Gulf in expectations
With America’s military withdrawal from Iraq and Ben Rhodes’s recent explanation of a plan to draw down US forces in the Gulf to a 1990 level, in combination with the revolts against the autocratic regimes the United States has thrown in its lot with, a major rethinking of America’s security posture in the Middle East seems to be in the making.
Toby Jones, whose previous article in the Atlantic I wrote about here, has another piece arguing that the US needs to militarily withdraw from the entire Persian Gulf, and asserts that this will both give the United States more leverage, stabilize the region, and reduce threats to the United States. Jones argues that the Gulf is less important than it previously has been to energy security:
The world today is awash in oil and natural gas. Protecting the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf to global markets is far less necessary than it once was. Over the past generation, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the other oil producers in the region have grown accustomed to bloated national budgets and expensive state-run, cradle-to-grave welfare services, which means that there is greater pressure on them to sell oil than to horde it.
It is true that oil sources outside the Gulf are growing in importance, and I agree that more US resources should be directed towards ensuring their development and reliability. However, the concern here is not about the Persian Gulf states “hoarding” oil, but using military force or the threat of it to drive up prices, deter Western interference with their internal affairs, or, in the extreme case, seize fields to monopolize supply. The desire is less about buying or selling than controlling and manipulating. Though exploration and global recession have mediated some of the problems of high oil prices, the likely future increase in oil demand from growing countries may change this happy state of affairs.
Led by Saudi Arabia, the Arab Gulf states claim that their fears of Iranian ambition are existential. It is certainly true that Tehran is locked in a regional balance of power struggle with Saudi Arabia and that Iran seeks greater influence. But Iran does not seek the destruction of Saudi Arabia or the overthrow of Arab world’s political order. In spite of claims to the contrary by the Saudi and Bahraini governments, Iran’s revolutionary imperative is a relic of the past.
Yes, it is true that since the massive costs of the Iran-Iraq war and the failure of Iran’s revolutionary ideology to set the Arab Shiites aflame that Tehran has channeled its revisionist inclinations into other activities. However, Iran did not cease because it became less revisionist, but because it suffered enormous casualties at the hand of the Gulf’s (and to a lesser extent, America’s) hired champion, Saddam Hussein. After several years of brutal warfare, Iran discovered that its defeat of the Iraqi invasion would not bring about the capture of Basra, and that in turn would not lead to an Arab Shia embrace of Khomeinism.
Instead, since its conventional defeat, Iran has massively expanded its networks of armed proxies to bleed its foes, as Iran has in Iraq and Lebanon today. In many ways, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ covert forces and its proxies are the new spearhead of those revisionist efforts, though Iran has not recently tried to overthrow a foreign government. Rather, Iran has found a sufficiently strong proxy force allows it to achieve a favorable political outcome in the target country and bleed out-of-Gulf foes such as Israel and the United States without the risk of a major conventional war. However, even though Jones believes Iran is less militantly revisionist than it was before, he does not attribute this change to US security posture:
The presence of the American military in the Gulf has not only done little to deter Iran’s ambitions, it has emboldened them. Surrounding Iran militarily and putting it under the constant threat of American or Israeli military action has failed to deter the country. Instead this approach has strengthened hardliners within Tehran and convinced them that the best path to self-preservation is through defiance, militarism, and the pursuit of dangerous ties across the Middle East. The rivalry between Iran, the U.S., and its regional partners has turned into a political and military arms race, one that could easily spin out of control.
So, Iran’s revolutionary imperatives are relics of the past, but America’s presence in the Gulf during and immediately during and after the twilight of those imperatives had no effect? I find this somewhat difficult to believe. In the latter years of the Iran-Iraq war, the US had a major naval presence in the Gulf that was actively involved in combating Iranian military forces. Rather than merely a looming presence, the US navy engaged in overt hostilities against Iran as part of Earnest Will, attacked its ships as part of Praying Mantis, used special operations forces against Iranian mining and small boat attacks during Prime Chance, and attacked IRGC bases on oil platforms for Nimble Archer. Unlike regime change, Iran still maintains an active interest in militarizing the Persian Gulf and has been modernizing its navy accordingly. While it still threatens to do so, this does not mean the US military presence in the Gulf fails to deter it any more than crises where the Soviet Union or United States threatened to use nuclear weapons meant the other side’s nuclear deterrent was worthless.
As for emboldening Iranian ambitions, the change in their nature actually reflects, in part, the effectiveness of the conventional deterrent that US forces have posed. Iran’s aforementioned diversion of resources to irregular and proxy forces reflect a desire to capitalize on a strength and a vulnerability of its foes. The problem with the mass American conventional presence is not that it makes Iran more aggressive or bold. Even in rhetoric, Iran’s militarist bluster from the hardliner pales in comparison to the days when the regime insisted the road to Jerusalem went through Karbala. The problem with America’s major conventional presence is that it is suffering from rapidly diminishing returns because of cost and an inability to deal with Iran’s irregular capabilities effectively. Nor is the US solely responsible for Iran’s ties to unsavory states and non-state actors in the Middle East, those began during the very early years of the regime and have far more to do with Iran’s initial desires to foment revolution and create friendly governments and populations to bolster Tehran against the Arab governments which were Iran’s traditional foes and particularly militant foes of Khomeini.
I agree with Jones that the US does enable its allies to behave recklessly, and that it ought to restrain them lest it be dragged into wars started by them. I disagree, however, that the United States would have greater leverage to improve their domestic behavior.
The challenge is less about finding friendly ports to station personnel than it is about charting clearer and more effective terms of political engagement with allies and rivals. And this requires a new strategic doctrine, one that makes clear to regional actors that the era of open security guarantees — which have proven so dear to both Americans and to the hundreds of thousands who have died since the United States began its military build-up — is over. This would not mean the loss of leverage or influence, but in fact the opposite. Once it is clear that the United States is not solely committed to preserving the status quo, regional states will no longer believe they can ignore American calls for reform, restraint, and respect for human rights. Indeed, it is the belief in the Gulf States that they have “special relationships” with the United States.
I disagree that American security guarantees are completely open – they are not when it comes to domestic behavior. The United States since the Cold War, unlike past examples of counterrevolutionary powers (such as the Soviet Union after the consolidation of the Warsaw Pact, the Holy Alliance after Napoleon, and the other European powers which tried to quash the French Revolution) does not prefer to intervene to keep mass revolutions from succeeding.
Nor, actually, are America’s massive arms sales to the Arab world particularly necessary for the success of internal repression. The multi-billion dollar arms sales the US makes to Saudi Arabia are for expensive land, sea, and air combat systems and the associated support. While US contractors do provide training as well, the fact of the matter is that Gulf regimes have more than enough money to purchase the requisites of running an internal security force – batons, rifles, body armor, and warm bodies willing to wield them. America is hardly the only necessary vendor. Much hay is often made by other commentators about how Egyptians find tear gas canisters with ‘Made in America’ written on them. Regrettable, yes, but Egypt can make its own wooden batons to bludgeon its people with, it has one of the most expansive chemical weapons programs in the world (as an non-signatory to the CWC), and it manufactures its own ammunition.
Jones notes that withdrawal will expose the Gulf to the free market of capital and labor – this applies to arms and security patronage as much as it does to other goods. France, among other European states, also sell large amounts of arms to Gulf regimes. Russia’s arms industry is always looking for new business, and with some concern about their favorite regional customer in Damascus, they would likely eagerly supply whatever arms the US was unwilling to give. China also has a burgeoning arms industry and it has shown no qualms about selling armaments to its repressive economic and political partners in Africa. Ending the cozy relationship between US arms vendors and the Gulf states just means the US will have to compete for leverage with other vendors and in the future, other potential external security guarantors.
Neither will US withdrawal make the region more stable. It will, in the most optimistic scenario, spread the costs of the instability further. Arab states will still loathe Iran and Iran will loathe them in turn. Each side will continue converting their revenue into arms purchases for both internal and internal security. The arms race, in other words, will continue. We already saw the worst-case results of this during the Iran-Iraq War and the Tanker War. The arms race, and conflicts, are both symptoms of real geopolitical rivalries. While it would be nice if other countries could share the burden of upholding the public good of keeping the Gulf open, this lofty idea is unlikely to work in practice.
Firstly, few other powers beside the US currently can patrol the Gulf, excepting the ones that are there – which of course defeats the purpose of an international force to stabilize it. The European countries are for dire want of power projection, and the US did most of the naval heavy lifting in Libya. Projecting force into the Gulf would require a major investment in European or Japanese naval power projection capability that does not currently exist. Russia’s navy would also need to undergo significant expansion and modernization to patrol the Gulf. For India and China to contribute an equal share, for all the hype that surrounds their fleets, would require an enormous leap in their military capabilities. Having a strong navy is relatively easy, making one capable of assuming even a limited security burden against major regional powers hundreds or thousands of miles away is extremely hard.
Even for the United States, the loss-of-strength gradient still applies. Without pre-positioned logistics, even for a purely aerial and naval operation to open the Strait of Hormuz, things could become extremely unpleasant extremely quickly. A forced entry into the Gulf would not be as easy as in the 1980s, when mobile replenishment was sufficient. Iran’s military vis-a-vis America’s is far improved from the lopsided 1980s, when Iran had to devote most of its military resources to the Iran-Iraq war on land. A forced entry would occur against a vastly improved constellation of Anti-Access/Area Denial systems that could do serious damage to a fleet that would be much harder to adjust against without friendly facilities and pre-positioned logistics onshore. Regrettably, the underway replenishment which supplied American fleets during the Cold War has actually become more difficult, as critical weapons systems such as VLS – the backbone of a modern US surface warship’s strike capability against shore targets – cannot be replenished while underway. Achieving the fire and sortie generation necessary for a hypothetical war with Iran, in the geographically unfavorable environment of the Gulf, while under fire from an enemy with already considerable and growing strength for local defense purposes (if not power projection) would be extremely challenging, and something very few of the wars the US has fought for decades will have prepared it for.
A foreign navy accomplishing a similar task would be even more unlikely, in fact, they would likely need to construct forward bases of their own. France, which has been trying to rebuild its power projection capability, has realized this itself, and opened a new base in Abu Dhabi for this express purpose. Notably, that base also supports French operations off the coast of the Horn of Africa – just as the US Fifth Fleet does. Nor would foreign navies necessarily want to cooperate in upholding US interests in the Gulf. India and China have notably more favorable attitudes towards Iran than the United States does, and vastly different attitudes about conditioning support or curtailing pursuit of geopolitical interests on the basis of a regime’s internal behavior.
There is a case that the direct US presence in the Gulf is too expensive or immoral to be worth the geopolitical benefits, but it is not a case that can reliably claim it will make the Gulf more economically stable, peaceful, or free. America’s leverage really will be much lower, because it will be forced to compete for influence with rival great powers which will not share its ideological preferences about Gulf regime behavior. Gulf regimes are neither reliant on US military support for their own internal security, nor can the United States exert leverage effectively when other states will be able to compete for leverage and provide the arms sales the US did, and perhaps even assistance in internal security it was far less involved in furnishing. Even if these movements did succeed (and if they did, it would be highly unlikely US withdrawal of support is the deciding factor), it is far from clear that revolutions and mass politics will prove to be a blow to radicalism or a force for peace, as any student of European or Asian history can attest. At best, the US would be able to more credibly exonerate itself for the crimes of its clients. Our hands would be clean, but leverage would still be out of our reach.
Iranian threats to close the Straits of Hormuz, and the ability of a local war to escalate and spook markets will have greater credibility, and a conflict to force open the Straits will become increasingly costly. So too will the ability of the US to use economic and political leverage to pursue its own national interests be constrained. While a political solution for Iran would be desirable, and I am certainly no proponent of an offensive war for nuclear disarmament, a lack of US military presence would undermine many non-military efforts. Take the example of the proposed oil embargo to cripple the Iranian nuclear program – if Iran is denied access to oil, it has much stronger incentives to close the Gulf to punish the oil-importing states which imposed the sanctions and to prevent its Arab Gulf rivals from reaping the benefits of increased oil prices. But US naval force attempting to open such a blockade would face greater challenges and be a less credible threat to deter Iran from closing Hormuz – in other words, the US would no longer dominate the middle rungs of the escalation ladder.
There is much appeal in the idea of setting up different bases to service the Gulf as an alternative to current bases for operational reasons, though they would need to be closer to the region than the US’s current major naval bases in Diego Garcia and Europe. Iran’s irregular threat also demands a rethinking of American military and covert posture both within and without the Gulf, one that will not require the same kind of facilities and support as before. In the very long run, the rise of China and the expansion of its influence in the Gulf may win over Arab regimes looking for an all-weather supporter as they clamp down on nationalist revolutions. Under such conditions, a US-Indian-Iranian axis might be a worthy idea. But for now, the United States must accept that retrenchment is not an unalloyed good. While hegemonic stability did not make the catastrophically erroneous US invasion of Iraq any more tolerable or advance our goals of promoting democracy within the region, it is not to blame for all the region’s ills, and ending it will exacerbate, not resolve, many current quandaries of American foreign policy.