Forty-five years after the revolution and establishment of the Islamic Republic, the regime in Tehran is not only widely distrusted but has also sown the seeds of distrust among Iranians.
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Political leaders, policy analysts, the media, and the public are engaged in a vigorous conversation regarding the future of the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East, which is concentrated in the Gulf Arab states. In the series Refining the U.S. Force Posture in the Gulf, AGSIW intends to help frame the larger debate and explore options for restructuring the United States’ policy goals and military presence in the region. Through written analysis and conversations with scholars, experts, and practitioners, the series will explore new conceptual frameworks and search for constructive ideas for a more realistic, effective, and pragmatic approach to reshaping the U.S. force posture in the region.
AGSIW joins this complex, multifaceted discussion with the clear goal of strengthening U.S. national security and serving the interests of both the United States and its regional partners. A continued strong U.S. diplomatic, economic, and military presence in the Gulf and Middle East as well as a renewed focus on the United States’ relationships with its key partners are central to promoting stability in the region and securing the U.S. national interest.
It is high time to move past the assumption that the only real or effective U.S. response to any significant challenge is the use of military force. It is time to find ways to apply political will and diplomacy effectively, in concert with the United States’ allies and supported by strong military capability and options. The situation in Afghanistan demonstrates both the futility of trying to prescribe the future of other societies, even with extended periods of military deployment, but also the delusion that an absence of U.S. forces will bring stability or prosperity. Plainly, a middle way beckons from lessons that need, at last, to be truly learned.
I invite you to join AGSIW and others in this crucial conversation in coming months, starting with this analysis by AGSIW Senior Resident Scholar Hussein Ibish.
Ambassador Douglas A. Silliman
An overdue debate is underway regarding the scope and utility of the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East, particularly the Gulf region. It is being amplified by the controversial U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, which all sides cite as a vindication of their existing perspectives. On one side of the debate, some are pushing for the continuation or expansion of the current posture. The other extreme demands the elimination of all or nearly all fixed U.S. military facilities in the region. Both constituencies are loud and passionate, but a strong new consensus falling between these two positions is nonetheless emerging. It is time for the United States to rethink the distribution of its assets to make them more effective and, where appropriate, smaller, leaner, and more flexible, while at the same time recognizing that long-term deployments of U.S. forces in the Gulf region remain essential to the interests of the United States, and those of its regional and global partners, and for regional stability and security.
This debate arises from a growing sense of war weariness and desire to focus on domestic projects among many Americans. On the Republican right, this is the “America first” agenda, while for Democrats, it is the “build back better” initiative. There is also a growing focus on great power competition with Russia and China – which begs the question of how the U.S. presence in the Gulf contributes to, and is interlocked with, those complex policy aims.
Despite consistent calls for a de-prioritization of the Middle East – that, even within the government, date back to the second term of President George W. Bush and have been echoed by all subsequent administrations – the likely negative consequences of any dramatic shift have prevented it from happening. The strategic and economic importance of the Gulf region and its crucial energy supplies, especially to the economies of South and East Asia, is obvious. And there are many other reasons for the United States not to pull back too quickly or drastically. Still, most among the U.S. public, political leaders, and policy analysts have concluded that the military footprint largely inherited from the 1991 Desert Storm operation in Kuwait and 2003 invasion of Iraq has become ill-suited to evolving U.S. interests in the region.
Long-established security architecture in the Gulf, such as the U.S. naval presence in Manama, dating back to just after World War II, is also under pressure, even though it has repeatedly demonstrated its importance in helping ensure the free flow of oil and commerce in vital maritime passages such as the Strait of Hormuz. The U.S. 5th Fleet also serves as the headquarters and hub of the Combined Maritime Forces, a 34-member coalition dedicated to combating piracy and smuggling and promoting maritime security in most important international shipping lanes, including the Indian Ocean and adjacent waterways.
The impulse to scale back the force posture in the Gulf dovetails with a transition away from post-9/11 entanglements in Afghanistan and, to a lesser extent, Iraq as well as the small but effective presence in Syria. Those three deployments are all very different, but the end of U.S. involvement in the Afghan war, restructuring of U.S. forces in Iraq to exclude combat missions, and persistence of the limited presence on the Syria-Iraq border to continue the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and to block Iranian control of the Iraqi-Syrian border crossings all illustrate the need for a potential adjustment of assets.
The debate is bookended by opposing hard-line hawkish and isolationist positions. The resurgence of isolationism has arisen among right-wing nationalists and libertarians as well as liberal progressives. Such leanings have always been present but were effectively forced to the margins after World War II, through the Cold War and into the subsequent decades of the United States acting as the sole global power. Given the absence of a Cold War-style consensus about a defining existential threat, the return of isolationism was, perhaps, inevitable. International relations have become increasingly multipolar with the return of Russia to the world stage and, especially, the growth of China into an emerging global power competing with the United States. In addition to these great power rivals, regional powers, including in the Middle East, are increasingly asserting their strategic autonomy and attempting to diversify their partnerships and options.
Most striking is a convergence of conservative Republican and liberal Democratic versions of the isolationist resurgence. Both advocate that the United States should remove its military presence largely or even entirely from the Middle East (as well as the rest of the world, for example, Korea). These arguments are usually based on downplaying threats from adversaries such as Russia, China, and Iran, and a thoroughgoing rejection of U.S. international leadership as wasteful, provocative, and counterproductive.
On the other extreme, some hawkish blocs, many of which emerged out of the neoconservative perspective, not only defend the current military posture but frequently demand an intensified U.S. military presence in the Middle East. This is typically tied to calls for increased military cooperation with and support for Israel and robust defenses of Israeli policies in the occupied Palestinian territories. Others take a more traditionally hawkish stance that simply opposes virtually all force posture drawdowns around the world.
These two extreme positions, though aggressively promoted by well-funded and highly visible institutions, remain maximalist outliers. There is, instead, a growing consensus that, while the United States should not entirely withdraw its military presence from the Gulf and broader Middle East, it should also not reflexively maintain the current posture, let alone inflate it. A broad-based expansion of the U.S. military role might be welcomed by some U.S. allies, including Israel and some Arab states, but many U.S. analysts believe that the current posture, formed in a different era, is not well suited to achieving present-day U.S. national interests in the region.
Defining U.S. Interests
One of the most important tasks in conceptualizing a new framework for the U.S. military role in the Gulf and broader Middle East is to identify, and hopefully forge a consensus around, a clearly defined understanding of core U.S. national security interests.
Most analysts agree that the United States has a vital interest in maintaining maritime security in the waters of the Gulf and global access to trade and energy resources through the Suez Canal, Bab el-Mandeb strait, and Strait of Hormuz, and beyond that, the eastern Mediterranean and Indian Ocean. The U.S. military posture around the globe is an interwoven, interconnected web of assets that support and reinforce each other in complex and often mutually indispensable ways. It would be difficult for the United States to continue to play a major global role without taking the lead in securing access to what remains the energy lifeblood of the global economy. Ceding this role to the competing interests of regional powers or the hegemony of a rival international power would effectively signal the return of an isolationist foreign policy.
A second point of near unanimity is the vital interest in combating and deterring terrorism aimed at the United States and U.S. interests overseas. Counterterrorism is among the most important and effective pillars of U.S. leadership and influence, especially in the Middle East, and is imperative in reinforcing Washington’s network of alliances, above all NATO. Much of the focus of U.S. foreign policy since the 9/11 attacks has been centered on counterterrorism efforts, whether effective or misguided. Despite many flaws, the policy has been substantially effective: There has been no repetition of the 9/11 attacks, and the fight against violent extremist groups has largely been taken to wherever they originate rather than in the United States.
However, many post-9/11 policies, notably the 2003 invasion of Iraq, ended up bolstering radicals in Iraq and Syria, eventually leading to the formation of ISIL, and empowering Iran. Pro-Iranian extremist groups continue to target U.S. forces and interests in Iraq and elsewhere. And the threat from al-Qaeda and ISIL, even to domestic U.S. targets, persists – particularly given the Taliban takeover of most of Afghanistan, the deadly suicide attack by an ISIL affiliate on the Kabul airport, and the release of large numbers of al-Qaeda operatives that had been in Afghan prisons.
Another issue frequently cited as a vital U.S. interest in the Middle East is the security of Israel, but that has become increasingly linked to the security of other U.S. regional partners. Israel and several key Gulf Arab countries agree that Iran and its militia network pose the greatest threat to their national security and regional stability. This shared threat perception and strategic convergence led the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to begin normalizing relations with Israel in 2020, which brought three key U.S. partners closer together. Saudi Arabia remains undecided but is clearly keeping its options open. The security of Israel and Gulf Arab states now overlap in ways that will likely provide important new opportunities for U.S. allies to cooperate both with Washington and each other in ways that also enhance U.S. regional strategic and policy goals.
Other key concerns include counteracting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; helping to avert new devastating regional wars; limiting human displacement and containing refugee crises; promoting U.S. values where possible; and addressing climate change and human security issues. The United States needs to forge a consensus about what requirements are essential to secure these interests, and what is needed to maintain support for a range of global imperatives.
Many analysts argue that the United States should transition from the post-Cold War effort of securing and defending a Pax Americana in the Middle East to a more traditional regional balancing role. This could make sense from both a U.S. and regional perspective, but there is no broadly shared understanding of what such a balancing role would entail. Some argue that the United States should seek, in effect, to foster a regional balance of power between Iran or Turkey and their Arab rivals. Yet balancing cannot mean accepting all existing actors’ policies as equally legitimate, particularly Iran’s promotion of sectarian armed militias in neighboring Arab countries, which has strongly contributed to the disintegration of these states and is the major impediment to national reintegration and regional order and stability.
Options for Force Posture Restructuring
To effectively adjust and restructure force posture, it may be necessary to adjust expectations at home and among U.S. partners. Many Americans assume that any action that is not kinetic, or at least essentially military in nature, cannot be considered effective. And many among U.S. partners in the Middle East and the Gulf assume that real commitment is only sincerely expressed and enacted through military assets and actions. Such attitudes need to evolve, given how effective nonmilitary tools can be when backed by a credible option of force.
The present configuration of major U.S. military assets in the region, which are largely concentrated in Gulf Arab states, needs careful evaluation: Which assets remain useful, which are cost-effective, which might be expanded, and which could be transitioned into a lighter, more flexible, and more responsive framework? An important corollary involves consideration of what the political and strategic landscape might look like following any possible adjustments. An empty space, with the United States over a horizon but still able to achieve significant objectives, is one thing; a new normal in which Russia or other U.S. global or regional competitors are effectively invited to fill such a vacuum, whether or not they actually can, would be a far greater concern.
A great deal of important, albeit at times speculative, work has already been done on the subject by a range of military and security experts, many of them with direct experience in the Middle East. The complex issue of burden sharing is directly related to restructuring, which could include the relocation of forward headquarters, possibly back to the United States. This depends in part on successfully strengthening the capabilities of U.S. regional partners, itself a complex and controversial task, including more integrated and robust missile defense systems and enhanced local maritime security capabilities, including minesweeping.
That requires a deeper discussion of arms sales to partners as the United States readjusts. Yet, even at its most successful, burden sharing based on strengthening local partners inevitably involves a lessening of direct influence. U.S. dismay over the consequences of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen serves as a good example of the potential downside of burden sharing. The United States and its partners will also have to find effective ways of combating the major threat posed by the emergence of cheap and dangerous drones, especially when combined with precision, or even hyperprecision, guidance systems. In the Middle East, Iran and Turkey have pioneered the application of drones and precision guidance and demonstrated the extent to which those new technologies have radically altered the strategic equation. The actual and potential use of such weapons by violent extremists and nonstate militias adds a further alarming element to the problem.
Numerous experts have already floated options for rightsizing the U.S. force posture but in a largely piecemeal manner. Some have pointed to increased emphasis on diplomacy as a necessary component to rightsizing. However, diplomatic capabilities, while still substantial, have been underfunded for decades, raising questions about what more diplomats could take on, especially since a strong military backstop is often helpful to make diplomacy effective. There are also key economic, commercial, and human security dimensions to facilitate the transition to doing more with less, all of which need to be utilized to their fullest.
As a global power, the United States remains unique, and massive benefits accrue to the American people from this global leadership role. International relations is not a zero-sum game, but global and regional players certainly keep score, and rivals will seek to fill areas the United States withdraws from or positions of influence it cedes.
The U.S. presence in the Gulf, therefore, remains crucial to both Washington and its partners. But to make it more effective and sustainable requires a new approach to regional security. A finer balance is needed between diplomatic – or even commercial or private sector – initiatives and traditional hard power, while retaining a robust military option to provide leverage and, where necessary, a last resort.
Carefully distinguishing among the various types of U.S. military presence – naval versus based aircraft versus boots on the ground and extensive training missions and small, temporary special operations force deployments or military assistance missions based in embassies – will help in creating the persuasive rationale needed to warrant an effective, sustainable force. What is required is a posture designed to serve flexible coalitions with partners to meet challenges without expecting or demanding that all partners contribute to every mission.
The United States needs a much clearer understanding of precisely what challenges requirethe long-term presence of forces, and the possible use of force, and under what conditions. Without that, policy will continue to drift without clear direction. This is why a new consensus on national security goals in the Gulf and broader Middle East is so important. The ultimate aim must be to foster a new regional security paradigm that includes all major players and is oriented to seeking win-win solutions rather than zero-sum confrontations. Whether this is achievable can only be determined by a thoroughgoing effort to promote and pursue it.
A wide-ranging conversation is required about how and why to restructure the U.S. force posture in the Gulf, what vital national security interests and missions these assets must serve, and what other tools advance these aims. The U.S. role in the Middle East has evolved since the establishment of major bases such as the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command in Bahrain and forward headquarters of U.S. Central Command at Al Udeid air base in Qatar. Given technological and strategic developments in recent years, and lessons learned from the post-9/11 era, the United States should now certainly be able to do more – or at least enough – with less.
is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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