addressed by regional governments (with the possible exception of Tunisia). Most have chosen the path of cosmetic reforms mated with increased repression. The underlying problems remain, and it’s reasonable to expect that at some point they will again surface en masse, particularly if oil prices remain suppressed.

It’s possible 2011 may turn out to be a tremor, one that presages a true seismic shift for the Middle East in the years ahead. The United States should consider whether it would be better served watching those changes from offshore or, at the least, with a much-reduced regional footprint.

As the Cold War illustrates, large numbers of troops garrisoned at multiple fixed facilities are not needed to secure U.S. interests. In fact, the absence of such bases — and the entangling ties to host governments that they entail — could be critical to a more agile U.S. approach to the region, one that relies on other instruments of national power as the Middle East continues to evolve and change.

Mike Sweeney is a fellow at Defense Priorities. He is the author of “Considering the ‘Zero Option’: Cold War Lessons on U.S. Basing in the Middle East.”

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