Mil asks, civ responds
Military colleagues (same ones who produced this fine piece) recently asked some good questions. I replied:
- How could DoD and DoS be better postured to address regional and world conflicts to ensure a whole of government approach to identify and synchronize lines of effort in both planning and execution?
While intellectually DoD and DoS are more in agreement on a whole of government approach than any other time I can remember in the past 20 years, there is a gigantic imbalance in the capacities and cultures of the two institutions. State persists with a “sink or swim” culture fundamentally opposed to planning, which is still honored more in the breach than the observance. It also lacks appropriate personnel and resources. That is about to get worse, not better, due to budget cuts.
Ideally, State Department officers should train with military units with which they might deploy in the future. That would vastly increase mutual esteem and communication. But it is mostly impossible today. The best that can be hoped for is some commonality in the training materials for both, though State is likely to be doing precious little training for stabilization operations in the next few years. I fear we are back to where we were 20 years ago: our military instrument is far more potent than our civilian instruments, and there is a yawning gap between them.
2. What does a successfully concluded campaign against ISIS look like? Considering costs, reputation, and balance of influence, how should the U.S./Coalition define success? Is the defeat of ISIS a success if it causes the balance of power in the region to shift towards Iran, Assad, or Russia?
Success in Syria should be defined in terms of sustainable peace and security. That won’t be possible under Assad or with the Russians and Iranians playing the roles they play today in propping up a minority dictator and repressing the majority Sunni population. So long as Assad is there, Syrians will be fighting him. The longer it lasts, the more those Syrians will be extremist.
After a successful campaign against ISIS, Syrians in different parts of the country should be able to govern themselves, repress terrorist activity with forces that do not oppress or attack the rest of the population, begin to return economic activity to prewar levels, and return to their homes or resettle freely without fear of persecution. We are a very long way from that, even in the most stable parts of the country (some Kurdish-controlled areas and parts of the south).
3. Does U.S. foreign policy strike the right balance in supporting U.S. interests and its role as a global power? Or, should the U.S. consider a more isolationist approach to foreign policy? What impact could an isolationist policy have on Middle East security and stability, balance of influence by regional and world actors, and U.S. national interests?
It is a mistake to ask foreign policy experts about isolationism, which they will all condemn, but I’ll go this far: U.S. interests in the Middle East are not as salient as they once were and we should be thinking and planning about reducing our commitments and burdens there.
The main U.S. interests in the region apart from counter-terrorism are generally defined as these: non-proliferation, oil, maintenance of alliances, and human rights/democracy. The only significant proliferation risk in the region (Iran) is on hold for 10-15 years or so, the U.S. is far less dependent on Middle East oil than once it was, our allies are mostly interested in military assistance, and we appear to have mostly given up on human rights and democracy in the region.
I think it is arguable that a) deterring Iran could be (maybe better be) accomplished with a much reduced U.S. presence in the Gulf, b) we should not be spending as much American treasure as in the past or risking American lives for oil flowing out of the Gulf to China and Japan (which should share that burden more than in the past), c) our allies should be taking on more of the burden of defending themselves with the enormous amount of kit we’ve sold them, and d) human rights and democracy will gain traction in the region better with less U.S. military presence.
4. What are the competing national interests of the U.S. and Iran in the Middle East and what are the options for alleviating U.S. / Iranian tensions to mutual satisfaction and improved regional stability?
Iran is a revolutionary power looking to extend its security perimeter into neighboring states and to burnish its Islamist credentials by resistance to Israel. It will be impossible to overcome these problems exclusively in a bilateral U.S./Iran context, though increased communication between Tehran and Washington (including diplomatic representatives at some level in each of their capitals) is highly desirable.
Regional stability would also benefit from some sort of regional security architecture—think OSCE in Europe or ASEAN in Asia. This would aim at de-escalating Sunni/Shia, Saudi/Iranian, Turkish/Iranian, and other regional conflicts and tensions. There are few places on earth today with less regional cooperation and connectivity than the Middle East and North Africa.
5. What are the respective national interests of the U.S. and Russia in the Middle East and what are the options for alleviating U.S./Russian tensions to mutual satisfaction and improved regional stability?
Russia is trying to restore its position in the Middle East, from which it has been largely absent since 1990 or even earlier, and to contest American influence there. It has doubled and quadrupled its bet on Bashar al Assad, whom it will now support until the day before he is gone. I don’t see room for mutual accommodation between Moscow and Washington in Syria, much as I might have hoped that their common enmity to the Islamic State would bring them closer together. That just hasn’t happened, and things will get worse after the defeat of the Islamic State.
The situation isn’t much better in Libya, Egypt, Turkey, or Iran. In all those countries, Moscow is trying to fill gaps left by the U.S. and reestablish its influence. Putin is playing what he regards as a zero-sum game and will neglect no opportunity to counter the U.S. How long his declining oil and gas based economy will support this aggressive foreign policy is uncertain, but domestic resistance has not yet emerged to any significant degree.
6. Are there impediments to cooperation amongst GCC nations that reduce their effectiveness towards undesirable or adverse regional issues? If so, how could impediments be overcome?
Yes, you need only talk with a random Gulfie to hear their complaints about each other. The exceptions are Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which despite their domestic differences seem largely in agreement on Yemen, Syria, and other issues. But in general the Gulf states seem unable to realize that, as Ben Franklin said, they need to all hang together or they’ll all hang separately. The Gulf Cooperation Council has not solved this problem, which limits Gulf diplomatic, political, military and economic influence and effectiveness.
7. What are the medium to long-term implications to U.S. interests and posture of China’s economic, diplomatic and military expansion into South Asia, Middle East and Africa?
China’s main initiatives in these areas are the One Belt One Road (which is many belts and not so many roads) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), both of which aim to ensure China can import whatever it needs whenever it wants. While sometimes mercantilist in ways the U.S. may object to, China is wise to undertake these efforts to support its growing economy. Its investments are often welcomed in South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. U.S. withdrawal from TTP and failure to join the AIIB will limit American economic influence in Asia and beyond.
The Chinese military challenge is obviously serious when it comes to Anti-Access/Area Denial within the first island chain, which could put in doubt U.S. defense commitments to the Philippines, Japan, and Taiwan. But the U.S. should welcome China’s blue water capabilities, especially in the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz, the Malacca Strait, and other areas where the U.S. has limited capacities and China has real interests.
Iran will not close Hormuz if the Chinese, their biggest customer, are patrolling there, which would best be done as part of a multinational effort. We need to use Chinese naval capabilities to good advantage in sharing burdens. Partnership with China, an emerging superpower with strong and diversified economic ties to the U.S., is a far better bet than partnership with Russa, which is a declining regional power with a petro-economy of no great merit.
8. Is the current U.S. approach to supporting Afghanistan beneficial? Or does it promote a cycle of dependency and counter-productive activities in the region? What strategic and local factors would need to be considered, managed and accepted in any significant change in military and/or other support?
We’ve been in Afghanistan far longer than U.S. interests there justify. We need to get out, without pulling the plug on the Afghan government. That is a delicate operation, but that should be our objective after the next Afghan election. We need to recognize that reducing the terrorist threat to zero in Afghanistan/Pakistan is a formula for eternal war.
9. What are the implications for the U.S. and GCC countries if the Arab coalition does not succeed or achieve an acceptable outcome in Yemen?
Saudi Arabia and the UAE will be seriously embarrassed if their coalition fails in Yemen, but U.S. interests are not directly at stake in the fight against the Houthis. The main U.S. interest in Yemen is counter-terrorism, in particular Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State, insofar as it is present. It is arguable that any Houthi-controlled regime would want to continue the fight against them. They might even be better at it than the Hadi-led government, which leaves most of the counterterrorism fight in U.S. hands.
We also have an interest in the free flow of commerce through the Bab al Mandeb. That interest, as Andrew Exum suggested recently, would be best be served by diplomatic rather than military means.