Tuesday, December 12, 2006

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Is offshore balancing possible in the Middle East?

In the New York Times, Eugene Gholz, Daryl Press, and Ben Valentino argue that the U.S. should switch to and offshore balancing strategy in the Middle East. They mean this as literally as possible:

The Iraq Study Group’s recommendation that the United States withdraw its combat forces from Iraq reflects a growing national consensus that our military cannot quell the violence there and may even be making matters worse. Although many are hailing this recommendation as a bold new course, it is not bold enough. America will best serve its interests in the Persian Gulf by withdrawing its ground-based military forces not only from Iraq, but from the entire region....

In fact, many of the same considerations that led the Iraq Study Group to call for withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq suggest that the United States should withdraw its troops from neighboring states as well — leaving only naval forces offshore in international waters. As in Iraq, a large United States military footprint on the ground undermines American interests more than it protects them.

Just as our troops on Iraqi streets have provided a rallying point for the insurgency, the United States military presence throughout the region has been a key element in Al Qaeda’s recruitment campaign and propaganda. If America withdrew from Iraq but left behind substantial forces in neighboring states, Al Qaeda would refocus its attacks on American troops in those countries — remember the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia?

Worse, the continued presence of our military personnel across the region will continue to incite extremists to attack American cities. Osama bin Ladin repeatedly stated that the presence of American forces on the holy ground of the Arabian Peninsula was a primary reason for 9/11.

Our presence also destabilizes our important regional allies. Not only do American bases make these countries a target for terrorists, but many of their citizens bristle at the sight of United States bases on their soil. Indeed, the most serious near-term threat to our energy interests is the overthrow of friendly governments by domestic Islamic extremists, a danger that is increased by the presence of our troops.

The good news is that the United States does not need to station military forces on the ground in Persian Gulf countries to protect its allies or to secure its vital oil interests....

You'll have to click on the link to see why they believe this to be the case.

I've got two concerns about this strategy. The first one is that much of its logic boils down to, "Osama wants us out, so we should get out to avoid further terrorist attacks." When does this logic stop? If Osama says Westerners should leave Spain because it's part of the ummah, do we heed his advice there?

This does not mean that we should therefore act in a perfectly contrarian manner either -- it just means that if the U.S. deems putting its troops in a country to be vital for the national interest, I'm not sure Osama bin Laden's objection should count for all that much. Concretizing the problem -- if, say, the governments of Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, or the UAE want American troops stationed there, should we say no because of concerns about terrorism?

There's also the question about what regional aftershocks would take place when the U.S. withdraws from Iraq... which could require re-engagement. Would it trigger a wider war? Suzanne Nossel makes an interesting point about this over at Democracy Arsenal:

Many observers predict that if we do leave, the fighting in Iraq will escalate and ultimately reach some sort of stalemate. At that point, we should do whatever we can to facilitate a negotiated settlement through international involvement in mediation and ultimately peacekeeping. It is at this point that a Bosnia-style federal solution may become viable as a more organic outcome, rather than something the US would have to try to impose.
It's worth stepping back for a second and realizing that the U.S. position in Iraq is so bad that this constitutes the rosy scenario of U.S. withdrawal.

Nossel's scenario one way it could go, sure. I'm far from certain that this is likely, however. An open question: would any country in the region really be both willing and able to repulse a combined Iranian-Badr Brigade offensive across the country?

None of this means that Gholz, Press, and Valentino are wrong. It just means that I'm uncertain.

Commenters should probably weigh in at this point.

UPDATE: Daryl Press expands upon the comment he posted below with the following e-mail:

It's really hard to tell how [the Gulf emirates] feel about having us there, to be honest. They say all the right things about their close friendship with the Americans. At least when they're speaking to English-language news outlets. But they must feel pretty conflicted.

* The Iraqi MILITARY threat -- which was the reason they changed their decades-old policy and accepted a "permanent" US military presence, is gone for the forseeable future. What tiny residual MILITARY threat remains could easily be dealt with by "over the horizon" US forces. So the 2003 war means they don't need us for the reason they once did.

* The remaining (and very real) Iraqi threat is a threat of spilled-over domestic turmoil. Having hundreds of armed, experienced fighters return from Iraq to their homes in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the Emirates, may create exaccerbated domestic security problems for those countries, which are further exaccerbated by the US military presence there b/c the angry, armed men returning from Iraq are not friends of the US.

* The Iranian threat -- which everyone says is growing b/c of Iraq's destruction -- is not a direct military threat, but a threat from internal subversion. Again this is exaccerbated by the US presence.

So I'm sure the small Gulf states see some advantage of the close, and visible relationship with the US government -- they must, or they wouuld have kicked us out already. But what that advantage is, it's hard to tell. What I would claim with some certainty is that the cost-benefit balance of having us there is shifting pretty substantially for the reasons above.

My hope is that a US withdrawal is win-win for us and the "pro-U.S." gulf states. The small Gulfies can pretend to be less-close with us than they are, and use their strengthened domestic position to REALLY go after their domestic AQ types within their country, who are targetting their regimes as well as us. And we'd still know we are the backstop in case the oil is going to be taken.

posted by Dan on 12.12.06 at 08:43 AM


Hi Dan,

Thanks for the nice post.

I'd flip around your formulation: Given that US forces are not needed in the Persian Gulf region to protect our oil interests [the explanation for this is in the op-ed], and given that having US bases there weakens the legitimacy of the "friendly" governments in the region that favor us and hate A-Q (eg, Kuwait and Saudi), what U.S. interest is served by keeping US forces in that region?

I know YOU'RE not suggesting that we should keep them there simply because A-Q wants them out. But that's really the only articulated view on the table.

Thanks again for the nice blog; I look forward to seeing what your readers post in response.


posted by: Daryl Press on 12.12.06 at 08:43 AM [permalink]


We save lots of US lives by getting our people out of a dangerous region. We are less of a daily irritant. (Maybe. The article does not address the consistent conflation of the US with Isreal that is a regular part of the Arab media diet.)

This sounds small. Given the time and national attention spent on iraq and palestine, which ought to be treated as regional problems, not existential conflicts requiring constant attention, my feeling is that it is not.

Let's look at the potential downsides, if this plan was executed flawlessly:

1. Osama feels he has an advantage. As his hostility to the US relates to its cultural influence, he concentrates his attacks on Europe and the US, to press the advantage he feels he has gained. Osama becomes stronger. Europeans, and maybe Americans die. The deaths tend to be random civilians, rather than soldiers.

2. Our allies feel we are abandoning them and they change their alliances. The result -- perhaps a regional arms race, and a WMD miscalculation.

Downsides to a clumsy implementation:

1. Iran does not get the message that their actions are still being watched. They get aggressive. We are sucked into a regional War.

2. The politicians and public interpret strategic withdrawal as total disengagement. A major war results, and the US eventually gets sucked in. (See, also, WWII.)

I expect there are others. This is just a quick list.

posted by: Appalled Moderate on 12.12.06 at 08:43 AM [permalink]

My question for those who tend to favor an offshore balancer response (and i do somewhat reluctantly) is whether a near immediate withdrawl from Iraq is actually following the guidelines of the strategy? At first it seems to be so, but we must remember that offshore balancer intervention is done to prevent regional hegemons from emerging (from Neorealism 101). This begs the question if Iran, in the case of US withdrawl, in all probability would make a play to dominate the region in the near future? If so, and we think that other middle-eastern countries would fail to form a counter-balancing coalition is it in the US National Interest to stay? This example seems to indicate that doctrine itself is rarely enough to determine many actual policy responses.

posted by: Andrew Hart on 12.12.06 at 08:43 AM [permalink]

Mr Hart:

Interesting question, since this is an article by committee. Eugene Gholz, blogging at Across the Isle seems to have an awarenss of your point:

The smartest arguments for reducing the number of American troops in Iraq also suggest that doing so might tamp down the violence (although no one is sure how ugly the killing would get in the short term, before stability might come either through one Iraqi group “winning” the civil war or, more likely, through the emergence of a balance of power where Iraqi politicians finally got serious about forming a working government). Whether the advocates of an uncontingent withdrawal plan are right about the violence or not, though, they can be sure that pulling American combat forces out of Iraq would give the U.S. military a breather; on the other hand, they can also be sure that pulling out would lead to claims by people we don’t like (e.g., Osama) that the United States had been beaten and that historical momentum is against the U.S. Perhaps the damage to American reputation really would hurt our national security, and it would definitely be unpleasant to listen to America’s European allies say “I told you so.”

Press and Valentino, though I have not seen anything recent they have written on this point, would likely support an "Out Now" as part of their strategy. Back in 2004, they wrote this:

These are depressing prospects. The fact that we must consider them underscores the caution that should be employed before deciding to go to war. Still, given where we stand today, if the United States can find a way to withdraw most of its troops over the next several years and leave behind an Iraq that is not in a civil war,that is not a haven for Al Qaeda and is not an immediate threat to its neighbors, history may well record it as an odds-defying success.

The entire article is here.

posted by: Appalled Moderate on 12.12.06 at 08:43 AM [permalink]

If Bush took less of his marching orders from Osama, we would all be better off.

posted by: Lord on 12.12.06 at 08:43 AM [permalink]

There seems to be an assumption, both in the original post and in the comments, that the sentiments of the people of the US-friendly Gulf states and of their governments are the same. I don't know offhand, but are those states democracies? If not, then the governments may support the US against the will of their peoples, with likely long-term negative consequences for the US in the region.

The more helpful question is not "Does Osama want us out?" but "Do the people of the region want us out?" I think the answer to the latter question will be more determinative of our eventual success or failure in the region than the former. This point is well addressed in the original op-ed.

posted by: yave begnet on 12.12.06 at 08:43 AM [permalink]

Whether or not the governments of Bahrain, Kuwait, etc. really want American troops there, there's one 'government' which definitely does: Kurdistan.

Of course, right now it's nominally part of Iraq, and technically I guess we're supposed to listen to the central government's wishes. But the central government has no actual authority in Kurdistan, so that rather complicates things.

posted by: David Nieporent on 12.12.06 at 08:43 AM [permalink]

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