Journal Article - Foreign Policy

Give Up on Proxy Wars in the Middle East

| Aug. 07, 2020

Despite their policy differences, the successive administrations of U.S. Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump have all struggled to balance the United States’ expansive security objectives in the Middle East with the limited resources available to pursue them. Their maximalist policy goals aimed not just to mitigate the risk of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil, but to eradicate al Qaeda and the Islamic State wherever local branches took root; not just to push back against Iran’s influence in key strategic locations, but to place so much pressure on the Iranian regime that it would crumble, or at the very least dramatically alter its regional foreign policy.

But at the same time, successive U.S. administrations knew it was politically untenable to use maximal resources in pursuit of these objectives. After the disastrous intervention in Iraq, putting American boots on the ground—and thereby risking casualties and a quagmire—became politically untenable. As a result, U.S. policymakers have sought to split the difference.

While it has worn various titles over the years, such as “by, with, and through,” the approach is more or less the same: Empower local actors—via support from U.S. special operations forces, training, arms transfers, intelligence sharing, and so forth—to fight the wars that Americans cannot or don’t want to fight themselves. In the Middle East, it has meant arming proxy actors in some places, such as Syria, and empowering security partners to do so or intervene directly in others, such as Yemen and Libya.


For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Stark , Alexandra . Give Up on Proxy Wars in the Middle East.” Foreign Policy, (August 7, 2020) .

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