The Pentagon's New Defense Strategic Guidance: Pivoting to Asia, But Still
Stuck in the Middle East
Policy Alert, January 9,
The Pentagon's new Defense Strategic Guidance is a thoughtful and necessary
attempt to adjust to new geopolitical and fiscal realities. As with all
plans, however, adversaries (and friends) have a vote. Time and again, vital
U.S. interests (namely oil) and the politics of the Middle East have
frustrated the designs of presidents who sought better opportunities
elsewhere. For Nixon, it was the 1973 war and oil embargo; for Carter, the
Iranian revolution and embassy hostage crisis; for Reagan, the Beirut
fiasco, Lebanon hostages, and Iran-Contra; for Bush, the 1991 Gulf War; for
Clinton, the Arab-Israeli peace process; and for the last administration,
the second intifada, 9/11, and Iraq. So what surprises could the Middle East
spring to upend the Pentagon's pivot from Europe toward the Asia-Pacific
. What if Iran were to launch a covert campaign to harass
international shipping in the Gulf instead of closing the Strait of Hormuz?
Would the United States be willing to organize protective convoys, as it did
toward the end of the Iran-Iraq War? If so, how long might such efforts
last? Remember, the no-fly zones over Iraq were "temporary" expedients that
wound up lasting more than a decade, creating tensions with allies and
providing pretexts to jihadist enemies. What would be the political,
military, and economic costs of open-ended convoy operations?
. What if Hizballah were to harass gas exploration vessels and
production platforms off the coast of Israel, leading to tensions or even
outright confrontation? And what if Turkey were to back Hizballah for
opportunistic reasons (e.g., to score points with the Arabs and needle
Israel and Cyprus)?
. What if Israel were to launch a preventive strike against Iran's
nuclear infrastructure, and Tehran responded by launching missiles against
Israel and encouraging its proxies to attack U.S. personnel and interests in
Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Gulf?
These scenarios do not even begin to exhaust the gloomy possibilities, which
include intensification of civil violence in Syria, escalation of sectarian
violence in Iraq, resumption of political unrest in Egypt or Bahrain, or the
spread of such troubles to Jordan -- not to mention the implications of the
Saleh government's demise in Yemen. In one or more of these cases, the U.S.
military could find itself engaged in noncombatant evacuation, humanitarian
relief, or even targeted counterterrorist operations, which it is already
conducting in Yemen.
The new Strategic Guidance also (understandably) dances around some of the
more significant challenges the United States may face in accomplishing one
of its core missions: deterring and defeating aggression. Washington
currently operates in the region under a credibility deficit. As a result of
the perceived U.S. abandonment of longstanding allies (particularly Hosni
Mubarak in Egypt), many of America's friends in the region no longer trust
it, and some of its enemies no longer fear it. Reestablishing U.S.
credibility is perhaps Washington's most important challenge. This can only
be done through sustained presidential engagement, rebuilding personal
relationships with both Arab and Israeli leaders. But it is not clear that
the White House recognizes the problem or is inclined to devote the time and
energy required to address it.
Finally, a decade of fighting counterinsurgents and terrorists and the
passing of two decades since the end of the Cold War has dulled the U.S.
aptitude for deterrence and brinkmanship. Thus, while the Strategic Guidance
gives equal weight to deterrence by denial (frustrating adversary
objectives) and deterrence by punishment (imposing unacceptable costs),
Washington has, in practice, evinced a strong aversion to the latter. Hence
its reliance on arms transfers to Gulf Arab allies as a means of convincing
Tehran that the nuclear program will not enhance Iran's security. Washington
may soon discover, however, that exclusive reliance on deterrence by denial
may not be sufficient to keep the peace, and may in fact help bring about
the very outcome it is trying to avoid.
In the Asia-Pacific, the opportunity to build a stable and prosperous
regional order beckons. But in the Middle East there remains, regrettably,
much unfinished business for the United States and its military.
Michael Eisenstadt is director of The Washington Institute's Military and
Security Studies Program.
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Received on Mon Jan 09 2012 - 15:44:14 EST