Working Smart, Not Working Hard

US Navy crew man machine-guns as they stand aboard a Riverine Command Boat off the coast of Bahrain's Salman port, near Manama, on May 12, 2013 (MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images) US Navy crew man machine-guns as they stand aboard a Riverine Command Boat off the coast of Bahrain's Salman port, near Manama, on May 12, 2013 (MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images)

US Navy crew man machine-guns as they stand aboard a Riverine Command Boat off the coast of Bahrain's Salman port, near Manama, on May 12, 2013 (MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images)

To read various articles on US foreign policy in the Middle East, one would imagine that the US was in a state of full-scale retreat from the region, just as the UK withdrew from “East of Suez” in the 1960s and 70s. This is often coupled with references to the Obama administration’s “Pivot to Asia” policy, implying that the former is driven by the latter. Similarly, the Obama administration’s sensible decision not to entangle itself in the tragedy befalling Syria is taken as proof of American weakness by foreign and domestic opponents. Yet a momentary consideration of actual US engagement in the region—as well as the sectors of the media propagating this line of thinking—shows clearly that the US is not withdrawing from the Middle East.

So what is really happening? Very simply, the US is changing its manner of engagement in the Middle East, and this is causing concern to those who favor the status quo. In terms of the most visible aspects of US foreign policy, the neo-conservative era of (unintentional) mass occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan is drawing to a close—albeit replaced in part by contractors—and the US is returning to something closer to its previous military posture. However, in both theaters, the US attempted to retain sizable military presences, but declined to do so unless suitable Status of Forces Agreements (SOFAs) were concluded with host governments. Even now, the US is attempting to conclude a SOFA with the government of Afghanistan, but if unable to do so is looking for alternative locations, perhaps in Central Asia. On top of its sizable existing regional presence, there are even signs that the US is actively increasing its presence in the Middle East region.

The main governmental metric of the “Pivot to Asia” was the redeployment of one of 11 aircraft carrier strike groups and some submarines from the US East Coast to the West Coast. Yet these are almost all based (“home-ported”) in the continental United States, and the redeployment will primarily affect the US naval presence in Europe and the South Atlantic. The Middle East—despite Israel falling under the purview of the US military’s European Command—is firmly part of Asia.

Further, the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which is headquartered in Bahrain and covers most of the MENA region, “owns” very few ships. Like most of the Pentagon’s Combatant Commands (the different headquarters with responsibility for different parts of the world), it receives forces from home stations for specific purposes, and uses them within limited parameters. Those forces may come from anywhere: in autumn 2012, the aircraft carriers the USS Enterpise and the USS John C. Stennis were both in the Gulf. Yet the former was home-ported in Virginia, and the latter in California. What matters is where the power is applied, not where it comes from.

Having glanced at what deployments are really happening, it is worth considering the issues that are currently on the agenda which might explain the sudden, oxymoronic descriptions of US withdrawal. The most obvious is the US’s non-kinetic engagement with Iran, which causes concern in Saudi Arabia.

Yet even as it pursues diplomatic engagement of Iran, the US has not changed its fundamental objectives. It certainly wishes to ensure that Iran’s dormant nuclear weapons program is dismantled so it can never be reconstituted. Avoiding Einstein’s dictum that insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results, the US is trying a different approach, aided by the simultaneous presence of less narrow-minded administrations in both Tehran and Washington.

It is likely that the US government still wishes to see regime change in Iran, but not through US invasion or armed revolution, but rather through the invisible hand of the market, once sanctions come down (though, ironically, the Iranians seem to be using this lever to unravel the sanctions against them).

Such an outcome is a great prize: not only does Iran represent a market of 80 million people, but it is the gateway to Central Asia. This would enable the construction of an energy pipeline to the blue-water port at Chabahar, one that does not run through Russia or semi-lawless Afghanistan and Pakistan. Similarly, Iran might once again become the US’s peacekeeping partner in the region: perhaps the sought-after drone base might be sited in eastern Iran, to watch over Afghanistan and Pakistan? The Iranians have little love for the Taliban, and have a common interest in stemming the flow of narcotics out of Afghanistan.

All these possible opportunities for the US, however, also worry Israel. It is likely that US interest in Israel would be diluted at best, and greatly diminished at worst: not only is Iran geo-strategically located, with geo-strategic quantities of oil, but it has an impressive intelligence network (partly Israeli trained), and was formerly a proponent of power projection alongside the UK, US and UN. Further, with an allied (or at least not inimical) Iran in the region, not only would more US citizens start asking why they should subsidize Israeli defense industries by 3 billion US dollars per year while their own military suffers cutbacks, but within Israel itself, its securocrats would have fewer bogeymen to wave at potential voters, who might thus wonder whether the 5.7 percent of GDP spent on defense would not be better spent on something else.

With China rising fast, the US would be foolish to abandon the world’s middle ground, a global choke point, and the source of about 50 percent of the world’s oil. US engagement in the Middle East remains as strong as ever. It’s just changing the way it does so: no longer just hard power, but smart power.

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.

Subscribe to the discussion