Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The U.S. Military Looks at the Middle East: Bows to the White House But Knows Its Mission, Too

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By Barry Rubin

The Department of Defense has just released its new Quadrennial Defense Review Report for 2010. What does it say about the Middle East? Far less than you’d expect in terms of space but still some extremely important points about what might involve the United States in future wars there.

Aside from some scattered references on the need for more civilian nation-building experts, funding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and energy conservation efforts (that's an area, no doubt, where money could be saved), that region takes up less than two pages, about two percent, of the 97-page report.

In comparison, about one-quarter of the four-page note from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, attached to the report, spends 25 percent on the region and sounds far more sensible.

I read this gap as suggesting that the uniformed military (which prepared the admiral's note) is concerned about Iran and terrorist groups but that the text’s main body, by the secretary of defense and designed to please the White House, puts more emphasis on climate change, green energy, and the use of the military as a community-organizing type force to make civilians in places like Afghanistan more friendly to the United States.

But there are significant points of interests in both sections. Let’s start with the report itself which basically makes three points.

First, while an Iranian nuclear capability and terrorism are basically not mentioned at all, there is significant concern over two aspects of Iran’s military build-up. Iranian missile systems are becoming more accurate and longer-range, meaning U.S. air bases, command centers, and other military targets could come under attack. This concern presumably originated in the U.S. Army.

The other Iranian military threat comes from “large numbers of small, fast attack craft designed to support `swarming’ tactics that seek to overwhelm the layers of defenses deployed by U.S. and other nations’ naval vessels.” Though the report doesn’t say so, this refers to the Persian Gulf, and especially the narrow Straits of Hormuz, where petroleum and natural gas shipping could be blocked. This assessment no doubt came from the U.S. Navy.

The report also mentions that “non-state actors such as Hezbollah have acquired unmanned aerial vehicles and man-portable air defense systems from Iran.” And this was clearly the contribution of the U.S. Air Force. ("Man-portable," that means someone can carry it. I love military-speak.)

Taken as a whole, these concerns point to a possible scenario often forgotten in current discussions. The United States is not going to attack Iranian nuclear facilities. It is possible, however, that a future military clash could originate by an Iranian act of aggression—perhaps coming from lower-ranking personnel or some miscalculation—that could result in an armed conflict. While not highly likely, such an outcome is more possible when Iran has nuclear weapons and has gained in confidence (arrogance to put it bluntly). Again, this is a low-likelihood scenario but one the U.S. military has to be prepared to meet.

Since the U.S. government seems determined not to take notice Iranian involvement in attacks on U.S. military personnel in Iraq, Afghanistan, or in terrorist attacks elsewhere--for example the Khaibar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia--this doesn't seem a likely cause of conflict. Of course, the United States doesn't want--and should not want--to get into a war with Iran. The problem, however, is the failure to use of tough talk, sanctions, organizing an anti-Tehran alliance, or other stronger diplomatic means to discourage such behavior by the Iranian regime.

Second, and perhaps most interesting of all, is the Department of Defense's concept of strategy for the region:

“It is time to renew focus on a strategic architecture that better serves U.S., allied, and partner interests….Long-term relationships and shared interests with allies and partners will clarify our extended commitment to the region’s security, enhance the resiliency of our defense posture, and improve our collective ability to carry out current operations while preparing for contingency requests.”

To translate this into normal English: The United States has to build up its alliances and cooperation with local states. But what does this mean? Most obviously, it requires working with the Gulf Arab states (and especially Saudi Arabia), Jordan, Israel, Iraq, and Egypt against Iran’s ambitions. “Shared interests” is a code word for that factor. Two other states which should be on that list—Lebanon and Turkey—have basically gone over to the other side though the U.S. government may not realize that situation.

But what does it mean in practice to build up such arrangements? The term “strategic architecture” is a fancy way of saying some kind of alliance system. But for several reasons—inter-Arab quarrels, the Arab-Israeli conflict, radical posturing by moderate Arab states, and Arab appeasement of Iran—this isn’t going to happen the way it should if only national interests were the motivations. (This is why “Realist” analysts don’t understand the Middle East but that’s for another article.)

Note also the phrase “extended commitment” which means U.S. power is in the area to stay, that Washington won’t bug out on allies, or in short, American credibility. That factor has been fast declining during the first year of the Obama administration.

Finally, there is Iraq, where the language strikes me as a little strange and potentially explosive:

“The United States will therefore manage a responsible force drawdown in Iraq and support an orderly transition to a more normal diplomatic and civilian presence.” The word “drawdown” means fewer troops, not complete withdrawal. Remember that one for the future—the Defense Department wants to keep open the option of keeping soldiers in Iraq and that might not just include trainers.

What does the chairman of the Joint Chiefs say? Well, he’s far blunter about it: “I remain concerned about the nuclear ambitions and confrontational postures of Iran and North Korea.” These are real threats and the word “confrontational” means that they might go to war on U.S. allies or forces. By the way, if you want to know what the United States really should be worried about regarding Iran's nuclear weapons read this.

He quickly adds, paying obeisance to the White House, how the report “emphasizes the President’s focus on engagement and reinforces our efforts to work with allies and partners to prevent global nuclear proliferation, regardless of origin.”

If you understand how these things work, that sentence has the bureaucratic brilliance of a masterpiece painting and the humor of a great comedian. It hits all the Obama themes: yes, engagement is great, we prefer a deal, of course we should never act unilaterally, and we would like to get rid of all nuclear weapons.

But the chairman goes on with a couple of great “at the same time” points regarding countering weapons of mass destruction, finding where such weapons are, and destroying them if necessary.

Translation: We know we are probably on our own. All this politics stuff is great but in the final analysis—when engagement fails and others look after their own interests rather than help us--the U.S. military must be ready to squish anyone threatening us. Yep, that’s what it’s there for.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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