Trump Is Sending More Troops to Saudi Arabia

They won’t make up for backing out of Syria and failing to stand up to Iran.

U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of U.S. Central Command, and Lt. Gen. Fahd bin Turki bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the commander of the Saudi-led coalition forces in Yemen, are shown reportedly Iranian weapons seized by Saudi forces in central Saudi Arabia on July 18.
U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of U.S. Central Command, and Lt. Gen. Fahd bin Turki bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the commander of the Saudi-led coalition forces in Yemen, are shown reportedly Iranian weapons seized by Saudi forces in central Saudi Arabia on July 18. Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

The Carter Doctrine, which calls for a U.S. military response to any outside effort to threaten or seize oil fields in the Persian Gulf, is dead, and the Defense Department’s announced deployment last week of 1,800 more U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia will neither resuscitate it nor, frankly, reassure the Saudis, who are more worried about the end of their special partnership with Washington than counting how many more American soldiers are arriving to the kingdom.

This new chapter in U.S. military history in the Middle East is fraught with danger. The very thought of the United States either suspending or terminating its role as chief police and protector of the global commons in the region has alarmed the country’s European allies and terrified its Arab partners. It has even confused the United States’ main adversaries, China and Russia, which have worked to undermine U.S. dominance in the Middle East for years but never sought to fully replace it for fear of inheriting the chaos caused by the United States’ departure.

Yet despite all the perils of this geopolitical transition, there’s an opportunity in it for Washington to rethink U.S. deterrence in the Middle East. All along, the assumption of American decision-makers had been that the sheer amount of U.S. forces in the region (along with additional ones that could be quickly flown in from neighboring areas), the speed with which they could respond to new emergencies, and the fury they could unleash would be sufficient to make enemies think multiple times before causing mischief. But by attacking Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure last month, Iran has shattered that assumption, although not because of its greater capabilities but because of the United States’ own failings.

Critical to the credibility of U.S. deterrence is its ability to make its main regional foe, Iran, believe that Washington will not hesitate to use lethal force should Iran cross a certain threshold. Yet by failing to respond to the attack on Saudi Arabia, U.S. President Donald Trump has telegraphed that, unless an American soldier based in the Middle East is killed or a critical U.S. asset is directly hit (other than a drone, it seems), he will not order the U.S. military to intervene.

For Washington, the chief lesson, meanwhile, is that the size of the U.S. arsenal or number of troops is not enough to instill fear into Tehran and possibly other opponents. The bloated U.S. military presence in the region is, in fact, unnecessary and possibly a liability, given that more resources are needed to counter threats in Europe and the Indo-Pacific, as the latest National Defense Strategy suggests. Weapons matter for deterrence, of course, but U.S. leaders’ words and behaviors matter much more. And in this case, they are sending all the wrong signals.

The U.S. troop deployment in Saudi Arabia is supposedly meant to convince the Saudis that Washington is not abandoning them as it did with the Kurds. It also seeks to fortify defenses against potential conventional attacks by Iran. However, both goals will be elusive. Riyadh can read the tea leaves of U.S. policy and has most probably come to the conclusion by now that while it didn’t trust or like President Barack Obama, it certainly cannot count on Trump either, who seems at time to care more about selling arms to the Saudis than ensuring their security. As for defense upgrades, no matter how potent and widespread those might be, there is no military solution to swarms of drones and missiles that can now hit targets with the utmost precision.

The U.S. military posture in the Middle East has always been predicated on deterrence, not defense. But deterrence has taken a huge hit because of the string of presumably Iranian attacks leading to the one on Abqaiq last month. So the million-dollar question that U.S. Central Command is wrestling with is how the United States can restore deterrence in the Middle East.

First, here’s what not to do: a U.S. slap on Iran’s wrist, resembling Trump’s reaction to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in 2017. There are already U.S. calls for that option, but they should be ignored. Iran is a much larger and more resourceful country than Syria. It is also experienced in war and has greater strategic depth, allowing it to absorb many hits and use them as an excuse to continue with its methodical expansionism in the region. A one-off U.S. strike, which is likely the most Trump would commit to, would also embolden the Iranian regime’s radicals and specifically the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which will interpret it as further proof of American weakness.

To deter Iran, U.S. policymakers must convince it that the United States is not afraid of a fight. This would entail sending crystal clear messages to the Iranians that should they continue their campaign of strikes on oil infrastructure in the Gulf, the United States would use overwhelming force and not look back—this means allowing U.S. kinetic operations to take their natural course and not be hindered by domestic politics. Washington would signal to Tehran that it would be willing to accept all the costs and risks of possibly but not inevitably having to go all the way to regime change.

But of course, Trump is not sympathetic to that logic because he has made it clear he wants to avoid a confrontation with Iran at all cost. Iran is also taking notice of the fact that the U.S. political system is dangerously divided, the president is weak and facing impeachment, and the U.S. national security bureaucracy is operating at a fraction of its potential due to the considerable brain drain.

None of these factors make U.S. deterrence a lost cause. But everything starts with Trump, and he has to understand that the best way to prevent war with Iran is by convincing it that the United States is willing to wage it. Trump is stubborn and claims to have “infinite wisdom,” but maybe for electoral reasons, he might listen to top figures in the Republican Party and the Pentagon’s senior leadership, who should lobby him to communicate U.S. determination to the Iranians before they contemplate striking again.

Sending more troops and equipment to Saudi Arabia will not deter Iran. Threatening war credibly will. And the United States wouldn’t be doing this for the Saudis or anybody else. Rather, it would be doing it for its own geopolitical interests and relative position in the world as a great power. It would be doing it, most urgently, to prevent war.

Bilal Y. Saab is senior fellow and director of the Defense and Security Program at the Middle East Institute.