American power rose and fell in the Middle East during McKenzie’s three years in command of American forces in the region. The United States ended its longest war in Afghanistan and traditional partners such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates began hedging their bets. But Iranian power remained a constant.
McKenzie has been among the Pentagon’s hawks on Iran, and he carried out the order to kill Iranian Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani in January 2020. But he told me last week that by shifting responsibility military in the region, he is convinced that “we need to find a compromise with Iran to move forward. Tehran’s centrality is likely to increase even more as the Biden administration moves towards a renewal of Iran nuclear deal soon.
McKenzie’s retirement this week offers a chance to reflect on America’s position in the Middle East after spending so much blood and treasure there for decades as the region’s police chief. The honest answer is that the United States has been treading water most of the time, trying to maintain a status quo that was inherently unstable.
McKenzie’s mission was sometimes a thankless task. Even countries that have benefited the most from the US military umbrella, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are now flirting with China. But the Gulf Arabs are also secretly turning to Israel to coordinate regional air defense against Iran. Facilitating this secret partnership might be the most significant accomplishment under McKenzie’s watch.
I made several trips to the region with McKenzie and spoke with him often while he was commander of Centcom. These conversations mapped the arc of American power. The two presidents he served wanted American troops out of Afghanistan, against the recommendations of McKenzie and other military commanders. His job was to oversee that chaotic retreat last August – and deter Iran and other adversaries without starting new wars.
My first trip with McKenzie was in July 2019. We visited Saudi Arabia as the United States installed new Patriot missile batteries to protect the kingdom. We have seen a startling modernization of Saudi society – I could never have imagined street musicians and unveiled women walking around Jeddah. But the repressive face of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman lurked in the background. For example, we shared a sumptuous lunch with General Fahd bin Turki, then commander of the Saudi forces in Yemen and a rising star in the Saudi military. A year later, MBS, as the crown prince is known, has him arrested.
Iran flexed its muscles during our visit, seizure of oil tankers in the Persian Gulfand I flew with McKenzie to an American warship in the gulf that had just come from thwarted an Iranian drone attack. His message was to keep calm and avoid direct military confrontation. Iran was “trying to gauge our intent and commitment,” McKenzie and another reporter traveling with him told me. He preferred to show strength but try not to use it.
The following January, as Iranian threats continued, McKenzie recommended what was probably the most potent show of American power against Iran since the 1979 revolution – the drone attack that killed Soleimani. McKenzie told me in a recent interview that the United States had intelligence that Soleimani was plotting new attacks that could have killed Americans in Iraq.
The attack elicited a harsh Iranian response: a targeted missile attack on Iraq’s al-Asad air base, which was supposed to kill Americans, and which would have taken place had US intelligence services not been tipped off quickly than allowed American troops to take cover. The retaliation demonstrated the precision of Iranian missiles – and the threat they pose to the region. But McKenzie argues that the net effect of Soleimani’s tit-for-tat was to strengthen American deterrence.
Another military success on McKenzie’s tour was the battle against Islamic State in Syria. We traveled to Kobani in 2019 to meet the United States’ partner in this fight, Syrian Kurdish General Mazloum Abdi. The Kurds provided crucial intelligence that enabled McKenzie’s forces to target and kill Islamic State leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi in February, another key operation during his tour.
America’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan seemed to mark the eclipse of American power in the Middle East. This is certainly how the Saudis and the Emiratis perceived it. But as McKenzie leaves command, US military forces remain in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Bahrain and Kuwait – not to mention Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The Middle East remains a codependent habit that neither the United States nor its fickle friends seem capable of quitting.