The Pentagon Tries to Pivot out of the Middle East—Again

May 20, 2020

Foreign Policy

When the U.S. Defense Department announced, on May 7, that it would withdraw two Patriot missile batteries and several fighter aircraft from Saudi Arabia, it looked like an ominous development in the tense relationship between Washington and Riyadh. Speculation was rife that it was an effort by the Trump administration to punish the kingdom for starting an oil price war that—in concert with collapsing oil demand due to the coronavirus pandemic—has wreaked havoc in the U.S. shale oil industry.

After all, angry Republican Senators had already introduced legislation calling for a complete U.S. military withdrawal, including the Patriot batteries. There were also credible reports that Trump himself had used these threats in negotiations with Riyadh to achieve the historic April 12 deal to cut oil production by 9.7 million barrels per day in an attempt to prop up prices and save U.S. shale.

But widespread anger in Washington at Saudi Arabia—over the oil price war, over the war in Yemen, over the killing of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi—doesn’t make the speculation correct. The withdrawal was much less about punishing the kingdom than about the Pentagon’s effort to manage its finite resources and shift many of them elsewhere from the Middle East.

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