US still ultimate ‘offshore balancer’ in the Gulf

General James Mattis, Commander of US Central Command at the Manama Dialogue 2012

General James Mattis, Commander of US Central Command, at the Manama Dialogue 2012

In this latest post by one of the ‘Young Strategists’ attending the Manama Dialogue, Jean-Loup Samaan,  a researcher for the NATO Defense College, looks at US engagement in the Gulf through the prism of a Cold War concept.

Although Syria was undoubtedly the biggest issue on the agenda of the 2012 Manama Dialogue, another one was in the air: the seeming erosion of US leadership in international affairs in general and in the Gulf in particular.

For some delegates, the impression of a US retreat was exemplified by the absence of a cabinet-level representative of the Obama administration, and also by what some saw as the absence of a word of thanks to Washington in Prince Salman’s introductory speech. Although Bahrain’s foreign minister denied on Saturday that any snub was intended, the perceived omission reflected to many a certain bitterness in relations between Manama and Washington.

Some have posited a geopolitical narrative where, after a decade of long wars and an unending financial crisis, the US has no choice but to scale down its global engagements. Meanwhile, with the rise of China as an assertive military power in Asia, the Obama administration clearly stated in its 2012 Strategic Guidance that the US will now pivot to Asia.

Gulf countries, like Washington’s NATO Allies, feel sidelined by this shift in grand strategy. Since the 1980s, the US has functioned as the equaliser in the peninsula’s power struggles, whether between the GCC and Iraq, the GCC and Iran or even between GCC countries themselves. To use an old geopolitical concept, it was the ultimate ‘offshore balancer’.

Now, Gulf officials fear the US ‘rebalance to Asia’ will leave their region vulnerable to crisis and conflicts. In this narrative, the US withdrawal from Iraq last year left a security vacuum at their gates while the US ‘silence’ on the demonstrations that emerged in Bahrain in 2011 generated a sense of distrust. Furthermore, there is a sense that the US government has not been tough enough on the Iranian nuclear issue, blurring its ‘red lines’ and confusing its policy position due to contradictory views on a military option. The concept of ‘leading from behind’ attributed to the Obama administration is understood, in this analysis, as a half-polite way to hide irresolution and inconsistency.

Is this narrative grounded in facts? Barely. Firstly, the reality is that the extent of the US rebalance remains to be seen in terms of allocation of military resources. So far, it is more a political exercise of reassurance toward Asian partners than a concrete reshuffling of military means. Secondly, by no means does it signify a retreat from the Gulf. Countries such the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar maintain solid relations with the United States and, even though US reliance on Gulf natural resources substantially decreased in the last decade, security cooperation remains critical.

Through the US military bases they host, Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar enjoy a concrete form of security commitment that should not be underestimated. US Central Command is not going to merely vanish.

Additionally, this year, the US Navy has doubled the number of vessels patrolling the Strait of Hormuz. Again, discussion at the military-to-military level is not of a drawdown but of a new, though quiet, build-up. This is reflected through elements like the extra army brigade that will remain in Kuwait following the withdrawal from Iraq, the growing use of cyber capabilities to advance US regional interests and finally, an emerging Gulf missile-defence architecture that eventually will rely on US weapon systems and command structures.

What about the threat posed by Iran? As US–Gulf cooperation on missile defence increases, the military capabilities of Iran will be no match. Already the Iranians are struggling to compete with Gulf arsenals.  During the 2009 Manama Dialogue, David Petraeus , the then-Chief of US Central Command, said it was his judgement that the UAE Air Force could take on its Iranian counterpart by itself, without the need for allies.

True, the Iranian array of asymmetric capabilities remains substantial but the numerous rounds of economic sanctions have seriously impeded the efforts of its defence industry to manufacture ballistic missiles.

Certainly, Iran’s nuclear programme is a key ‘known unknown’ – the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Tehran would be a game changer. As of today however, not only is the scale of threats and challenges posed to Gulf countries inflated but also, the US is not abandoning the GCC to face them alone.

The issue of US disengagement is mostly framed through perception, not facts. The US continues to be more involved in Gulf security than any other external actor. In other words, the US is still the ultimate balancer in the peninsula’s security environment and is likely to remain so for the near future.


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