The Trump administration’s decision to kill Qassam Soleimani is the latest in an escalatory “maximum pressure” Iran strategy that is shifting American foreign policy attention and resources back toward the Middle East. That’s a problem.
Nothing for a global superpower occurs in isolation. Killing the leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, while morally justifiable and emotionally satisfying to us, given his role in killing Americans, has dropped a 2,000-lb bomb into the administration’s foreign policy priorities — and the blast could hurt America’s readiness to deal with greater threats.
The Trump administration believes that the primary challenges to U.S. security and prosperity are competition and potential conflict with China and Russia. The White House’s 2018 National Security Strategy and the Pentagon’s supporting 2018 National Defense Strategy stress this and declare an intention to shift the U.S. military away from the Middle East. Reasonable people might disagree as to the president’s personal commitment to the particulars of these strategies, but he has been consistent about expressing his desire to end “forever wars” and pushing back harder against China.
Trump’s team is not the first to try this. Previous administrations have shifted U.S. forces away from the Middle East and Afghanistan, only to send them back. This administration is falling into the same trap, increasing its deployment of assets and personnel to the Middle East over the past year in an effort to deter Iran. Even as the president publicly declares a desire to deescalate and negotiate with Iran, the administration is increasing sanctions and sending thousands of additional U.S. troops to the region.
Publicly announced movements reveal a major swing of forces. Between May and October, the Defense Department deployed about 14,000 more troops to the Persian Gulf region. Immediately after the Soleimani strike, DOD shifted an additional 4,500 troops to the region. These 18,500 personnel represent an almost 30 percent increase over the roughly 60,000 U.S. forces in U.S. Central Command. The Pentagon also moved hardware and assets to the region, including an aircraft carrier strike group, B-52 bombers, early-warning aircraft, maritime patrol planes, MQ-9 Reaper drones, and Patriot missile defense batteries.
Sending back the Patriots perfectly captures the whip-sawing nature of the administration’s policy. In 2018, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis pulled four batteries out of the region to better align U.S. force posture with the priorities of the NDS. After Iran’s September attacks on two Saudi oil facilities, the Pentagon sent two of them back to Saudi Arabia.
None of this appears to be working. Despite the additional forces, Iranian-sourced provocations have continued and escalated. The Iranians or their proxies have attacked oil tankers, a U.S. drone, a critical Saudi refinery, and in December an Iraqi military base, killing an American contractor. After Soleimani’s killing this month, Iran launched missile strikes at two military bases in Iraq.
Adding conventional forces to the region will not alter the calculus of an adversary whose strategy is to provoke and exhaust the United States and our allies and partners while avoiding all-out conflict. Even when surrounded by 150,000 to 200,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq between 2004 and 2011, Iran continued to pursue nuclear weapons and kill Americans in Iraq with explosively formed penetrators.
More worrying, the Trump administration’s lurching from crisis to crisis has consequences for America’s readiness to deal with great-power competition and other threats. In the short term, it has derailed the campaign to defeat ISIS, degrade regional terrorist threats, and shift the burden of dealing with them to local security forces. Over the long term, the larger concern is the ability of the Defense Department to deal with China and Russia.
The NDS, like any actual strategy, demands prioritization and discipline. Absent a decrease in commitments elsewhere, additional deployments to the Gulf will erode the readiness that the Pentagon has rebuilt since 2016. Increasing operations and maintenance spending can halt this erosion, but it will eat into other priorities, particularly research and development and procurement of new weapons systems, as has been the norm in the post-9/11 era.
Escalating tensions with Iran signals that China and Russia are the priority on paper, but Iran is the real-world priority (tomorrow it might be North Korea again, or Venezuela). This mixed message may make the armed services hedge on their China- and Russia-focused modernization programs. They might ask why they should endure the difficulty of reform and make big bets on future programs only to fight in the Middle East again.
States in Europe and Asia must observe the situation in the Middle East and doubt the seriousness of our commitment to their regions. Allies and partners may begin to hedge their bets out of fear that the United States will get distracted by — or cause — the next crisis in the Middle East. Neutral states will likely avoid our overtures or shift closer to China or Russia. One can only imagine how India, which is a pillar of the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy and closely tied to Iran, looks at this crisis.
For their part, China and Russia are likely celebrating the fact that, after two years during which the United States finally appeared serious about taking them on, U.S. foreign policy is again getting bogged down in the Gulf.
This doesn’t have to be the case. Trump’s instinct is to avoid another war and reduce the U.S. presence in the Middle East. Rather than repeating a failed strategy of using conventional forces to deter Iran from provocations and coerce Iran to change its behavior, the United States should pursue a measured course that seeks attainable policy goals (i.e., not regime change or full “normalization” of the Islamic Republic) using a minimal but capable deterrent military presence alongside our allies and partners, more aggressive covert and proxy actions, continued economic sanctions, and the possibility of real, meaningful negotiation. It is a more sustainable and affordable approach that would allow the administration to avoid being sucked into another “forever war” while remaining tough on Iran and allowing the commander in chief to fill his favored role as negotiator-in-chief.