[Note: the ancient system I am using failed to keep the hyperlinks in the pasting process for posting this piece. To see the links, please visit the same post at Hot Air/Green Room. My apologies for all ugliness in the text.]
First, the admin. I appear to be experiencing the “System Check” malware on my primary (fast) computer, and can therefore not, at the moment, publish the better, in-depth post I was planning to prepare over the last couple of days. A system diagnostic is running to verify that the problems being reported by the “System Check” dialogue box are not actually there. The procedure to remove the malware looks like it will take some time. So, unfleshed-out comments only, for now.
The Iranian regime is posturing for the region. The Iranians do intend to affect thinking in the US as well, but it is a mistake to suppose that we are dealing with a dyad here: Iran and the US locked on each other in a vacuum in which all other assumptions are static or “given.”
If that were the case, the Iranian threats to the Strait of Hormuz (SOH) might be considered foolish or pathetic. US power is fully sufficient to put down an Iranian attempt on the SOH – if it is used decisively. It may not be. The US is not, in fact, rushing aircraft carriers to the SOH; the recent passage of the USS John C Stennis (CVN-74) through the SOH, commemorated with footage from an Iranian surveillance plane (apparently a Fokker F-27), was an exit from the Persian Gulf; and US officials weren’t kidding when they said it was a routine transit, and that Stennis was headed for already scheduled operations.
The US Navy has enough carriers in a ready status to pry the SOH open if Iran tries to close it with force, but those carriers are not in the theater. Stennis is the only one on station. The potential exists for three already-deployed carriers to be in the CENTCOM theater within a couple of weeks: Stennis could still be there (unless she has started a return transit to the US West coast); USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) is heading that way, on a deployment that will end with her shifting home ports from Washington to Virginia; and USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) is in the Southeast Asia region, also scheduled to operate in the CENTCOM area (and, from a continuous-presence scheduling standpoint, the “relief” for Stennis).
President Obama has yet to rush an aircraft carrier to the scene of unrest or threats (Debka is uniformly wrong on this), and it does not appear that he is doing so here. It is important to note that in this case, that restraint amounts to more than a laconic political signal. It is also a strategic decision not to guarantee freedom of action for the US in responding to Iranian provocations, at least not on a rapid timeline. We still have land-based air forces in the Persian Gulf, which would ideally be available for any campaign to open and secure the SOH. But with the drawdown in Iraq, the numbers have dwindled (our principal concentration of air assets is at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar).
More important, however, is the question of whether the local nations would allow us to use their territory as a base for the operations we might deem necessary. I wrote a year ago about the declining willingness of the Gulf nations to host US military operations that could involve attacks on Iran – and forcing open the SOH inevitably would. The Gulf nations would undoubtedly be in favor of ensuring the SOH was open and safe, but it is not clear today that they would be prepared to accept a US plan that involved attacks on Iran. We would need cooperation from Oman and UAE at the very least, because their territory, and air and seaspace, are so close to Iran and so greatly affected by Iran.
The day may not be far off when the pipeline across Oman to bypass the SOH will allow oil, at least, to flow out of the Gulf even if the SOH is under threat. Unless the US shows a determination to restore the status quo ante – a safe, open SOH, guaranteed by US power – the Gulf nations are more and more likely to simply accept the need to revise their security thinking and make new arrangements. Much oil could reach the world market by going across Saudi Arabia to the Red Sea as well. The local nations would adjust if they saw a need to. But the strategic position of the United States would be changed for the worse, and in a way that could not be reversed without much greater military inconvenience.
Iran doesn’t actually want to close the SOH; Iran wants to influence the calculations of the region by threatening to close the SOH. It’s a method of peeling partners off from the United States – little by little, and codicil by codicil in terms of our agreements with the nations of the region.
Why would regional nations think the US might not be prepared to restore the status quo ante? The most important reason by far is the growing perception that Obama does not operate on the basis of traditional US security assumptions (and, for that matter, moral philosophy). A report from the Indian newspaper The Hindu last week indicated that the Obama administration had solicited the offices of Muslim Brotherhood leader Yusuf al-Qaradawi to broker an agreement with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Andrew McCarthy has a good summary of Qaradawi’s numerous philosophical enormities; there are all kinds of reasons why the US should not deal with him at all, starting with the fact that he was placed on the terror watch list in 1999.
But the narrow American perception of his association with Islamist extremism is only one aspect of the problem. Equally important is the signal it sends about the US posture in Asia if our administration is seeking the negotiation support of someone like Qaradawi. Russia thinks it’s idiotic, for example, and – given that Afghanistan is in Russia’s back yard – has good reason to find it alarming. The problem of Islamist insurgency that torments Russia’s southern border would only be worsened by an Islamist triumph in Afghanistan, which, to all appearances, would have the imprimatur of the United States.
India and Iran are also worried about the US romance with the Taliban. Irresponsible policy from the US – and throwing in with Qaradawi is toweringly irresponsible – drives the nations of Asia to make common cause with each other. Each for her own reason, none of Iran, India, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, or even Pakistan wants Yusuf al-Qaradawi to be making speeches from Kabul arm-in-arm with the Taliban. From the Asians’ perception, what is setting their security assumptions in flux around them is as much the off-the-wall policies of the US administration as it is anything else. And that means that we are not a reassuring constant in the environment of their security problems – we are an unpredictable variable that may increase them.
One nation that is apparently not worried about the trend of our policies Is Qatar. Qaradawi, born in Egypt, lives and operates out of Qatar (he has a large Islamic center there), and the US has quietly encouraged Qatar’s growing involvement in regional issues, from the air action over Libya in 2011 to the security problems of Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, and the issue of the Palestinian Arabs. Al Jazeera, of course, also operates out of Qatar. In contemplating the release of Taliban leaders held at Guantanamo, as part of a negotiated deal with the Taliban, the Obama administration reportedly proposed releasing at least one to Qatar. (The Taliban rejected that idea categorically. They want Taliban leaders released to Afghanistan.)
It is not a random choice for Qatar to host negotiations with the Taliban. The Obama administration has invested diplomatically in Qatar, turning what started under Bush II as a deepened security partnership into a kind of client (US)-agent (Qatar) relationship. Such a relationship can flourish under some conditions, but if The Hindu’s report about our use of Qaradawi is correct, accepting Qatar’s services and advice as an agent has gone dangerously off the rails. There is no aspect of US security that can possibly be strengthened by resorting to a liaison with Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Indeed, the converse is the case: the boost he can get from becoming, effectively, a front for the operation of US power, erodes the conditions of US security.
As it does everyone else’s. The world’s nations are under no illusion that the Obama administration is behaving with circumspection or sound judgment. Having celebrated our exit from a still-iffy Iraq, Team Obama is pooh-poohing the provocations from Iran – as if the American people and the world were looking for an intelligence assessment, as opposed to reassurance about US policy – and is apparently looking in the most unwise, unsavory places for a quick way to get out of Afghanistan.
If that is not what Team Obama is doing, a policy speech could certainly help to clear that up. The administration goes way overboard in “not overreacting” to events abroad. It hardly constitutes overreacting to publicly, officially clarify US interests and US policy, rather than leaving these quantities to be divined from media revelations about unannounced diplomatic activities. The most important element of diplomacy and security maintenance is not one’s plans, conferences, or military movements; the most important element is one’s overt posture, as expressed through public statements, and as validated by the other aspects of diplomacy.
Obama has simply not established an overt posture. The Middle East is starting to look very different, largely because the US has not confirmed our interest in the agreements, borders, and conventions that have underpinned its security since World War II. We have instead put our power in the service of a mishmash of ideological concepts, crony-commercial interests, and the individual visions of favored foreign associates, like Erdogan in Turkey – and now, apparently, Qaradawi and the maneuvering leadership of Qatar. We have, in fact, started behaving like Russia or China, with all the cynicism but none of the predictable consistency.
It will not be very much longer before the situation in the region has gone so much up for grabs that the nations with a security interest there will simply begin making their own arrangements. Those arrangements may spark conflict, intervention by other actors, and an increase in threats to our allies on either end of the Eastern hemisphere’s great land mass. One of the purposes in all this will be to squeeze the US out of the region; another will be to dupe and exploit us wherever possible.
If we are not resolving those threats on terms favorable to the US, their impact on our alliances and our economic security will be felt much sooner than many might think.
J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air’s Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,” Patheos, and The Weekly Standard online. Her blog is The Optimistic Conservative.