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Elephants in the Room
U.S. Deterrence in the Middle East Is Collapsing
The withdrawal from Syria is part of a broader pattern of weakness, especially in response to Iran.
As welcome as was the U.S. raid that lead to the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi over the weekend, it can’t erase the damage done to U.S. interests in the Middle East over the past few months. Whatever explanations U.S. President Donald Trump and his supporters put forward to justify his impulsive decision to withdraw U.S. forces from northeastern Syria earlier this month, the searing images that followed told a far different tale. U.S. soldiers in chaotic retreat. Wartime allies abandoned. Hard-won battlefield gains surrendered to some of America’s most dangerous adversaries. And all to avoid confronting the threats of a viscerally anti-American Turkish authoritarian whose economy and military could be devastated by decisions made in Washington. Rightly or wrongly, both friends and foes of the United States have rapidly been reaching the conclusion that Trump, despite all his bluster and chest thumping, has no stomach for a sustained fight. Baghdadi’s death may mitigate, but does not reverse, the spreading perception that U.S. deterrence in the Middle East is collapsing.
That’s especially the case in the aftermath of Iran’s drone and cruise missile attack against Saudi oil facilities last month. As big a debacle as Syria has been, it’s an extremely complicated situation. The United States found itself caught between two putative allies that are sworn enemies: Turkey, a strategically critical but increasingly troublesome treaty partner, and a Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), that—while serving heroically as the tip of the spear in the successful U.S. campaign to defeat the Islamic State—traces its roots to a group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), that has fought a decades-long separatist insurgency against the Turkish state and remains on the U.S. State Department’s list of designated terrorist organizations. As morally repugnant and emotionally wrenching as Trump’s betrayal of the Syrian Kurds has been, his reluctance to risk a military confrontation with an important NATO ally does at least carry the patina of strategic logic to it. Viewed in isolation, there’s perhaps a colorable claim that Syria is unique—an outlier that doesn’t lend itself to any broader conclusions about Trump’s foreign policy.
The problem, of course, is that the U.S. withdrawal from Syria is no isolated event. On the contrary, it comes on the heels of more than five months of U.S. vacillation in the face of an escalating and increasingly brazen campaign of aggression in the region by the Iranian regime, culminating in last month’s assault on Saudi Arabia.
Syria arguably presented a hard case for the exercise of U.S. military power because of Turkey’s involvement and the fact that U.S. relations with the YPG dated only to 2015, and were regularly described by U.S. officials as “temporary, transactional, and tactical.” In the case of Iran’s recent aggression, however, no such complicating factors exist. The Trump administration has repeatedly identified Iran as the greatest threat to U.S. interests in the Middle East and among its highest national security priorities. Trump is waging a campaign of maximum pressure, aiming to strangle Iran’s economy and constrain its ability to wreak regional havoc. Washington’s defense ties to the Saudi regime are more than 70 years old, as is the long-standing view that ensuring the security of the Persian Gulf’s oil resources is vital to the well-being of the global—and, therefore, the U.S.—economy. Indeed, in January 1980, U.S. President Jimmy Carter formalized Washington’s commitment to the Gulf with the Carter Doctrine—an explicit declaration that the region’s security was a vital interest of the United States and that threats to the area by outside powers would be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.
Yet despite the unambiguous nature of the long-standing U.S. commitment to the region, and the high priority that the Trump administration has attached to confronting Iran, the U.S. response to a long line of increasingly dangerous Iranian provocations bears obvious similarities to the irresolution that’s been on display in Syria, suggesting that there is indeed a more fundamental, and worrisome, pattern at work.
Between May and September, the State Department says that Iran has been responsible for over 40 attacks, including threats against freedom of navigation, terrorism, and holding foreign nationals as hostages. A State Department fact sheet sent by email further indicated that when failed attacks are included in the count, as well as attacks not reported in the media, the actual number of Iranian-backed military provocations is “more than double” that. The highest-profile ones include attacks on international oil tankers in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman, as well as the seizure of several other tankers, including a British-owned vessel and its crew; drone strikes from southern Iraq against a Saudi oil pipeline; multiple instances of rocket attacks against U.S. facilities in Iraq by pro-Iran militias; the shootdown of an advanced American Global Hawk surveillance drone by the Iranian military; and, most recently, the precision drone and missile strikes against Saudi Arabia, temporarily knocking out the world’s largest oil-processing facility, Abqaiq, as well as the Khurais oil field. At the same time, Tehran since June has gradually, but steadily, begun to advance its nuclear program beyond the limits set by the 2015 nuclear deal.
Almost by definition, the fact that Iran has recently undertaken scores of attacks against U.S. interests with newfound boldness strongly suggests that U.S. deterrence is badly faltering. Trump’s response to the most serious incidents has by now fallen into a predictable pattern of issuing over-the-top verbal threats (to “end” or “obliterate” Iran), imposing further economic sanctions, deploying additional troops and weapons to the Gulf, and, on at least two occasions, launching limited cyberattacks against Iran. Following the shootdown of a U.S. drone on June 20 over the Strait of Hormuz, Trump did apparently order a retaliatory strike on Iranian missile sites but aborted the mission at the last minute out of concern that the number of potential casualties that might result would not be “proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone.”
By now it’s abundantly clear that the administration’s playbook to deter further Iranian escalation has not worked. Tehran has continued to escalate. It’s hard to overstate the importance of the unprecedented attack on Abqaiq. The facility is arguably the single most critical piece of energy infrastructure on the face of the planet, with a processing capacity equal to about 7 percent of the global oil supply. It’s not much of an overstatement to say that deterring attacks on Abqaiq is why the Carter Doctrine was issued in the first place. The fact that Iran would have risked such a brazen assault on the world economy and such a frontal challenge to what heretofore had been widely understood as a vital U.S. interest was shocking—as was the lack of a U.S. military response against high-value Iranian economic and military targets. That Iran believed, correctly it turns out, that it could get away with such an outrageous provocation speaks volumes about the current credibility of U.S. deterrence, as well as the dangerous point toward which the U.S.-Iran confrontation could now be hurtling.
Based on the experience of the past several months, it’s hard not to believe that Iran’s leaders have come to the conclusion that for all Trump’s bombast, he wants no part of a military dustup. That belief was no doubt confirmed when, within days of Abqaiq’s geopolitical earthquake, Trump had reverted to the role of a desperate suitor in a French-concocted scheme to get him into a dialogue with the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, at the United Nations. Rouhani refused to play along, literally leaving Trump hanging on the telephone. It would not be far-fetched at all if the Iranian regime was increasingly of the view that Trump’s highest-order objective is not deterring further Iranian escalation in the Middle East but rather avoiding the risk of military conflict—especially as he seeks reelection in 2020.
That is not a good place for the United States to be when it comes to a showdown with an aggressive, revolutionary, terrorist-sponsoring regime such as Iran’s that increasingly feels itself under existential threat from devastating U.S. sanctions. Once Iran’s rulers become convinced that they’ve taken Trump’s measure and found him sorely lacking, once they believe that they have escalation dominance over the most powerful country in the world, it’s a recipe tailor-made for further, even more dangerous Iranian provocations.
In the week after the Abqaiq attack, a former commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) said, according to a translation by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), “when the Americans are incapable of retaliating against Iran for the downing of their ultra-secret [drone] plane, would they be able to help Saudi Arabia? They cannot defend themselves, so how would they defend Saudi Arabia? Everybody has received that message.” He went on to say, “Mr. Trump has already played all his cards. He has already fired all his bullets. Now he is standing in front of us with no bullets, and the world is laughing at him.”
A member of the Iranian parliament’s national security and foreign policy committee raised a similar theme of U.S. paralysis immediately after the Abqaiq attack. “Had the Americans not witnessed the downing of their drone by Iran, they might have made mistakes. … What causes America to fear a military operation against Iran is the balance of power that will be created by a possible war,” the lawmaker, Falahat Pisheh, said, also according to a MEMRI translation. “We can say that America’s national security strategy in the 21st century does not allow it to start a war whose outcomes it cannot foresee. This fact causes America to be feeble vis-à-vis Iran.”
Saudi assessments of the response to Abqaiq were not more charitable. A Saudi journalist wrote, “It is almost certain that neither the international community, nor the superpowers, nor the U.N. and its Security Council will take any serious practical action in response to the significant, dangerous and unprecedented attack” against Saudi oil facilities, according to MEMRI. “The statements of President Trump,” he wrote, “which contradict those of the heads of his administration, and the contradictory nature of Trump’s own statements, teach us that the U.S. position on Iran, which was unclear to begin with, is feeble.”
This is a dynamic fraught with risk. It’s almost a surefire formula for more Iranian escalation of an even more threatening nature. Increasingly, the IRGC is receiving the message that so long as U.S. soldiers or citizens are not directly targeted, the threat of a U.S. use of force in response is minimal to nonexistent. Short of that, it’s effectively open season to wreak as much havoc and chaos as Iran can get away with in the Gulf. That means U.S. deterrence has collapsed—and the threat of Iranian overreach and a catastrophic war that drags in the United States is rising exponentially.
We are certainly a long way from May, when Trump’s national security advisor at the time, John Bolton, issued an official White House statement warning about intelligence indicating that Iran was planning a campaign of escalation. Bolton said, “any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force”—irrespective of whether the attack was perpetrated “by proxy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or regular Iranian forces.” More than 40 attacks later, and in the wake of the most audacious assault on the stability of the global energy market since Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, there has clearly been no unrelenting use of force by the United States—or any force at all, for that matter. Instead, Bolton himself ended up being unceremoniously fired by Trump just days before the Abqaiq attack, apparently in part for being too hawkish. In the months before Bolton’s departure, the Iranian regime had run a sustained propaganda campaign against him, warning that Bolton was working to undermine Trump’s desire for negotiations and pushing America into war. It’s not hard to imagine that, in the eyes of the regime, Bolton’s dismissal provided powerful confirmation of its emerging belief that there will be no military price to pay for further aggression.
Reversing that perception will be no easy task—especially in light of the Abqaiq attack and the precipitous flight from Syria. Simply sending a few thousand more U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia is unlikely to do the trick. Deterrence is in freefall not because Iran doubts America’s military capabilities in the region but because it believes that Trump lacks the will to use them. At this point, convincing the regime otherwise will almost certainly require that the United States actually use force against Iran—whether overtly or in a more clandestine operation that Washington doesn’t claim, but in which it is widely seen as the most likely suspect. The potential target list should be long and wide-ranging—from infrastructure critical to Iran’s own oil industry to the IRGC’s naval, missile, and drone forces in the Gulf to its expanding military assets in Syria. An obvious opportunity would arise if ongoing international investigations into the Abqaiq attack were to publicly present compelling evidence of Iranian culpability.
While not a substitute for the use of force, a statement by Trump unambiguously reaffirming that the Carter Doctrine remains U.S. policy could also help in an effort to bolster deterrence. Without question, the uncertainty that now surrounds the issue in the wake of Abqaiq has dangerously increased doubts about the U.S. commitment to the security of the region and its energy resources—in ways that can only encourage even more dangerous Iranian provocations.
The alternative to taking meaningful steps to reestablish the credibility of America’s will to use force is to simply sit back, absorb Iran’s provocations, and wait until the regime caves to the steadily mounting pressure of U.S. sanctions. In the face of Iran’s escalation campaign and Trump’s own aversion to risking new military conflicts, that in fact seems to be the default policy that the administration has actually settled on. It’s by no means impossible for it to eventually work—Iran’s economy is being absolutely hammered. But the big question is how long it will take and what amount of damage an increasingly desperate Iranian regime, unconstrained by the fear of U.S. military retaliation, is capable of inflicting in the meantime on the interests of the United States and its friends and allies. If the brazen attack on Abqaiq is any indication, the answer may be a great deal of damage indeed.