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Constructing a New Middle East: In Pursuit of an American-Led Regional Security Architecture

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On Jan. 19, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan traveled to Israel for his first meeting with Israel’s new government. While Iran policy likely featured prominently in Sullivan’s discussions with returning Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is perhaps the world’s most hostile and outspoken critic of the Iran nuclear deal, Sullivan had an opportunity to advance another policy of quintessential strategic concern to America: developing an integrated regional security architecture.

For decades, U.S. Middle East policy has been defined by the outsized, persistent presence of U.S. troops. First, they were there to fight Baathists in Iraq. Then, the violent extremists of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. And finally, to assure twitchy partners who feared what Iran might do if the U.S. military left. Year in, and year out, U.S. forces have rotated in and out of the region—and, of course, some never came home. Others came home with wounds both visible and not. This policy of presence had a human cost, and a pecuniary cost that can be measured in trillions of dollars. The opportunity cost of both is likely unquantifiable.

Over the course of years, many things changed slowly, as if the tectonic plates were shifting under the very feet of U.S. troops. Now, two years into the Biden administration, Sullivan has an opportunity to redefine the U.S. military’s future presence and role in the Middle East. 

The steady and gradual alignment of Israeli and Gulf Arab interests culminated publicly in the 2020 Abraham Accords, the agreement that normalized relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain. Since the deal’s signing, the economic benefits for Israel and its newfound partners have materialized at remarkable speed. According to Israel’s ambassador to the UAE, the two nations conducted trade worth in excess of $2 billion in the past year. Since the signing of the accords just two years ago, the UAE has jumped ahead of 110 countries to become Israel’s 16th largest trading partner.

While the UAE has wasted no time in building on the Abraham Accords, it has not been alone. Israel and Bahrain have entered the final stages of negotiation on a free trade agreement, which is likely to be completed in the coming weeks. Israel-Bahrain trade is forecast to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Surely, the economic windfall alone of warming one’s nation’s relations with the “Start-Up Nation” has caused other regional fence-sitters to take pause. Countries that might never have countenanced acknowledging the “Zionist entity” are likely taking a hard look at their interests and brainstorming their own paths to normalization with Israel. Some nations won’t tarry too long. As a new generation of more pragmatic, less ideologically restrained Arab leaders (and their constituents) ascend, relationships once figmental became implausible and, today, seem imminent.

While Israel’s normalization with its neighbors has already delivered economic fruits, the deliberate and complicated process of determining how these newfound partnerships might yield greater collective security continues. Already, we have seen examples of imminent threats moving security partnerships from paper to practice.

Following the Houthi ballistic missile and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) attacks on Abu Dhabi last January, the Emiratis made no secret of the fact in Washington that they were deeply underwhelmed by the Biden administration’s tepid show of support in response. While senior U.S. policymakers moved quickly to assuage Emirati regent Mohamed bin Zayed and his Washington emissary, the ubiquitous Yusuf Al Otaiba, what was reported then, but plainly visible now: The Emiratis were taking their security into their own hands by resolving to quickly mature their young partnership with Israel. Abu Dhabi moved hastily to capitalize on the greatest comparative technological advantage Israel has in the whole world: ballistic missile defense. Nine months after the Houthi attack, which is typically but a moment in foreign military sales-time, where deals can seemingly take epochs to complete, the Barak 8 missile defense system, a platform co-produced by Israel and India, appeared in the UAE. 

It is possible that the United States assisted in securing that deal. At the very least, Washington was likely kept apprised, as the U.S. military maintains a presence in the UAE, and the introduction of a new missile defense system would require significant deconfliction. The timing of President Biden’s trip to the region this past July suggests the administration may have had a proactive role in securing and speeding the deal. On that visit, Biden and the heads of government from the UAE, Israel, and India all met in the inaugural meeting of the “I2U2” group. While they ostensibly discussed new avenues of cooperation on clean energy and food security, it isn’t a stretch to imagine that they ironed out new agreements for multilateral security cooperation as well, which enabled the rapid deployment of the Israeli-Indian air defense system.

In the face of shared threats emanating from Iran, whether it be in the form of UAVs and ballistic missiles smuggled to Iranian proxies, the illegal detention of commercial vessels that undermines freedom of navigation in some of the world’s most essential commercial waterways, or cyberattacks powerful enough to hobble the public services of entire governments, it’s clear why Israel and the Gulf have embraced each other so enthusiastically. But regional security integration isn’t just a strategic benefit to Israel and its Arab neighbors—the effort is hugely consequential and essential to U.S. national security.

While U.S. engagement in the Middle East has for decades been defined by its steady and outsized military presence and posture in the region, a Biden administration National Defense Strategy that frames Russia as an “acute threat” and China as “the pacing challenge” necessarily requires the reconsideration of the U.S. military’s robust presence and posture throughout the Central Command area of responsibility. The United States has the opportunity to redefine its role in the region from “hulking hall monitor” to “nimble convener.” 

Simply put, the United States needs to reorient its military forces and national resources to focus on deterring Chinese expansion in the Indo-Pacific and blunting Russian aggression in Europe. To effectively pursue those objectives, something has to give. Ultimately, the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East, which was established to fight Iraqi Baathists decades ago and hasn’t evolved much since, is going to need to take a haircut. But how might one buy down the risk that comes from having fewer U.S. forces in the region? By building up the collective capabilities of America’s partners, and engaging them in a multilateral security architecture that draws on the unique comparative advantages of each partner, to result in a collective, stronger than the sum of its constituent parts. 

At the operational level, the Department of Defense has been leaning forward for some time, setting the conditions and preparing for regional integration. When U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) was first established in 1983, Egypt was the only Arab nation that had established relations with Israel. In 1994, Jordan followed suit. It was not until the signing of the Abraham Accords and the normalization of ties with Bahrain and the UAE that it became possible to consider Israel’s military integration into the regional military planning and multilateral coordination that occurs under the auspices of CENTCOM. In 2021, the Pentagon migrated Israel from European Command to CENTCOM. Moving Israel to the combatant command responsible for the Middle East made it possible to integrate Israel into U.S.-led military exercises with other regional partners, which commenced soon after. Israel’s movement to CENTCOM created a permanent channel through which Israel could regularly communicate and collaborate with Arab nations on a military-to-military level, in coordination with the U.S. military. 

Congress can often obstruct the executive branch’s foreign policy goals, but in this case, the legislative branch has already demonstrated it is a willing and able partner to this administration in building a multilateral security architecture in the Middle East. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023 that President Biden recently signed into law contains a provision that authorizes the secretary of defense to work with allies and partners in the Middle East to establish an integrated air and missile defense architecture, and this garnered broad bicameral and bipartisan support. The bill language also requires Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to produce a detailed strategy that outlines the threats posed by Iran’s ballistic missiles and UAVs and the Defense Department’s vision for constructing a regional security architecture that can collectively address the threat. If the Biden administration requires new legislative authorities or appropriations to undergird its efforts, it’s likely pushing on an open door.

Certainly, the Israelis will need to consider just how much of their technical defensive capabilities they want to share with Arab partners. Some of Israel’s key air defense platforms represent the Jewish state’s last line of defense against an Iranian ballistic missile, or in some cases, the only line of defense against a Hamas-launched barrage of rockets. The stakes are quite high, as Israel must first preserve and protect its technology, lest it leak and the Iranians exploit it to build more elusive missiles and drones. The solution might lay in the creation of new, jointly developed systems. Systems that may come with the signing of new bilateral agreements, like the one Israel and Bahrain signed last February. Or the one Israel signed with the UAE in November 2021.

From a macro policy perspective, the White House and Congress will need to collectively determine just how far they want to lean into the holistic concept of building up the military capabilities of the United States’ regional partners to offset the drawdown of U.S. military forces. Beyond the specific work required to build features like a regionally integrated air and missile defense, or a flatter, broader, more effective array of sensors to deliver better maritime domain awareness, it fundamentally means making the decision to support the sale of military hardware and training to Gulf Arab partner nations. That would require both the White House and key leaders in Congress to reevaluate policies that have increasingly sought to constrain military sales to historically reliable and eager Arab customers.

Former and present Israeli Prime Minister “Bibi” Netanyahu’s recent interview with Al Arabiya (Can we pause to reflect on the notion that an Israeli head of government was interviewed on Saudi broadcast news?) is the clearest, most public harbinger of the next major Middle Eastern watershed event: the thawing of Saudi-Israeli relations. However, Bibi did not stop there. In his interview, he indicated that he intended to tell President Biden to embrace Riyadh and to stabilize the U.S.-Saudi partnership, recognizing the kingdom’s critical role in regional security.

This truly is a new Middle East.

For policymakers in the administration and legislators in Congress, supporting the creation of a regional security architecture will require coming to terms with collaborating with Saudi Arabia—an issue that, of all people, Netanyahu plans to raise with President Biden. Relations between the White House and Mohammed bin Salman have been less than warm, and relations with Congress have been even worse. Washington has largely recoiled from Riyadh, at first due to the civilian casualty toll caused by the Saudi air campaign in Yemen and then due to the barbaric murder of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi—and, most recently, due to the decision to defy U.S. wishes and decrease oil production this past October.

Every Saudi affront (to either human rights or simple U.S. global interest) has been cause for U.S. leaders to seek to punish Saudi Arabia or reconsider selling another gun to the kingdom ever again. But Bibi has stumbled upon a cold, hard truth. If the United States wants to reduce its military commitment to the Middle East, it needs to fill the vacuum. To do that, it needs effective, capable, and interoperable military partners in the region. Simply put, as distasteful as it might be to many, Saudi Arabia is essential to the plan. In essence, the road to building a regional security architecture, to fulfilling the National Defense Strategy, runs through Riyadh.

Washington has a rare moment where policy and politics could align to build and ultimately achieve something of lasting strategic value that delivers better and more sustainable security outcomes in a region that innumerable pundits and politicians have compared to a quagmire or a blackhole. A Middle East security architecture that mixes the capacity and convening authority of the United States, the technological ingenuity of Israel, and the ambition and resources of the UAE, Bahrain, and likely other nations to follow, represents the best chance to enable policymakers to reorient the United States’ military capacity and capability to face the coming challenge of preserving the world’s rules-based order. At the same time, Americans might begin to harvest and enjoy the fruits of a Middle East that for decades has resisted paying a peace dividend for the multigenerational military commitment America has made. As the interests of the Gulf, Israel, and the United States continue to converge, that could change. It’s time to plan and prepare for, and ultimately welcome, a new Middle East.

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