Is the Obama administration building up for a major war against Iran? No.
The administration appears to be doing what it thinks will avert one. Military force is playing a quiet and relatively minor role. There has been more “messaging” about force in the last few weeks than actual force activity. The administration is also trying to discourage Israel from mounting an independent strike on Iran, by frequently advertising US concerns about that possibility. Presumably the White House knows that this particular messaging campaign serves to keep Iran alerted. Ultimately, there is more talk than anything else. Military preparations, such as they are, are defensive in nature. That includes the acceleration of missile-defense sales to the Persian Gulf nations.
Consider last week’s disclosures about the number of US troops in Kuwait and the announcement that a “second” carrier strike group had arrived in the Central Command (CENTCOM) theater. News outlets across the nation reported these bits of information as evidence that the US is “boosting” our military presence in the Persian Gulf. The direct implication is that we are doing this not only because of the Iranian threat but because of a concern in the White House that Israel will conduct a strike on her own (which would produce a backlash from Iran).
But we are not “boosting” our troop presence in the Gulf. We decided last year to keep some of the troops coming out of Iraq in Kuwait, as a ready force to deal with contingencies. As far as I can tell, the US administration has not explicitly implied in the last few days that the troops were “dispatched” to Kuwait, as if they had just recently deployed from North America. But numerous news outlets are reporting the developments in exactly those terms.
The force of about 15,000 includes two Army brigade combat teams (BCTs) and a combat air (helicopter) brigade, all of which deployed in 2011 prior to the withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq. We haven’t “boosted” our ground-force presence in the Persian Gulf; we have drawn it down a little less than originally advertised. The forces in Kuwait are insufficient to mount an attack with; they might be used instead to help defend Gulf nations if Iran retaliated against sanctions or other Western actions with regional attacks. (The original premise was being able to go back into Iraq for security operations.)
The carrier strike group situation, meanwhile, will prove out in the coming days; we may have decided to keep two strike groups on station instead of one. One of two carriers that are currently outside the Persian Gulf – USS John C Stennis (CVN-74), which has been on station and is due to go home to the West coast, and USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70), which has just arrived from San Diego – will probably leave shortly. A third carrier strike group, that of USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72), is reportedly headed for the theater from its last port visit in Thailand, which may mean that two carriers will be within a 1-3 day transit of the Persian Gulf, even if both are not operating there continuously.
It has been far from unusual to have two carriers in CENTCOM over the past decade. Even Pat Buchanan seems to have given up thinking it’s a harbinger of an ill-advised attack on Iran. Two carriers are, in fact, insufficient to launch a deliberate attack on Iran – like the ground forces being retained in Kuwait. The presence of two carriers in the theater for an extended period is evidence of a marginally heightened defensive profile. (It also gives the president the flexibility to send one on a dash to the Eastern Mediterranean if necessary, while keeping one on station in Southwest Asia.) The two carriers are not a signal that we are going on offense.
Notably, if we did need to apply significant force in the Eastern Med, we’d have to send assets there. The Russians have the only aircraft carrier task force deployed in EASTMED. The US has not maintained a robust carrier presence in the Med for some years now. (Interestingly, Britain and France are planning to jointly deploy a large naval force – including aircraft carriers – to the Med later this year.)
Meanwhile, another media narrative, about the US sending a signal of support to Israel (and pressure against Iran) at a crucial time, has just fallen apart.
The US and Israel were set to hold exercise Austere Challenge 2012 in May, followed by Exercise Juniper Cobra 2012, a missile/air-defense exercise that would place the Theater High-Altitude Defense (THAAD) system in a “defense against Iranian missiles” scenario.
The Juniper Cobra series started in 2001, and in 2009 brought the THAAD system into Israel also. Austere Challenge is a US European Command (EUCOM) exercise series in which the command headquarters practices operating as a joint task force HQ, commanding participants among the US forces stationed or deployed in the EUCOM theater. US reserve forces regularly deploy to Europe for the exercise, and in 2011, the US Sixth Fleet flagship, USS Mount Whitney, participated as a HQ afloat, concluding the exercise with a port visit in Haifa.
The US and Israel were planning a large-scale combination of these exercises in April-May 2012. But reporting in the last 24 hours indicates that the exercises will not take place then. Turkish press, quoting Israeli reporting, says that the exercises have been postponed until later in the year. But the most recent Israeli reporting suggests the exercises have been cancelled (with budget concerns cited as the reason).
Postponement – probably to an as-yet unspecified date – is more likely. The US gets as much out of these exercises as Israel, and has been focusing on Juniper Cobra 2012 for validating missile-defense systems and operational concepts that cannot be effectively exercised elsewhere. (UPDATE: the latest from the Jerusalem Post confirms that the exercises will be held later in 2012.)
But the political signal is the opposite of the one originally talked up in the infosphere. Rather than intending to send a signal about US support for Israel, one that would put pressure on Iran, the administration is, at the very least, not concerned that canceling or delaying the exercises will inevitably send a very different signal.
I’m sure the Obama administration would characterize its political posture as one of concern that holding these exercises on schedule would be seen as provocative in an already unsettled situation. The unspoken premise is, of course, that demonstrating US-Israeli collaboration in missile defense and military operations is provocative.
And from the perspective of Tehran, and no doubt Damascus, it presumably is. Well-intentioned people can argue honestly over whether it is a good idea to let policy decisions be governed by what our opponents consider provocative. “Provocative” is always the flip side of “deterrent”; the question is whether, in a given situation, one thinks like a global leader determined to deter, or like a nation that hopes to avoid the need for exertion.
Regardless, it cannot be argued that the Obama posture is anything other than defensive. Equally defensive is the administration’s emphasis on supplying Gulf nations with air- and missile-defense systems. These systems are of obvious interest to Iran’s neighbors, but they cannot prevent Iran from launching attacks – of any kind. They are purely passive, entailing no preemption or active deterrence.
It has been a mistake at every turn to look for evidence of the conventional use of US power in the actions of the Obama administration. The operations in Libya demonstrated clearly that Team Obama is determined not to use US military power to secure transformative outcomes rapidly. Obama is prepared to let conflicts continue as long as they must in order that the outcomes be achieved by other means. His solicitude for missile defenses in the Gulf and in Israel is a signal that he expects to approach Iran on defense. Our overall military posture in the Gulf simply reinforces that approach.