The Brainstorm long read: there are many reasons for the United States' long-term military presence in the Middle East and many of these have as much to do with economics as security.

It was January 1983. Ronald Reagan was in the White House and his administration had just initiated United States Central Command (CENTCOM) at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. With little fanfare, one of the most far-reaching developments in international relations in the late 20th century happened and the most important military command in the world was established in an obscure US air force base. 

MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, Florida. Photo: John Morrissey

The new military command was "to plan, jointly train, exercise and be prepared to deploy and employ designated forces in response to contingencies threatening US vital interests in the Middle East". This directive set in motion a security mission whose legacies and ongoing wars we are still witnessing today. 

In 1983, the US military possessed no military bases anywhere in the Middle East. By the mid-2000s, CENTCOM had built up a military footprint of over 125 bases across the region. Since its initiation, the command has spearheaded every major US military intervention overseas, from the Tanker War in the Persian Gulf in the 1980s to the Gulf War in the 1990s to the war on terror in recent decades. Its mission has always been straightforward and unambiguous and has always received bi-partisan support in Washington: the military shaping of the most energy-rich region on earth.

CENTCOM’s initiation signalled a new era of US global ambition in the aftermath of the failure of the Vietnam War, and solidified a new focus of US foreign policy on the Middle East. In no other region has the US military established more bases, lost more troops, spent more money, or facilitated the investment of more capital in the last 30 years. 

We sometimes forget that the US now possesses more overseas military bases than any nation in history 

The long war

From its inception, the command was tasked with an interlinked military and economic security mission that centrally involves the policing of a pivotal yet precarious space in the broader global economy. CENTCOM calls this mission its "long war" and, for the last 30 years, it has taken place in CENTCOM’s Area of Responsibility as designated by the Pentagon. The command calls this vast area the "Central Region" and it has established 128 forward operating bases, along with hundreds more logistics sites, access points, pre-positioning locations and mobile offshore capabilities within this region. It is a comprehensive military presence enabling what the US military terms "full spectrum dominance".

For CENTCOM, the region is "central" in three key ways: it is central to the global economy, central to energy assets and ultimately central to global security. In examining CENTCOM’s strategy papers, posture statements and extensive press briefings from the outset, what becomes clear are the enmeshed military and economic logics that have been consistently deployed to justify its security mission to the US government, and more broadly the Western political world.

The rationale for CENTCOM’s very existence recalls all of the hallmarks of the most common imperial representation of the past: the identification of threat and volatility, with the simultaneous signalling of liberal correction and universalist special mission. As CENTCOM advisors pronounced in the early 1990s, the Middle East needs to be "secured from itself", echoing the very essence of the liberal imperial interventionary urge of history.

CENTCOM's mission, as so frequently cited by its commanders in Washington, is for "the good of the global economy"

In the late 1990s, CENTCOM published an influential strategy paper, Shaping the Central Region for the 21st Century. Even from the title, there are three telling elements that divulge the command’s continuance of an imperial history that is far from past, to paraphrase William Faulkner. First, the word "shaping" divulges a long-established imperial ambition to configure the political and economic spaces of the periphery for the vital interests of the metropole. Since 1983, CENTCOM’s shaping has been underpinned by simplified, strategic and ultimately Orientalist depictions of the Middle East that have been instrumental in driving US foreign policy in the region. 

Secondly, the title reprises the imperial tactic of renaming vast regions and reductively scripting a diversity of people and places from a hegemonically Western perspective. Finally, the temporal signalling of CENTCOM’s mission "for the 21st Century" recalls the providential promise of Western imperial interventions through history. Long before the September 11th attacks in 2001, CENTCOM was openly planning for the long haul in the Middle East and the perennial need for intervention.

CENTCOM's "Area of Responsibility", 2017

The back story

In many ways, CENTCOM’s emergence can be traced back to former US President Jimmy Carter’s State of the Union address in January 1980. Then, he declared that "any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force". Two months later, the establishment of the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force marked the first formal commitment of US military force to the Middle East and, with CENTCOM’s succession in 1983 as a full regional command, the US government had fully committed to the Carter Doctrine. 

At this juncture, the US had no military bases in the vast region of the Middle East and Central Asia. This prompted the pursuit of alternative objectives to secure strategic capabilities in the region, including the stationing of "prepositioning ships" as "floating warehouses" with combat and support equipment for use by arriving forces. In addition, the US government set about initiating joint military training exercises with partner nations such as Egypt. It also pursued a policy of securing access rights for its armed forces with several countries. By the late 1980s, it had developed significant basing capabilities in Saudi Arabia, in particular, which ultimately enabled the rapid response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the subsequent launch of Operation Desert Storm.

Saddam Hussein

Six months prior to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, CENTCOM Commander-in-Chief General Norman Schwarzkopf outlined his command’s raison d’être to the US Congress: "the greatest threat to US interests in the area is the spillover of regional conflict which could endanger American lives, threaten US interests in the area or interrupt the flow of oil, thereby requiring the commitment of US combat forces". Given its clear, military-economic mission to protect US vital interests in the Persian Gulf, the command was compelled to militarily intervene in early 1991. The swift success of the CENTCOM-led war further crystallised its military-economic grand strategy and solidified its basing structure and capacity in the region.

After the Gulf War, a substantial contingent of CENTCOM forces remained in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other support countries as part of a new US deterrence grand strategy in the Persian Gulf. Throughout the 1990s, this deterrence strategy was enabled via an extensive naval, air and ground presence. It was a mission convincingly presented to the US Congress each year by CENTCOM commanders as vital to securing both the US and world economy. 

The interested parties served by CENTCOM's mission are not just those in the US military-industrial complex...CENTCOM serves as a security blanket for a raft of Western companies in the region. 

By the mid-2000s, this universalist rationale for a seemingly permanent US presence in the region had become so accepted that it was effectively unchallenged politically. At this point, CENTCOM had also extended its basing structure and land prepositioning programme to countries such as Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. As noted by the US Overseas Basing Commission, the endgame of such developments was clear-cut: "US strategy toward the region centers on the uninterrupted flow of Arabian Gulf oil, security of coalition partners and allies, regional peace and security and access to commercial markets".

Neoliberal empire

We sometimes forget that the US now possesses more overseas military bases than any nation in history. Even after the military success of the Gulf War, CENTCOM commanders preferred to maintain an over-the-horizon presence in the Persian Gulf region, rather than mount a large-scale military presence in any one area. 

This all changes in the wake of the September 11 attacks in 2001 and the subsequent large-scale invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. While acknowledging the undeniable aggressive military interventionism pursued by the Bush administration in the aftermath of the 2001 attacks – which many commentators have termed "neoconservative empire" – what has been less considered about the national security strategy of George W. Bush is that it also bore all of the hallmarks of "neoliberal empire" commonly attributed to the previous administration of Bill Clinton and subsequent administration of Barack Obama, both Democrats. 

During an episode of RTÉ Radio One's Liveline, news broke of the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York on 11 September 2001

Little-discussed, for example, is Bush’s economic liberalisation project in the Middle East and Central Asia, which built upon Clinton’s earlier efforts to close the gaps of an open neoliberal economy in the region. In the 2006 US National Security Strategy, four of its nine chapters address issues of economic integration and globalization. An integral aspect of Bush’s national security strategy involved an expressly economic policy of securing free trade agreements, which the US signed with Bahrain in 2004 and Oman in 2005. Both of these served to secure significant markets for oil and gas companies like Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell and Totalfina Elf.

From its first forward deployment in reflagging Kuwaiti oil tankers with American ensigns during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, CENTCOM’s mission has centrally involved a political economic function and has served elite economic interests. The interested parties served by CENTCOM’s mission are not just those in the US military-industrial complex. Operating as "guardians of the Gulf" by patrolling vital assets, key access points and pivotal transportation networks, CENTCOM serves as a security blanket for a raft of Western companies in the region. 

In an age of transnational global capitalism, many of the companies availing of the commercial opportunities have a distinctly multinational hue. However, CENTCOM’s self-fashioned "world policeman" universalist role has meant that its mission continues to be justified by conflating US and global economic security concerns. Its mission, as so frequently cited by CENTCOM commanders in Washington circles, is "for the good of the global economy".

The human worlds of interventionism

Since 1983, successive CENTCOM commanders have annually affirmed to the US Congress the essential military-economic vital interests at the heart of US national security strategy in the Middle East. The command’s most recent posture statement underlines yet again what will continue to keep the US in the region: "oil and energy resources that fuel the global economy". 

We need to document the historical and contemporary consequences of the US military presence in the region

In seeking to understand the Middle East today, it is imperative to recognise the military and geopolitical history of CENTCOM. Its prevailing representation of the Middle East has consistently positioned the command as guarding, regulating and enabling the broader global economy. As we have seen more broadly in recent years in our so-called post-truth world, if you selectively script something often enough and crucially at influential platforms, it becomes the dominant narrative. CENTCOM’s annual mission statements to Congress certainly have this attribute, and are rarely contested politically. Many have pointed out the selective and repetitious nature of imperial discourse throughout history, in which vast regions and peoples are depicted as requiring a civilizing, corrective mission. Such representations are unfortunately not confined to the imperial past.

Today, as much as ever, we need to render visible the human worlds of Western interventionism. A key challenge lies in calling out the reductive and strategic nature of dominant forms of national security discourse that appeal to liberal and neoliberal notions of interventionism and simultaneously remove from view the brutal consequences of repeated violence.

CENTCOM’s dominant national security discourse on the Middle East serves to both position legitimised military action against the threat of geopolitical instability and present the US as the guardian of both the regional and broader global economy. We need to document the historical and contemporary consequences of the US military presence in the region in terms of the inevitable cycles of conflict and violence we continue to sadly witness. In the face of unremitting imperial rationales for ongoing military interventions, the task of insisting upon the human worlds where they take place remains vital.

This piece is based upon Dr John Morrissey's book "The Long War: CENTCOM, Grand Strategy, and Global Security" (University of Georgia Press, 2017)


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ