The Trump administration called for help, but Washington's friends have shrugged and calculated it is safer to stay away from "maximum pressure." There is a better way.
What if the United States threw a party and no one came? It is finding out in the Persian Gulf, where Trump administration’s calls to unite to counter Iranian aggression are being met with caution, circumspection and shrugs.
The reason is not fear of the Iranians. Instead, it is a calculus by Washington’s allies and partners that they may be safer staying far away from whatever the United States really intends and what they might be drawn into.
The Iranian government seems to be pursuing a policy that keeps tensions in the Gulf simmering but not boiling. The goal is to create a crisis but not a war. Iran is trying to force the world to engage with it and seeking to thumb its nose at the U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign that threatens any multinational that does business with the Islamic Republic.
That Iran has any hope of success is a historic change. In years past, the United States would be expected to use its dominant position in the Gulf — built upon its naval base in Bahrain and the Fifth Fleet — to rustle up an alliance. With tens of thousands of sailors, more than one dozen ships, and pervasive intelligence capabilities, the United States would bear the heaviest burden but allies also would contribute ships, aircraft, and personnel. The show of force would matter, but even more important would be the show of unity and resolve.
But this is not years past. Tweeting on June 24, President Trump argued that each country should look after its own ships in the Gulf, arguing “We don’t even need to be there in that the U.S. has just become (by far) the largest producer of Energy anywhere in the world!” The next day, he tweeted a warning to Iran that “Any attack by Iran on anything American will be met with great and overwhelming force,” implicitly shoving allies out from under a U.S. security umbrella.
The president’s approach was soon reflected in policy. After Iran seized a British oil tanker on July 19, Secretary of State Pompeo shrugged off a U.S. obligation to respond, saying, “The responsibility in the first instance falls to the United Kingdom to take care of their ships.” That same day, U.S. Central Command announced it was forming a multinational maritime coalition called Operation Sentinel. But nobody is coming to the Operation Sentinel party. The UK, reportedly already stung from being kept in the dark about abortive U.S. plans to strike Iran earlier in the month, set out to create its own Gulf coalition. The UK had had more luck than the United States is at this point, eliciting clear interest from France, Italy, and Denmark (although newly installed British Prime Minister Boris Johnson may have a very different concept in mind). The country most clearly in the U.S. camp is South Korea, which has limited ability to project naval forces into the Gulf but is deeply beholden to the Trump administration as the United States pursues negotiations with North Korea.
On Thursday, just hours after taking office, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper faced Pentagon reporters who pressed him about the competing U.S. and European efforts. “I describe as complimentary, if you will,” he said, spinning the situation favorably, “whether we do that as one big group or as subgroups.”
But it really does matter how this is organized. The U.S. proposal is reportedly for the United States to share intelligence, while relying on countries to protect their own ships. As such, it represents the worst of all possible worlds. The United States seeks to lash partner countries to U.S. policy without any extension of U.S. protection. If the United States has a military confrontation with Iran, associated countries would face guilt by association and effectively have to go along for the ride. With little confidence in either the U.S. approach of “maximum pressure” nor in Iranian restraint, they justifiably fear things could get ugly fast.
Even absent direct U.S.-Iran hostilities, partner countries aligning with the U.S. and with limited capacity to defend themselves would make their ships more vulnerable to Iranian attack. For the Iranians, provoking weaker powers is far safer than provoking more powerful ones, and singling out smaller countries serves the dual purpose of avoiding warfare while deterring others from uniting with the Americans.
Seen from an Iranian perspective, this turn of events is delightful. The U.S. inability to mount a coalition in the Gulf helps split the United States from its allies and weakens international solidarity more broadly. It encourages the Russians and Chinese even more. Three countries that essentially have no allies are thus able to level the playing field after struggling for decades with broad U.S.-led coalitions.
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper was surely right when he said on Thursday, “A strong network of like-minded nations that are willing and able to fight together is an advantage that our adversaries do not possess.” He was also right when he continued, “But this means that allies and partners must contribute more equitably to our shared security.”
The problem is trying to treat the security environment in the Gulf as a transaction. It is not. Security in the region affects global security and the global economy, and the United States’ ability to lead regional security efforts over decades has advanced U.S. interests the Gulf and around the globe. One can make a reasonable argument that, over time, other countries should take the lead for some security responses, and the U.S. role should shift. Yet, doing so suddenly at a time of rising tensions invites chaos, torpedoes U.S. influence, and advances the interests of U.S. adversaries. The immediate task is to work in solidarity with others, and the longer-term task is to thrust more responsibility on them. The administration’s approach has the order of operations reversed, and doing so undermines both objectives.