Offshore Balancing Strategy Can Correct America’s Middle East Approach

Offshore Balancing Strategy Can Correct America’s Middle East Approach

A zero-based assessment of U.S. interests and policies in the Greater Middle East is long overdue. The new geostrategic map of the region, the legacy of failures, and the imperatives of great power competition require a new mindset.

The third big change is the dramatic increase in tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean and Levant prompted by the massive natural gas finds off the coast of Israel and Egypt. Natural gas has become the global hydrocarbon of choice, a fact flowing from its lower green-house gas profile than petroleum and coal. Turkey is now asserting itself as a major regional power and has intervened in the Libyan civil war by siding with the Government of National Accord (GNA), aka the Tripoli/Misrata government, against the Libyan National Army (LNA), aka the Benghazi/Tobruk government. By aligning with the GNA, Turkey has been able to make undersea claims in the Eastern Mediterranean to block the construction of natural gas pipelines between Greece and the massive sources of supply that will originate off the coast of Israel, Egypt, and the Greek portion of Cyprus. Because of the corporate interests of oil giant ENI, Italy appears to have aligned itself with Turkish interests. In direct opposition to Turkey’s ambitions is the no longer unusual coalition of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel, Russia, and France. The latter’s alignment is prompted in part by the corporate interest of French oil giant TOTAL SE.

During the summer of 2020, this conflict escalated when Turkey intervened with proxy forces and the creative use of uncrewed combat vehicles (UCAV) to save the GNA coalition from a military knockout blow by the LNA. The latter military coalition has been strongly supported by Russian interests by using a mercenary force, the Wagner Group. Currently, both sides have paused with a tenuous cease-fire. Further military escalation is possible in Libya and/or in the Eastern Mediterranean. In the former case that might involve a military test of arms between Turkey and Egypt supported by its UAE ally. In the Eastern Mediterranean, there is the prospect of a naval clash between Turkey and Greece and its allies, France, and the UAE.

Finally, Turkey and Israel provided Azerbaijan with substantial military assistance that included unmanned combat aerial vehicles, attack drones, precision-guided short-range ballistic missiles, and conventional force training to win a short regional war with Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. This has set the stage for a regional entente between Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine. In the latter case, Kiev and Ankara have signed a series of military industry agreements that greatly benefit both countries’ defense establishments. Noteworthy in this regard is the completion of the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline that opens up the gas resources of Azerbaijan to all of the Balkan region of Europe.

IN LIGHT of these massive changes in the strategic landscape now and on the horizon, what are the major, if not vital, U.S. interests in the GME, and what investment is needed to protect them? Countering terrorism, sustaining the free flow of commerce, and preventing domination by hegemonic forces are legitimate U.S. interests, though a one-dimensional, over-militarized policy has been of limited utility, at best, in advancing them. 

In the larger hierarchy of U.S. strategic interests, however, the focus of these interests has shifted to the Pacific, the center of gravity of the global economy, while the Middle East accounts for a mere 3.2 percent of global GDP. This strategic re-orientation was signaled by the national military strategy of the Trump administration, with its focus on an enduring great power competition with the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation. Furthermore, the enormous medium-term fiscal burden of dealing with the economic and financial fallout of Covid-19 will have to be mastered. Additional domestic challenges include further reform of the health care system while dealing with income inequality and racial injustice. Addressing these challenges will be critical to having a stable domestic foundation to underpin U.S. foreign policy.

The overall global approach to this revised strategy is to give first and second priority toward the geostrategic balancing of China and Russia with the GME as a tertiary interest. While some in the “restraint” camp urge the United States to simply retreat from the region, the dynamics are too complicated for a simple binary choice—in or out of the Middle East—but lend themselves to a transition to an offshore balancer approach. The challenge is how to disentangle the United States from outmoded and strategically unwise commitments while minimizing risks to stability. This is likely to involve a multi-phase, conditions-based process over a number of years.

What are the elements of U.S. national interests in the GME? First is to sustain the ongoing campaign against the Salafist-jihadis insurgent through a campaign of “targeted killing.” This includes the judicious use of our global surveillance system combined with manned and unmanned airpower equipped with precision-guided munitions, Special Forces, and most critically, in partnership with local actors with a sense of ownership. This strategy has features of the medical approach to dealing with chronic illness, such as various forms of cancer and HIV/AIDS, where the illness can be managed through various medical interventions without providing a permanent cure. In this regard, there has been continuity in the Obama/Trump administrations’ effort to minimize our footprint and economize in the use of U.S. military forces as opposed to squandering the same in protracted and large-scale counter-insurgency efforts. There appears to be broad public support for the current and relatively low-cost strategy of offensive and defensive counterterrorism against the multi-faceted movement of Salafist-jihadism that includes the still aspiring quasi-state isis and the dispersed elements of Al Qaeda. 

Second, the United States must inhibit the rise of a dominant power that might attain hegemonic control over oil and the crossroads of the Eurasian landmass. The good news is that contending forces in the GME now appear to preclude a regional hegemon for the foreseeable future. They include Turkey, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia/GCC, and Egypt. Turkey is now frustrating Russian strategic interests in Syria, Libya, and during the recent Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. Further, there is the re-emergence of the Russian Federation and the emergence of China and India as significant outside great power players. To date, Russia and China have been primarily transactional players, though Moscow is intent on sustaining its military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean (Syria) and pursuing opportunities for weapons sales and access to hydrocarbons. India has a major stake in the Iranian petroleum industry and longstanding economic ties to the Gulf states, where up to one million Indians have been employed.

One wildcard is China’s burgeoning economic role in the region and whether it will continue its transactional “friends with all” posture or get sucked into regional turmoil. There is a growing tension between China’s great power ambitions—as its military base in Djibouti illustrates—and its reluctance to risk alienating economic partners. This multiplicity of contending actors suggests the difficulty of hegemonic dominance and the possibility of managing/limiting conflict based on a balance of power.

It is in the U.S. interest to use all elements of national power—diplomatic, intelligence, military, economic—to help foster a meta-static equilibrium within the region. In this regard, there is no theory of U.S. hegemonic dominance much less victory. It will be critical to use the prospect and reality of U.S. reduced commitments and presence in tandem with agile diplomatic leverage to facilitate winding down Sunni-Shia proxy wars, Turkish and Iranian expansionism, and help to broker a regional détente, one that must be owned by the players in the region. The perception of diminished U.S. interest in the region is a factor driving the ongoing strategic realignment, as evident in the UAE/Bahrain-Israeli accords. There is also an exhaustion factor that may indicate an approaching ripeness for robust diplomacy. No one expects that achieving a meta-stable much less a stable balance will be quick or easy.

The Gordian Knot may be Iran. Even weakened by UN sanctions, Covid-19, and a troubled, corrupt regime under the Mullahs, Tehran still has a formidable military. The U.S. military and local military establishments will have to adapt to the rapid diffusion of long-range, precision-guided munitions and uncrewed air and sea combat vehicles in the GME. Even under the burden of sustained economic and financial sanctions, Tehran has demonstrated the military mastery and production of stand-off precision-guided warfare—most dramatically with its use of attack drones and low-cost cruise missiles against key Saudi petroleum production facilities and the use of precision-guided ballistic missiles against a U.S. base in Iraq during the last quarter of 2019. As noted above, Turkey demonstrated its indigenous capacity to produce and employ with great military effect armed uncrewed aerial combat vehicles against mobile military targets in northeastern Syria and western Libya. Even more dramatic has been Azerbaijan’s use of a robotic air force with Turkish and Israeli assistance to gain air superiority over the Armenia armed forces during its short regional war during the fall of 2020. Other regional powers have or will have the capacity to conduct strategic bombardment campaigns with long-range precision-guided cruise and ballistic missiles. Obviously, these regional powers have and will gain access to these weapons from the United States, Russia, China, India, and several states in the European Union.