The man with the plan

All that was old is new again with the potential re-emergence of the US’ Cold War strategy of “offshore balancing”
Commentator and counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen is always worth reading. Here is his latest piece  for The Australian on this subject.
It is a well-tried and well-documented strategy whereby an offshore power counters a rival by backing opposing coalitions in a region of ­strategic competition, supporting local allies indirectly (with weapons, money, advisers intelligence or diplomatic cover), and using proxy military muscle, regular and irregular, to prevent any one rival dominating the region.

Maritime powers (including Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the US for much of its history until 1945) historically used offshore balancing to counter land-based rivals while lowering their own costs and avoiding ­decisive commitment. To succeed, the offshore power does not need to control a region itself, merely to prevent a rival doing so. As such, this is a low-cost approach — something military planners call an “economy of effort” strategy — that reduces exposure and preserves freedom of action.

This comes in the wake of hugely expensive and largely unsuccessful efforts by the US to dominate a region directly through direct military intervention – and subsequent entanglement that left it ‘neck deep in the big muddy’ to quote political activist and balladeer Pete Seeger. It was a maximalist approach that had ad­verse consequences in terms of lives lost, funds wasted, credibility eroded and loss of freedom of ­action (particularly after 9/11, as the US became bogged down in self-inflicted wars of ­occupation).

But, offshore balancing requires a cool nerves, a steady hand and deft footwork.

Bad timing and miscalculation can increase the risk of wars that the US neither wants or is prepared for. And in inexperienced, needful, and impetuous hands, it could render the US vulnerable to being played by its partners. Kilcullen notes that a body of opinion in the US intelligence community,  and also, within Israeli intelligence,  holds that the threat from Iran has been overstated, that Iran’s ability to dominate the so-called “land bridge” from Afghanistan to the Golan Heights is overblown, and that no regime in Tehran would be suicidal enough to consider a nuclear strike on Israel, Saudi Arabia or any of its other regional rivals.

But it would appear that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Saudi crown prince Muhammed bib Salem have successfully sold Donald Trump on their expansive vision of the Iranian threat, creating the possibility that Washington may be manipulated into decisions that run counter to its own wider interests.

Moreover, with regard to US foreign policy generally, one size does not necessarily fit all. Taking a strategy like offshore balancing, however successful it might prove to be in the Middle East, and blindly applying it on the Korean peninsula, to Russia or China  where conditions are dramatically different, would be full of risk.

Read on…

Donald Trump: The man with the plan

David Kilcullen, Contributing Editor for Military Affairs, The Australian, May

Donald Trump welcomes home three Americans released by North Korea. Picture: AFP
         Donald Trump welcomes home three Americans released by North Korea. Picture: AFP

    This week, as Donald Trump announced his decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and start reimposing sanctions on ­Teh­ran, a chorus of condemnation broke out on both sides of the Atlantic. European politicians condemned the decision and began working on ways to keep Iran in the deal, while in the US former secretary of state John Kerry engaged in last-minute direct negotiations with Iranian leaders.

    Fred Kaplan of Slate penned a piece that was typical of the mainstream media reaction, arguing that Trump withdrew “because of spite, ignorance, or both”.

    There is no doubt that the US President’s decision reflected animus toward his predecessor’s signature achievement in foreign policy. It also highlighted president Barack Obama’s self-­inflicted vulnerability over the deal, which he approved personally as an executive agreement rather than submitting it to the US Senate for formal ratification as a treaty. His administration also voted for a UN resolution lifting sanctions on Iran before congress had properly begun its review of the agreement. These ­decisions, over near-un­animous Republican opposition, made the deal a bone of partisan contention from the outset, a pro­blem Obama’s staff exacerbated through a manipulative media campaign that drew harsh criticism when disclosed in 2016. All this made it easier for Trump to leave the deal with just a stroke of the pen.

    Yet there’s reason to believe Trump may be acting from more than political spite. Indeed, it’s possible we might be witnessing the early signs of a new approach with the potential to transform America’s overseas military posture, though also carrying enhanced risk of war and other unintended consequences. The new approach may signal the re-emergence of Washington’s former strategy of working through regional coalitions to counter rivals in the ­Middle East, thereby enabling US military disengagement from the post-9/11 wars.

    The decision to dump the deal is far from the only indicator. Other recent signs include statements by Trump to the effect that he seeks to withdraw from Syria while sponsoring an Arab coalition to prevent the re-emergence of Islamic State. Under this scheme, Washington would support allies (including, potentially, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as a coalition of local Kurdish militias) but end combat troop deployments.

    Last month’s coalition strike on Syria sent a similar message in that it avoided targeting the Assad regime’s leadership or Russian and Iranian assets in Syria. It was also accompanied by clear statements that the US did not seek regime change — effectively acquiescing in Bashar al-Assad’s victory, moving away from Obama’s goal of regime change and further disen­gaging from involvement in the Syrian conflict.

    Iranians burn US flags and makeshift Israeli flags in Tehran. Picture: AFP
                         Iranians burn US flags and makeshift Israeli flags in Tehran. Picture: AFP

    Alongside an Arab coalition, ­Israel seems ready to step into any gap created by US withdrawal, while cheering Trump’s decision to exit the Iran deal. Indeed, an undeclared low-level air battle has been going on between Israel, Hezbollah and Iranian forces in Syria since February. Israel decided to retain its advanced fighter aircraft in-country rather than send them to a scheduled exercise in Alaska last month and this week it raised military forces to their highest alert level, called up air defence and intelligence reservists, and opened air-raid and missile shelters for Israelis living within range of the Syrian border. If anything, Israel’s willingness to directly engage Iranian and Iranian-backed forces in Syria has only increased after since Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal.

    At the same time, statements by Saudi Arabia and the UAE indicate that the Sunni monarchies and their Gulf allies would consider participating in an Arab stabilisation force in Syria. Saudi leaders also have expressed a willingness to participate in strikes within Syria (making Saudi Arabia a de facto coalition partner with Israel, a tricky political position for Saudi leaders).

    Overtures by the US towards Egypt suggest Washington also is seeking ­Egyptian support for the same Arab coalition.

    All this may be evidence of an emerging post-deal strategy, whereby the US works through ­Israel and Arab partners in the region to weaken and contain Iran. For political reasons, Israeli and Arab components would operate separately, but Washington would co-ordinate with each and support both to prevent the re-emergence of Islamic State while containing and undermining Iran, ­Hezbollah and Russia (with the emphasis very much on Iran).

    As part of this strategy, US ­forces may launch periodic operations (missile and drone strikes, air raids or special forces operations) to preserve their preferred balance but would avoid protracted commitments, and troop numbers in Iraq and Syria would be drawn down. Washington would operate with allied support where possible, but strike unilaterally if needed.

    Provided Turkey can agree on a ­demarcation line with US-backed Kurdish groups — probably somewhere near the present line of control along the Euphrates river — the US also might support Turkey’s buffer zone in northern Syria. In that case Turkey, too, would play a role in containing Iran and preventing the re-­emergence of Islamic State — the two paramount US objectives.

    This approach, if it does emerge, would be a classic instance of offshore balancing, where an offshore power counters a rival by backing opposing coalitions in a region of ­stra­tegic competition, supporting local allies indirectly (with weapons, money, advisers intelligence or diplomatic cover) to prevent any one rival dominating the region.

    Maritime powers (including Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the US for much of its history until 1945) historically used offshore balancing to counter land-based rivals while lowering their own costs and avoiding ­decisive commitment. To succeed, the offshore power does not need to control a region itself, merely to prevent a rival doing so. As such, this is a low-cost approach — something military planners call an “economy of effort” strategy — that reduces exposure and preserves freedom of action.

    One of the strategy’s key attractions would be that it might restore a critical strategic distinc­tion: the difference between hugely expensive (and largely unsuccessful) efforts to dominate a region directly, and the far cheaper and more achievable goal of merely preventing a rival doing so.

    In the post-Cold War era of liberal and neo-conservative interventionism, US leaders often con­flated the two, as if preventing a hostile power from dominating a region necessarily implied dominating it themselves.

    This maximalist approach had obvious ad­verse consequences in terms of lives lost, funds wasted, credibility eroded and loss of freedom of ­action (particularly after 9/11, as the US became bogged down in self-inflicted wars of ­occupation).

    Trump has been railing against these overseas commitments for years. Indeed, one of his themes on the campaign trail was the need to get out of overseas commitments, bring troops home, force allies to commit their own resources to their defence, cease putting American lives at risk to provide security guarantees for countries (in Europe, Asia or the Middle East) that were unwilling to pay their fair share, and stop spending money on nation-building that would be better used at home.

    An offshore-balancing strategy offers a way to do this while still acting tough and reserving the right to intervene unilaterally (another key Trump theme).

    Offshore balancing does not preclude periodic interventions to restore a favourable balance of power in a given region, but it does tend to rule out long-term occupation or decisive commitments of the post-9/11 kind. It also implies holding military power back, over the horizon or outside the region, rather than establishing permanent bases.

    As such, naval forces (including warships, expeditionary marine units, carrier-based aircraft and submarines) are the key assets needed for such a strategy — and for now, at least, the US leads the world in these capabilities, giving it a comparative advantage.

    The strategy’s other key benefit is its low cost and ability to preserve (or, in this case, restore) strategic freedom of action. Its disadvantage is that interventions, when they do occur, can be extremely costly.

    Britain’s approach to Europe from the 1680s to 1945 — periodic interventions to prevent any one power dominating the continent but reluctance to create permanent alliances or bases — is one ­example of offshore balancing. Another was the US strategy for the Middle East from just before the end of World War II (when Washington first became concerned about the strategic centrality of the region) until the Gulf war in 1991.

    From 1944 to 1992, despite periodic interventions (a CIA-backed coup in Iran in 1953, brief engagements in Lebanon in 1958 and 1983, bombing Libya in 1986) the US generally kept its military out of the region, preferring to counter Soviet influence through partners such as Israel, Turkey, the Arab monarchies, the Afghan mujaheddin in the 1980s and, until 1979, the shah of Iran.

    After 1991, everything changed: permanent US bases in Saudi Arabia (plus no-fly zones over Iraq, and the Clinton administration’s policy of “dual containment” towards Iraq and Iran) committed the US directly to the Middle East. US bases in Saudi Arabia, in particular, created intense grievances that led in part to the 9/11 attacks. After 2003, the Iraq war mired Americans in a full-scale military occupation. Successive presidents have sought to extricate themselves, but to little avail, proving what advocates of offshore balancing long have argued: hard though it is to avoid being dragged into permanent commitments, it’s far harder to ­extract yourself once committed.

    It’s unclear whether Trump knows any of this history; Harvard international relations professor Stephen Walt argued last month on Foreign Policy’s website that he probably does not.

    This may not matter, though, since offshore ­balancing so closely aligns with Trump’s instinctive preferences. Despite his surface volatility, Trump consistently follows certain patterns of strategic behaviour. His two main (and apparently contradictory) urges — the desire to appear strong, while disengaging from post-9/11 commitments in the Middle East and lopsided (“unfair”) treaty arrangements in Europe and Asia — would be well served by an offshore-balancing strategy, so he may consistently follow it, consciously or otherwise.

    A more serious criticism, from the few analysts who have yet commented on the emerging strategy, is that Trump is too mercurial and strategically illiterate, and his administration too incoherent, to enact this kind of strategy. These criticisms, too, are overblown. The sacking of secretary of state Rex Tillerson and national security adviser HR McMaster in March has removed competing power centres in US foreign policy, while former CIA director Mike Pompeo (Tillerson’s replacement as Secretary of State), and Defence Secretary James Mattis appear more than capable of executing an offshore balancing strategy.

    New national security adviser John Bolton is from the neo-conservative tradition that led directly to the post-9/11 wars of occupation and to the invasion of Iraq, and he will have to modify his views to be able to support this kind of strategy. Likewise, independent-minded UN ambassador Nikki Haley will need to collaborate more closely with the State Department and the White House than she has done to date.

    But neither Bolton nor Haley are likely to oppose the strategy if it appears to be succeeding.

    If it does succeed — a big if — offshore balancing may become a de facto Trump doctrine to be applied elsewhere. Opportunities to apply it include the Korean peninsula, where Trump seems willing to agree to partial US withdrawal and a permanent peace treaty in return for North Korean denuclearisation and enhanced sponsorship of Japan and South Korea to balance China.

    Another possible opportunity is eastern Europe, where Washington may continue arming Ukraine, and support the Baltics and Scandinavia to balance Russia while stepping back from permanent NATO commitments (or making them more conditional on European ­defence spending.)

    Africa, where efforts to work through regional coalitions against terrorists are already well advanced, naturally lends itself to this strategy, which could be further enhanced through France and its G5 Sahel regional coalition, which is already operating against Islamic State in northwest Africa.

    Likewise, in Southeast Asia, enhanced support for Vietnam and The Philippines may combine with existing US relationships with Australia, India and Japan to balance China.

    Whatever its possibilities, offshore balancing does carry significant risks. The most important is proxy conflict, which can spiral out of control when more than one external power backs local actors, drawing them into confrontation. This risk is severe in the Middle East, where Iran and Russia are sponsoring their own proxies. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are already fighting a proxy war against Iran and its Houthi allies in Yemen, from where conflict is spilling into the Horn of Africa and bringing missile strikes to the heart of Saudi Arabia (most recently, this past week after the nuclear deal announcement).

    Internal conflict in Saudi Arabia is also a risk: a recent incident where a drone flew into the royal compound in Riyadh triggered a coup scare and highlighted nervousness within the Saudi royal family about opposition towards Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms. Co-operation between Saudi and Israeli forces (even tacit) would be highly controversial within Saudi Arabia and could prompt sharply increased internal unrest.

    For its part, given this week’s series of strikes and the ongoing air campaign, Israel appears to be posturing for imminent war against Hezbollah and Iranian-backed forces in Syria, and possibly Lebanon too. This could draw Israel into more direct conflict with Iran — indeed, one possibility here is that Israel is deliberately escalating conflict with Iran in order to increase its leverage in post-nuclear-deal Washington.

    In the same region, a US exit from Syria (a key element of a balancing approach) would remove deterrents on Turkey’s ability to attack Kurdish groups, heightening conflict risk between Ankara and the Kurds.

    Besides enhanced war risk, the other important concern of an ­offshore-balancing strategy is that it leaves Washington vulnerable to being played by its partners. A body of opinion in the US intelligence community (and also, ironically, within Israeli intelligence) holds that the threat from Iran has been overstated, Iran’s ability to dominate the so-called “land bridge” from Afghanistan to the Golan Heights is overblown, and no regime in Tehran would be suicidal enough to consider a nuclear strike on Israel, Saudi Arabia or any of its other regional rivals.

    But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Saudi crown prince seem to have successfully sold Trump on their expansive vision of the Iranian threat, creating the possibility that Washington may be manipulated into decisions that run counter to its own wider interests.

    Likewise, taking a strategy such as offshore balancing, however successful it might prove to be in the Middle East, and blindly applying it on the Korean peninsula or in Europe, where conditions are dramatically different, would be full of risk.

    Still, despite the ongoing condemnation from the policy establishment and allies alike, Trump’s decision to exit the Iran deal may indicate something deeper than mere ill-informed petulance — and if a strategy of offshore balancing does emerge, it just may point the way to disengagement from the post-9/11 wars, a goal that every president since 2001 (including George W. Bush himself, since about five minutes after his “mission accomplished” speech in May 2003) has sought but failed to achieve.

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