WASHINGTON — Sen. Elizabeth Warren's call Tuesday night for the United States to "get out" of the Middle East, if implemented, would end a generations-long U.S. military presence in the volatile region. Her campaign later softened that statement, saying she was talking about combat troops only.
"I think that we ought to get out of the Middle East," Warren said in a Democratic presidential debate during a discussion of President Donald Trump's decision to pull troops out of Syria.
"I don't think we should have troops in the Middle East," she added.
Warren has advocated shrinking the U.S. footprint overseas and has said she wants to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. But a call to pull back from all of the Middle East would appear to go a step further.
In a statement after the debate, Warren spokeswoman Alexis Krieg said the candidate "was referencing combat troops, not those stationed in the Middle East in non-combat roles."
"She believes we need to end the endless wars. That means working to responsibly remove U.S. troops from combat in the Middle East, and using diplomacy to work with allies and partners to end conflicts and suffering in the region," Krieg said.
U.S. forces, including air and naval forces, have been based in the Middle East for decades, in part to ensure a free flow of oil from countries such as Saudi Arabia that have long been an energy lifeline to some Western countries.
The U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, for example, is headquartered at Bahrain, and the Air Force operates aircraft, including fighter jets, bombers and intelligence-gathering planes, at bases in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.
The U.S. also has about 5,200 troops in Iraq to support Iraqi security forces overrun by the Islamic State group in 2014. Those troops are not engaged in direct combat.
The number of U.S. troops in Syria has shrunk this year from about 2,000 to about 1,000, and Trump last week directed that the 1,000 leave to avoid getting caught between invading Turkish forces and a Syrian Kurd group that had been partnering with the U.S. to fight IS.
Warren, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has long argued that the U.S. military is overcommitted in the Middle East and mired in conflicts that sap America's strength.
Reducing or ending U.S. involvement in Middle East wars, however, is different than ending the U.S. military presence in the region. Those forces are intended as a deterrent to potential enemies such as Iran and Russia and as reassurance to allies such as Israel.
Ever since President Jimmy Carter in 1980 declared that the U.S. would use force, if necessary, to stop any outside power from gaining control of the Persian Gulf — the so-called Carter Doctrine — America has made that area a key focus of its military strategy.