Don't be too sure there won't be another U.S. war in the Middle East.
- By Richard L. RussellRichard L. Russell is Professor of National Security Affairs at the Near East and South Asia Center for Strategic Studies. The views expressed are the author's alone.
Shortly before he left office in February 2011, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told West Point cadets that "in my opinion, any future defense secretary who advised the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it." The remark no doubt reflected Secretary Gates’s fatigue and frustration from the enormous intellectual and emotional burdens associated with overseeing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One suspects, however, that in a more reflective moment, Gates would have acknowledged that "never say never" is a wise rule of thumb in planning for military contingencies, especially in the region that makes up Central Command’s area of responsibility. Few, for example, predicted the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Gates himself — who was a senior CIA official during the covert war supporting the Afghan resistance — surely did not anticipate then that the United States would have to return to Afghanistan two decades later to oust a Taliban regime that was harboring terrorists. Before 1990, moreover, no one predicted that Iraq, having just ended a bitter eight-year war with Iran, would swing its battered forces south to invade Kuwait.
So if it’s conventional wisdom that the United States will not, or should not, intervene militarily in the Middle East or South Asia after it draws down forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s also likely dead wrong. What is true, however, is that political and military trajectories in the Middle East and South Asia are likely to increasingly challenge U.S. contingency access in the coming decade. The ability for the United States to surge large-scale forces into the region, as it did in the 1990 and 2003 wars against Iraq, will grow increasingly circumscribed. The United States will have to adapt to this new strategic landscape by developing more nimble, highly-mobile, stealthy, and networked forces, and by abandoning the traditional practice of slowly and steadily building up conventional forces at regional logistic hubs prior to launching war.
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Perhaps the most significant factor that portends against further intervention in the Middle East and South Asia is increased political resistance — and outright opposition — from the countries in the region. That resistance is likely to come from the new regimes emerging from the Arab uprisings, as well as a number of Gulf monarchies.
Indeed, the political trends in the region are unlikely to conform to the rosy predictions of democratic peace theorists, whose musings have implicitly informed the security policies of both Republican and Democratic administrations for decades. Old authoritarian regimes seem to be passing the way of the dodo bird, but the new regimes taking shape are heavily influenced by militant Islamic ideology that will make them less likely to engage in security or military cooperation with the United States.
Democracy optimists argue that these ideological regimes, once entrenched in power, will have to moderate their zeal in order to govern. Pragmatism will ultimately trump ideology. That line of reasoning, however, is based on the assumption that the policy decisions of such regimes can be explained by rational choice economic theory. In other words, if they want to attract international capital and participate in the world economy, they are going to have to break with their ideological affinities. But that reasoning ignores a hard fact of international politics: that time and again, political and ideological prerogatives trump economic rationality. It made little economic sense, for example, for Pakistan to pursue a nuclear weapons program in the 1970s, just as it makes little economic sense for Iran to do so today. Clearly, both Pakistan and Iran made major policy decisions based on political-military priorities rather than economic calculations.
As for the surviving monarchies in the Middle East, they too will likely be less accommodating to American military forces than they have been in the past. To be sure, much of the Arab support for past American military operations — like both Iraq wars — was hidden from the public eye. Arab states often loudly and publicly denounced "unilateral American" military action in the region at the same time as they supported it in backroom dealings, quietly authorizing facilities support and air, land, and sea access.
But if Arab Gulf states were quietly supportive in the past, their opposition to American military force is likely to grow in the future. They read the aftermath of the Arab uprisings much differently than did American and European policymakers. The Gulf monarchies were shocked that the United States "abandoned" Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in his time of need in early 2011. Their leaders expected the United States to push for Mubarak and the Egyptian military to crack down on public protests in Cairo. After all, American policymakers during the Carter administration had at least given this policy option consideration during the Iranian revolution in 1979.
Already, several Gulf states have begun to translate their displeasure into policy independence from Washington. In 2011, for example, a coalition of Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia intervened in Bahrain to quell domestic unrest in the island country. They did so under the banner of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which for years had been a feckless military force. Largely unnoticed in Western commentary was that the GCC, for the first time in its history, mounted a relatively effective military intervention.
Bahrain today is for all intents and purposes a province of Saudi Arabia, even if it is not polite to say so in diplomatic circles. Since the Iranian revolution, Bahrain — like the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar — has pursued close ties with the United States, in significant measure to counterbalance Iran and Saudi Arabia. With Washington at their back, they were able to stake out security policies that were at least nominally independent from Saudi Arabia. When Saudi Arabia wanted American forces removed from the kingdom, for example, Qatar was eager to compensate by hosting a more robust American command presence in the region.
The Arab uprisings and subsequent GCC intervention in Bahrain have turned the tables, making Saudi security backing a necessity for the smaller Gulf monarchies. From their perspective, American forces are clearly more capable than Saudi forces, but given the alignment of their interests, Riyadh is a more reliable security partner. Gulf leaders and military commanders in the coming decade will be focused on how to avoid following in Mubarak’s footsteps. Part of minimizing that risk will involve decreasing security dependency on the United States. Gulf leaders have to worry that if push comes to shove, the Americans will throw them under a bus just like they did to Mubarak.
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If the political dynamics in the Middle East and South Asia do not favor further American military intervention in the future, neither do the emerging military trends. The proliferation of supersonic cruise missiles and mines in the region will make for nasty forced entries into narrow maritime confines like the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf.
But the likely proliferation of nuclear weapons — and ballistic missile delivery systems — will pose even more formidable challenges to conventional military surges in the region. In the future, the United States will not be able to take for granted unchallenged surges of naval, air, and ground forces into regional theaters via logistics hubs. These hubs — like the American naval presence in Bahrain — are large, readily identifiable, and will be increasingly vulnerable to future targeting by nuclear weaponry.
Iran’s nuclear weapons, assuming it gets them, will pose a direct threat to American military surge capabilities. Although American policymakers and military commanders might feel confident that they could surge forces into the Gulf despite Iranian nuclear threats because of the American nuclear deterrent, Gulf security partners might be more nervous and less willing to cooperate. As a result, they might not grant access to U.S. air, naval, and ground forces out of fear of angering Iran.
American observers who doubt that Gulf states would make such calculations should recall how Kuwait responded in the lead-up to Iraq’s invasion in 1990. When faced with a build-up of Iraqi forces along its border, Kuwait decided not to mobilize its military out of fear that the move would provoke Saddam Hussein. The incentives for Gulf states to make similar strategic calculations in the future will be greater when Iran has an inventory of nuclear weapons to match its growing ballistic missile capabilities.
The Gulf states, moreover, will likely reason that the U.S. capability to threaten or use force against a nuclear Iran will be significantly diminished. Even without nuclear weapons, Gulf states have seen, in their view, a long history of American reluctance to threaten or use force against Iran. For example, the United States took no direct military action against Iran after it aided and abetted Hezbollah bombings against Americans in Lebanon in the 1980s, after Iran supported the bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996, or even after Iran supported the deadly campaign of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against U.S. troops in Iraq. Gulf states will no doubt judge that if the United States was unable and unwilling to attack Tehran under these circumstances, then it is certainly not going to attack Iran in the future, when it will be able to retaliate with nuclear weapons.
American policymakers may counter that Iran would never be foolish enough to threaten or use nuclear weapons against the United States, given its robust nuclear deterrence posture. But the threat or use of nuclear weapons might not look so foolish from Iran’s perspective. One of the great strategic lessons drawn from the long history of conflict in the Middle East is this: Do not go to war without nuclear weapons, as Saddam Hussein did when he invaded Kuwait. The corollary is: Do not allow the United States to methodically build up forces in the Gulf prior to invading, as Saddam did both in the run-up to the 1991 re-conquest of Kuwait and in 2003, before the drive to topple the regime in Baghdad.
Drawing upon these lessons, Iran will likely do everything in its power to deny the United States the ability to surge conventional forces into the region — and that might include threatening to target U.S. forces with nuclear weapons. Iran might accept the risk that preemptive use of nuclear weapons could bring on American nuclear retaliation, because failure to do so would mean certain destruction for the regime. The United States would be able to build up conventional forces in the region and oust Iran’s leaders just as it did in Baghdad.
This line of strategic reasoning runs counter to conventional wisdom in the West, but we actually know little or nothing about what Iranian decision-makers think about nuclear weapons or deterrence theory. Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, opportunities for the exchange of professional views between Western and Iranian scholars, policymakers, and military leaders on these critically important issues have been extremely limited. Therefore, it’s not unreasonable to assume that the Iranians, like American policymakers in the early stages of developing their nuclear triad doctrine, will think of nuclear weapons as merely "big artillery." Unfortunately, the United States and its security partners lack formal and informal exchanges with the Iranians akin to the Cold War discussions and arms control negotiations between the Americans and Soviets, which allowed both parties to develop mutual understandings of the other’s perception of nuclear weapons. These understandings were essential for crisis management in the Cold War strategic relationship after the Cuban missile crisis.
Meanwhile, the Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, are likely to look for their own nuclear deterrents. Much like France wanted its own nuclear force de frappe during the Cold War, the Gulf states will want their own nuclear weapons to deter Iran. Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states will worry that the United States would be deterred from coming to their defense in future regional crises by Iran’s nuclear weapons.
Saudi Arabia and other Arab states are likely to see nuclear weapons as a quick fix for all of their security woes. Although they have been on a shopping spree in the past decade, buying expensive and sophisticated Western military technology, they have had a tough time absorbing the new technology and fully utilizing and integrating weapons systems. To be sure, in a rough net assessment, Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf have significantly greater conventional capabilities than Iran. But if Iran goes nuclear, they will want to follow suit.
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Americans may be weary of conflict in the Middle East and South Asia, but strategic prudence demands that we contemplate future military interventions in the Central Command theater. A scan of the horizon reveals that both political and military trends in the region pose formidable obstacles to conventional force surges into the region.
But there is another wrinkle in this story that U.S. policymakers must contend with as they plan for the future. As Gulf monarchies seek to reduce their dependence on American military power, they will increasingly look to China for security assurances. China does not have a political agenda devoted to promoting democratization, and it maintains political and diplomatic ties with both Arab states and Iran. China’s military activity in the region is modest but increasing, as evidenced by its recent peacekeeping dispatches to the region and naval port visits in the Gulf. Beijing is likely to send more naval forces to the Gulf to increase its presence there and enhance its ability to protect the sea lanes which bring oil to China’s thirsty economy. China is keenly aware that the United States has naval supremacy in the Gulf, but will be working to erode that strategic edge in the future.
Faced with these realities, there is a need for new thinking and innovative conceptualizations of surges into Centcom’s area of responsibility. Theater campaign planners will have to think about contingencies in which the United States cannot slowly and methodically build up forces in the region and then kick off campaigns after most troops, arms, and equipment are in place. Future U.S. force build-ups in the region will be far too vulnerable to preemptive nuclear strikes. As a result, planners will have to devise campaign plans in which the insertion of U.S. military forces begins with an immediate rolling and flowing start. The United States will have to work from smaller troop footprints and be prepared to start fighting even as follow-on forces are on the way. Ideally, these forces would flow from multiple staging positions to reduce vulnerability to nuclear attack. The politics of the region, however, will work against securing a multitude of staging areas from which to deploy.
The region under the purview of Centcom has always been riddled with political violence that has posed formidable challenges to military operations. But in plotting a course over the horizon, the political and military obstacles for American military surges into the region are poised to grow even larger. As a result, theater contingency planners will have fewer good options for projecting American military power into the region — and they’ll have to do more with the bad and the ugly.