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The unconvincing case against the Fifth Fleet

June 11, 2011

There is an interesting piece in the Atlantic making the case that the US should not just withdraw the Fifth Fleet from Bahrain, but abolish it and liquidate its military presence in the Gulf entirely:

It is widely believed that the Fifth Fleet has served American interests well. There may have been a time when this was true. Today it is not.

There are a number of reasons why the Fifth Fleet may well have become a political liability, irrelevant, or possibly even both. The cost of maintaining a large military presence in the Gulf drains American resources and limits the United States’ flexibility in dealing with regional crises. Most importantly, its presence enables regional allies to act recklessly. Saudi Arabia would almost certainly not have sent its troops into neighboring Bahrain – a sovereign country – if the Saudi and Bahraini leaderships did not assume they were protected by their patrons in the U.S. military.

First off, the US does not and cannot protect the Saudi and Bahraini leadership from their own populations, and certainly not with the Fifth fleet. Since, as Corbett said, men live upon the land and not the sea, a naval fleet is not a particularly useful tool of suppressing insurgency or revolution. Since the Saudi Arabian National Guard has likely been preparing for a counterrevolutionary operation in Bahrain at least since the attempted Iranian coup, unless the Bahraini protesters were somehow able to destroy the King Fahd Causeway and Bahrain’s ports, the SANG would have been inclined to go in. After all, in the Saudi dynastic logic, if Bahrain goes, then there is a potential base of Iranian operation, as well as an example of a non-monarchical, Shia majority state. This opens up a number of potentially existential threats to Saudi Arabia – the threat of Iranian expansion, the threat of a follow-on revolution in the Kingdom, and the threat of Shias in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich northeast showing solidarity with their Bahraini counterparts and disrupting the Kingdom’s economic lifeline.

It is not clear why removing the fleet would make Riyadh any more eager to compromise. If anything, the Saudis would probably suppress the uprising more brutally, since they would know they no longer have a Western fail safe. It is worth pointing out that before the US intervened in the Iran-Iraq Tanker War, the Gulf monarchies solved their security programs by bankrolling a mass-murdering despot who used chemical weapons to keep Iran in check. This might not faze cynical realists, but this is, generally, how offshore balancing works.

It’s time for the Fifth Fleet to go. It is not enough that the fleet and its massive base be moved. Rather, it should be eliminated, its personnel and material incorporated into other existing fleets. The United States has effectively been able to monitor the Gulf without having a direct military presence the region in the past. There is no shortage of American military and even naval facilities outside the Gulf that are capable of providing a quick military response if necessary. After all, we survived just fine before the Fifth Fleet was recreated in 1995. With the Iraq war winding down, it is time to draw down the overall U.S. presence in the region. The Fifth Fleet would be a good place to start.

This treats the Fifth Fleet as a cause, rather than a symptom, of America’s unsustainable security posture in the Middle East. The author noted that the US was using Bahrain’s ports as early as the 1970s, when the British liquidated their presence in the Persian Gulf. Even if the US abolished the Fifth Fleet, it would still maintain the option to use Bahraini ports. Indeed, given the increasing area-denial capabilities of Iran, it would not at all be simple or easy to maintain a Gulf presence during a crisis without any forward basing. It is not as if the US had no need for military bases in the Gulf before 1995 – it obviously did. Even maintaining the more limited posture would still require some degree of forward presence. The author implies that the absence of the Fifth Fleet from 1947-1995 proves it is unnecessary for US security, but if the entire problem with the Fifth Fleet is that it has bases which keep the US present in the region, then eliminating not just the Fifth Fleet but anything that performs its forward function in the Persian Gulf is actually a further departure from previous policy than the author implies.

Additionally, the Fifth Fleet is the major permanent element of CENTCOM, which has an area of responsibility far beyond the Persian Gulf. If the US wants to protect international shipping off the Somali coast from piracy, it sends the Fifth Fleet. If the US wants to provide naval air support to forces in CENTCOM’s AOR, which includes Afghanistan, it uses the Fifth Fleet. In other words, the Fifth Fleet is useful for a lot of other things besides patrolling the Persian Gulf, and given the increasing importance of the Indian Ocean arena to the US compared to say, the Mediterranean, keeping a Fifth Fleet tasked to CENTCOM will remain important, at least so long as the western Indian Ocean is important to the US.

Since the mid-1980s, the U.S. has in a sense been engaged in one long war in the Gulf. It helped intensify the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, led Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991, imposed no-fly zones over Iraq in the 1990s, and invaded Iraq in 2003, all to some extent on the basis of the Carter Doctrine. If security and stability are measured by the absence of conflict, the American military approach to the Gulf has not been much of a success.

Certainly the US has not had a particularly great policy record in the Gulf. However, this simplifies the narrative too much. After all, the major US naval presence in the Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war did not begin until 1987. This was basically three years after the Tanker War began, and the deployment of US ships reflected the failure of an offshore balancing strategy. It was not US naval presence that intensified the Iran-Iraq war, it was the US policy of trying to maintain a balance of power in the Middle East by alternatively supporting Iraq and Iran. It spilled over, and US naval presence was a result. As for the Persian Gulf War, US presence was the solution, not the cause of that war, if I remember my history correctly. Certainly US policy towards Iraq since then has been muddled, and in the case of the 2003 invasion, completely wrongheaded in my opinion, but blaming capabilities for outcomes is downright foolish.

Since oil is fungible, and the Persian Gulf is still a major energy producing region, even the departure of the US would still allow Gulf monarchies to bankroll all sorts of arms purchases and funding to wreak havoc against Iran or other potential threats. As in the Tanker War, when Soviet ships began flying the flag, other states – probably ones with stronger oil interests than the energy autarkic USSR – might decide to step in. China, India, and Japan need Gulf oil far more than America does. Even if Japan sits out and accepts the US’s withdrawal from a major energy source, will the rising powers of India and China never decide to directly or indirectly begin military support to the Gulf states? They are also far less likely to squirm when dynasties decide to shoot down their populaces – so in the long run the Gulf states might prefer a patron with less democratic evangelizing than the US.

The cost of this arrangement is increasingly high. Just as we have acknowledged that the status quo must end in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, it may be time to match up American values to interests in the Persian Gulf. And that means and engaging with the people of the region, rather than the tyrants who terrorize them. The Fifth Fleet serves only to empower — and increase our reliance on — the latter.

If the US really has no significant concern with the security of oil flows in the Middle East, and needs to have no security presence there, why does it even need to care what is going on in the region? If the US has entirely liquidated its presence in the Gulf because it has no security interests which merit a presence, what interest does it have in the regime types of the Middle East beyond its moral self-satisfaction? Additionally, were the US to remove its military presence entirely, what leverage would it have against Middle Eastern regimes? What interest would attempting social engineering in other countries serve? There is actually quite little the US can do to effect regime transition in foreign states, particularly ones which can afford to purchase security. After all, it is support for their armies and internal security services, not the presence of US ships, which allows Arab regimes to hold their populaces in check. Training and equipment for such services is far more easily purchased, and the Fifth Fleet does not enable that in any significant way. It is nice to think that if only the US were not so selfish, it could effect regime change. Indeed, keeping regimes attached to the US to some extent gives the US at least a small amount of leverage. In Libya, where America had no leverage, and the government had no incentive to behave nicely for fear of losing foreign support, regime change ultimately required military intervention. In Egypt, where oil was less of a problem and the US had no direct presence, the US could only nudge Egypt’s military to oust Mubarak – but not genuinely democratize the country. Ultimately, the Fifth Fleet is, as mentioned above, a symptom, and not a cause, of the troubles in the Middle East. It matters for far more than the Persian Gulf, and removing it would neither increase America’s freedom of geopolitical action within the region nor lessen the incentive of the reactionary Gulf monarchies to cling to power. It would likely only be a matter of time before foreign ships of different flags were sailing the Gulf again.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Chris permalink
    April 26, 2012 9:43 am

    We need to get our military out of the Middle East. If we are there for oil, let the oil industry protect itself, otherwise we are just socializing the cost of foreign oil. Let the oil market absorb the risks inherent in their market place. We need to devote our taxpayer dollars to exploiting our local resources here at home such as natural gas, wind and solar.


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