By Dr Subhash Kapila
“What we are seeing today is the United States losing its ability to shape events in the region, even though it remains by far the pre-eminent military power” – Waheed Hazbon, Director Center for Arab & Middle East Studies, American University, Beirut.
The Middle East right from the 1990s had figured significantly in the strategic focus of United States strategic planning, deployment and security architecture. In the last two decades, the United States has fought two major wars in the region. Gulf War I IN 1991 and Gulf War II fought in 2003 basically revolved around the subjugation of Iraq to pre-empt its emergence as the dominant regional power, its nuclear weapons potential and thereby posing a security threat to United States regional interest and to the security of Israel.
In the second decade of the 21st Century the United States is beset with a repeat strategic dilemma of pre-empting the emergence of yet another regional power in the shape of Iran, its advanced nuclear weapons capabilities and its more potent security threats to the United States and Israel.
The Middle East strategic landscape in 2012 stands drastically changed with traditional US allies in the Middle East embarking on different trajectories of “hedging strategies”, unsure of United States strategic blueprint in the region and a strategic perception weighing that United States power was on the decline.
In 2012 the drumbeats of war to strike at Iran’s nuclear enrichment complexes are becoming more strident within the United States and Israel. Positions are hardening with US imposing additional economic sanctions against Iran and Iran on the rebound threatening that it would blockade the strategic choke-point of Hormuz Straits.
In such a surcharged strategic environment in the Middle East the United States “strategic pivot” away from the Middle East to Asia Pacific as given out in US Defence Strategic Review 2012 needs to be examined contextually in terms of its strategic impact on the Middle East region.
This is being examined under the following heads:
- The Middle East Regional Balance of Power in 2012
- US Defence Strategic Review 2012 Formulations on the Middle East.
- Middle East Regional Perceptions on US Defence Strategic Review 2012 Strategic Postures
- United States Strategic Options in Middle East in 2012
The Middle East Regional Balance of Power in 2012
Excluding the United States as an external balancing power the Middle East regional balance of power is heavily weighted in favour of Iran.
Iran has a sizeable military machine with unmatched conventional and missiles arsenal. To that if added the evolving nuclear weapons capabilities, Iran emerges as the predominant regional power. Iran’s highly religiously committed military manpower is a comparative ‘force multiplier’.
Turkey, while a power of consequence can no longer be counted as a United States strategic asset despite continuing as a NATO Alliance member, as it is engaged on independent postures trajectory, not entirely supportive of US strategic interests in the region.
United States traditional Allies comprising the monarchical oil-rich kingdoms of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Sheikhdoms are no military match for Iran, despite their advance military hardware. They are constrained by limited manpower population and the restive Shia populations in their midst where in countries like Bahrain, they are in a majority.
Israel is the only Middle East nation which in 2012 can be rated as the only substantial military ally of the United States and with a nuclear weapons arsenal at its disposal.
United States continues to be the pre=eminent military power in the Middle East for two major reasons: (1) With its global power projection capabilities and military superiority it can speedily induct major military force levels in the Middle East in crisis situations. (2) Russia and China can still no longer provide countervailing power against the United States in the Middle East even though strategically they side with Iran and Syria, both these two nations in United States strategic cross-hairs.
In terms of regional military balance of power in the Middle East in 2012, the so called ‘The Iran Threat’ can only be balanced by strategic duo of United States and Israel as a ‘Two Alone Coalition’. It is unlikely that countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt would stand tall to be counted in any United States-Iran military confrontation.
US Defence Strategic Review 2012 Formulations on the Middle East
The US Strategic Review postulates that the Middle East will witness “US placing premium on maintaining its military presence and capabilities in broader Middle East”. Implicit in this postulation is the strategic reality that in terms of strategic priorities prompted by China’s rise in the Asia Pacific and the US budgetary pressures, the Middle East would now be in a lower pecking order of US strategic priorities.
This however should not get translated into a reading that United States has adopted a “Hands Off the Middle East” strategic blueprint. US Defence Secretary presumably reacting to such concerns asserted that following the US military withdrawal from Iraq recently, the United States still has 40,000 troops in the region including 23,000 in Kuwait.
The United States also maintains the US Fifth Fleet within The Gulf, headquartered in Bahrain with one or two US Navy Aircraft Carriers Battle Groups on cruise in The Gulf besides hosts of submarines, combat ships, logistic ships and an amphibious warfare capability.
In 2012, it appears that the United States has strategically concluded that the immediate ‘threat concerns’ of the United States in the Middle East are focussed on military adventurism by Iran e.g. blockade of Hormuz Straits and any military turbulence breaking out in Iraq following the US military withdrawal from that country
For these two military contingencies, the United States seemingly concludes that ‘in-location’ basing of force-levels mentioned above would be an adequate nucleus to be built upon when military contingency so dictate.
Middle East Regional Perceptions on US Defence Strategic Review 2012 Strategic Postures
Middle East regional perceptions seem to be drawing comparisons with the British withdrawal in the late 1960s as part of its ‘East of Aden Withdrawal Strategy’. Inescapably intertwined in such Middle East regional perceptions are two other conclusions, namely, that United States has economically declined and that consequently there is a decline in US global and regional power capabilities. The net result being perceived is that of the Middle East region sliding strategically in US strategic priorities.
In terms of regional perceptions, what inevitably would also be figuring is that the United States, on lesser or no substantial evidence resorted to military intervention against Iraq on two occasions on its nuclear weapons potential, whereas in the case of Iran on far more substantive evidence, the United States has so far been reluctant to militarily strike at Iranian nuclear enrichment complexes.
Psychologically, the above two regional perceptions would be creating a traumatic effect on the Middle East oil-rich kingdoms long used to substantial US military deployments in the Middle East and ensuring regional stability and security.
The ‘hedging strategies,’ of countries led by Saudi Arabia to strategically reach out to Russia and China expecting them to act as restraining influence on Iran has not brought any dividends. Iran continues to be backed by Russia and China,
Perceptively therefore, Saudi Arabia, UAE etc. would have no option other than to revert to an unquestioned reliance on the United States as guarantor of their security. The United States however this time around would call upon these Middle East monarchies to reorganize, integrate and fine-tune their own military set-ups to face the threats that stand posed to them.
Such a development should be a strategic gain for the United States as it ‘pivots’ to the Asia Pacific.
United States Strategic Options in the Middle East 2012
In reviewing the strategic options open to the United States in 2012 the following factors have to be accepted as ‘givens’:
- United States strategic blueprint perforce will be framed by the formulations in US Defence Strategic Review 2012.
- Middle East strategic landscape in terms of US-Iran confrontational postures is not likely to ease for quite some time.
- In the absence of any other countervailing powers available as strategic choices to Middle East nations, perforce they have to rely on the United States as guarantor of their security and stability.
The United States strategic aims in the Middle East remain unchanged from what was hithertofore, namely:
- Israel’s security and stability as a critical ally in the Middle East.
- Pre-empt the rise of any regional predominant power, which in 2012 threat perceptions of USA is Iran.
- Prevent Iran’s nuclear weapons arsenal becoming a military reality.
- Unfettered global access to Middle East energy sources and the sea-lanes on which global energy imports traverse.
Can the United States achieve its strategic aims in the Middle East with the formulations postulated in Defence Strategic Review 2012? Obviously the strategic planning establishment of the United States would have taken all the above factors into account when deciding their blueprint for the21st Century.
The examination of the options open to the United States in 2012 can best be done for focusing on the following:
- The Iran Threat
- Security Architecture in The Gulf and Possible US Initiatives Post-Iraq Withdrawal
- United States Own Military Blueprint
Iran for years now has been preparing for a US and Western Forces military intervention. It therefore can be assumed that Iran can make the costs of US military intervention prohibitive. One week’s blockade of Hormuz Straits by Iran can generate Global Economic Depression.
United States on its own may not be inclined for a military showdown with Iran. US military strikes against Iran are being advocated and stoked by Israel and more pointedly by Saudi Arabia. Even limited air strikes by the United States and its allies on nuclear installations of Iran will force eruption of widespread violence by Shia majorities in Gulf countries’
Any US military option against Iran should therefore be off the table as the backlash against the US and its allies will acquire religious overtones and will not be confined to Middle East only but erupt worldwide. This in turn would strategically distract the United States from its ‘pivot’ to Asia Pacific and making its military postures in the Asia Pacific credible to face The China Threat.
Moving to the existing security architecture in The Gulf, it is negligible, as the oil-rich monarchies were complacent with substantive US Forces located in Iraq, not only to control Iraq but also to checkmate Iran. Here one cannot forget that Saudi Arabia and Turkey did not permit the United States to use military bases in their territory which housed US Air Force assets as part of security commitments for operations against Iraq in 2003.
Saudi Arabia ironically having so refused the United States and further after 9/11 adopting ‘hedging strategies’ against the United States, would now in 2012 be forced to rely on the United States to cope with The Iran Threat.
The United States needs to prevail heavily on Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies to add more teeth to the security dimensions of the Gulf Cooperation Council. In accordance with the main thrust of the US Defence Strategic Review 2012 the United States should confine itself to “Offshore Balancing”.
The US Military Blueprint unfolding in 2012 following the Iraq withdrawal suggests that the United States would maintain an overall US military of 40,000 troops presence primarily in the Gulf Region including 23,000 in Kuwait. The latter will take care of any possible Iraqi turbulence and the Iranian Threat.
The US Fifth Fleet headquartered in Bahrain can be expected to be further augmented in terms of Aircraft Carriers and battle ships. US Marines Expeditionary Groups are also forward located.
The United States is likely to proceed with enhanced deployments of ballistic missiles defense deployments, surveillance and electronic assets to offset troops withdrawal. However one thing is sure and that is that the United States would deploy enhanced military assets in Israel and not in Arab countries which stand plagued by domestic unrest.
The United States is well placed in terms of sizeable US Navy and US Air Force deployed in the Indian Ocean and Eastern Mediterranean for operational use in the Middle East and The Gulf. It should also not be forgotten that the United States has fought two major wars in the last two decades in the region and has therefore adequate combat experience for effective military operations in the region.
Overall, it can be stated that US options in the Middle East catering to The Iran Threat are presently military in nature whose dimensions have been outlined above. It is a military posture on which the United States can speedily build upon if open hostilities emerge between the US and Iran.
This may itself prompt the United States to explore more political avenues to defuse the existing explosive situation in the Middle East.
Undoubtedly, United States military presence and options in the Middle East appear to have been scaled down consequent to the formulation of US Defense Strategic Review 2012 of the United States priority in its ‘pivot’ to the Asia Pacific.
United States military contingency plans for this region expectedly would cater for troops buildup at short notice from the European Theater.
Despite this the conclusion cannot be escaped in that in the Middle East there is a growing perception that the United States power is on the decline as it is no longer capable of fighting and winning two major wars at the same time.
The United States ‘pivot to Asia Pacific and the absence of substantial US military presence in the Middle East in 2012 perceptively does create a gap which others will try to fill and start a new power game observed so in The Business Recorder, February 01 2012 which states:
“With Russia sending warships to discourage foreign military
Intervention in Syria and China drawn more deeply into Iran’s
confrontation with the West, ‘great power politics ‘are swiftly
returning to Middle East”