RUSI NewsbriefVOLUME 127ISSUE 10

In Arms We Trust: US ‘Post-Iraq Strategy’ in the Making?

On 29 July 2007, the Bush Administration announced plans to provide an estimated $63 billion worth of advanced weaponry to several of its key allies in the Middle East.

On 29 July 2007, the Bush Administration announced plans to provide an estimated $63 billion worth of advanced weaponry to several of its key allies in the Middle East. On the receiving end of this US arms package are Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt and the countries of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) – the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman.

The underlining theory for the arms deal remains relatively simple: by transferring state-of-the-art weapons technology into the hands of governments ‘friendly’ to the United States (US), such allies will be in a better position – at least defensively – to counter the threats posed by ostensibly ‘unfriendly’ forces in the region. These forces include non-state actors, such as Al- Qa’ida and Hizbullah, and state actors like Syria and Iran.

In specific terms, the proposed arms plans involve the sale of up to $20 billion of hightech weaponry to Saudi Arabia and the other GCC countries. As a measure aimed at maintaining Israel’s ‘qualitative edge’ over its Arab neighbours, the US has indicated that it intends to offer an expanded package of security assistance (i.e., aid) to Israel worth nearly $30 billion over the next ten years, with an additional $13 billion to be delivered to Egypt over the coming decade.

What is perhaps most revealing, however, is not the actual hardware being provided, but rather the broader strategic objectives underlying the announcement of these arms packages. Specifically, the US-Gulf arms deal comes at a time when US power in the region is in marked decline as a result largely of events unfolding within Iraq – a reality that has been made only worse by Iran’s rising influence within that country and elsewhere in the Middle East.

As the prospect of a precipitate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq gains greater credence both within the official corridors of Washington and on the Arab streets, the US decision to supply its allies in the region with advanced weaponry may, in fact, presage the initial formations of what might be described as a ‘US post-Iraq strategy’ in the making. Perhaps most significant of all are indications that the proposed arms deals provide an initial window into what future US strategy in the Middle East may ultimately look like – that is, of course, should military and political progress in Iraq continue at its current glacial pace.

Opposition to the Arms Deal

With perhaps little surprise, the US decision to arm its allies in the region has been met with considerable comment and criticism – not just from domestic quarters but also throughout the wider Arab world. Bahrain’s daily Akhbar Al-Khaleej on 8 August declared that the US arms sales were an attempt by the Americans to foment crisis between the Gulf States and Iran, while the Kuwaiti weekly Al-Tali’a spoke out against the deal as an attempt by the US to not only grab Gulf capital, but also determine the enemy of the Gulf States without regard for local consultation.

Notwithstanding such criticisms, the fate of the proposal ultimately rests with the US Congress who, in September, will reconvene to debate the proposed arms deals. But while certain Congressman such as Democrat House Representative, Tom Lantos, have indicated that congressional approval would be conditioned upon assurances that the weapons transfers include only ‘defensive systems’ and not weaponry which Arab states could use to attack Israel, it appears unlikely according to recent polling that congressional opponents to the deal will be in a position to bring together the required majority in both houses of Congress to block the arms packages.

Nonetheless, as several pundits have pointed out, the arms transfers – at least in quantitative terms – do not represent a disproportionate increase in the usual flow of arms to the region. Multiple sources, for instance, indicate that in the last year alone, the six GCC states signed defence contracts totalling more than $20 billion, half of which came from American suppliers. Moreover, in the case of Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom is documented for having purchased nearly $40 billion-worth of US military technology from the period of 1990-2000.

No seismic shifts in the balance of power are thus expected as a result of the arms deals. And although Saudi Arabia is expected to receive Joint Direct Action Munition ( JDAM) bombs – the type of satellite-guided munitions used by the Israeli Air Force in the second Lebanon War – Israeli Prime-Minister Ehud Olmert has said openly that Israel would not lobby against the new arms sales, hence acknowledging the US’ more significant strategic goal of supporting Arab moderate states in their bid to possess weaponry capable of deterring, or at least blunting, Iran’s nuclear ambitions in the region.

US Abdication in Iraq?

Upon delivering his ‘Report to Congress on the Situation in Iraq’ on 10–11 September, the US Commander of Multinational Force-Iraq, General David H. Petraeus provided a sober assessment underscoring what many observers of the Iraq War had been acutely aware of: that US boots would remain in Iraq in substantial numbers for well into 2008 (and perhaps longer) and that the US’ role in affecting Iraqi political compromises and national reconciliation had been greatly stymied as a result of swelling sectarianism across the country. Echoing this observation, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – in perhaps his most public statement on the US role in Iraq to date – declared on 28 August that US power in Iraq is being rapidly destroyed, and that with the help of its regional ‘friends’, Iran would be willing to fill the supposed power vacuum that would be created as a result of an eventual withdrawal of US forces.

Despite such growing perceptions of an inevitable US withdrawal, for the time being, the US effort in Iraq presses ahead with cautious optimism, while politicians and military planners back in Washington conjecture over the nature of the regional threat environment that is likely to emerge in the years to come. At the centre of the US’ threat radar sits Iran, with its alleged expansionist ambitions for the region, and covert quest to acquire nuclear weapons in the face of repeated UN Security Council Resolutions demanding the immediate cessation of the country’s uranium enrichment activities.

However, confronted by the very real prospect of American abdication in Iraq, the announcement of the US arms packages seemingly inaugurate the essential beginnings of a renewed US ‘regional strategy’ for the Middle East. In this sense, the US appears to be looking well beyond the current turmoil in Iraq to consider the entire Middle East as a future battleground between two fundamentally opposed blocs: the US, Israel and moderate Arab states on the one hand, and Iran and its client states and militant factions on the other.

Although in its apparent embryonic phase, the success of this supposed US post-Iraq strategy is premised upon the US achieving two key strategic objectives: first, the creation of a ‘united front’ against Iran and its allies; and second, the consolidation of US military and diplomatic engagement in the region, well after an eventual withdrawal or recalibration of US forces in Iraq.

Building a United Front

The prospect of a Shia Iran armed with nuclear weapons continues to stoke widespread anxiety among Arab neighbours in the Middle East. Yet, two key factors continue to drive the growing sense of insecurity among the Persian Gulf states over the question of Iran’s involvement in Iraq specifically. One is that Iraq is essentially a client state of the Iranians, and two, that Iran is actively engaged in bolstering Shia dominance throughout the country via its clandestine efforts in arming, funding and training Iraq’s various Shia militias groups.

Bearing these concerns in mind, the centrepiece of any US post-Iraq strategy will likely gravitate around the establishment of a new diplomatic and security alliance of moderate Sunni Arab states (plus Israel) with the shared strategic objective of deterring Iranian power in the region. In the past eighteen months, the Bush Administration has been at its more adamant in conveying the message that Iran continues to pose, by all accounts, the greatest security threat to the region – something which must warrant the formation of a ‘united front’, as it were, against the Iranian regime. The Administration’s recent labelling of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRG) as a ‘terrorist organization’ was squarely intended to strengthen the argument that the Iranians ought to be seen as a threat equal to that posed by the Jihadists operating both in Iraq, and around the world. And indeed, as a senior State Department official recently declared: ‘Iran is the key to everything at the strategic level – the biggest problem we have faced in a long time’.

Thus, as headlines broke detailing the Administration’s $63 billion arms transfers to the Middle East, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates embarked to the region in late July to forge consensus among the Sunni Arab and Persian Gulf states over Washington’s broader strategic objectives. By building initial consensus over the proposed arms sales, this visit was intended to not only point the finger at Iran, but also deliberately undercut Iranian influence across the region by essentially solidifying Arab financial and diplomatic support behind the US – specifically concerning the thorny issue of Iraq.

The priority of consolidating alliances is likely to constitute one of the key pillars of a US post-Iraq strategy for bringing stability to the region. At the top of this agenda: attaining broad Arab support (with Saudi Arabia in the lead) for US policies in Iraq, and consolidating widespread backing in efforts to isolate and deter Iranian influence in the region.

Bridging Defence with Diplomacy

The importance of cementing a broader defence relationship between the US and its Gulf partners will likely reflect the other key pillar of a US post-Iraq strategy. According to a select, inter-agency body known as the ‘Iran Syria Policy and Operations Group (ISOG)’ in Washington, consolidating new military alliances whilst sustaining US military presence across the Middle East constitutes one of the surest ways for strengthening US strategic interests in the region. Towards this end, ISOG’s initial vision proposed increasing funding for the transfer of military hardware to allies in the Persian Gulf, coupled with accelerated plans for joint military activities – hence the importance of the recently proposed US-Gulf arms deal.

In building this broader defence relationship within the Gulf, senior Pentagon officials indicate that the proposed transfer of arms to regional allies would include technology such as air-defence systems, anti-missile defences, radar systems, early warning aircraft, and naval vessels. For Saudi Arabia in particular, the actual hardware of the arms sales reflects a vital move forward in their quest to upgrade the Saudi forces that are currently lagging in a number of important areas; all the while giving the Kingdom the precision-strike capability to deter possible Iranian nuclear adventures.

But most importantly, the introduction of many of these advanced weapon systems into the armed forces of the Gulf States will facilitate the concomitant mainstreaming of American training, along with the possibility of increased exchanges of Gulf-State officers to the US for additional operational and doctrinal training. Such co-operation may also result in more comprehensive joint exercises in the future, as well as a pre-positioning of US-owned equipment in these select countries.

Finally, while the arms packages serve to strengthen the US defence relationship across the regional board, the other major, and equally critical, component of any US post-Iraq strategy will undoubtedly consist of a political and diplomatic initiative, connected alongside a robust military and defence strategy as described above. To this effect, the Administration will be expected – particularly by its Sunni Arab partners – to push for new momentum in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, most likely through a proposed US-led peace summit aimed at kick-starting stalled Israeli- Palestinian peace talks. At the same time, resolving the wider Arab-Israeli conflict remains a key policy opportunity for cementing strong US diplomatic presence in the region. Thus, at some later stage, one is likely to expect renewed US efforts to breathe fresh life into the Arab Peace Initiative, through which the normalization in relations between Israel and its Arab neighbours can be further hastened.

Retrenchment, But Not Retreat

Collectively, these initiatives provide a rare insight into the future shape, substance and direction of US grand strategy in the Middle East. The recent arms packages, in particular, signal an unprecedented push by the US Administration to position itself as a key guarantor and conduit of stability within the Middle East – particularly at a time when the relevance and efficacy of US military power is coming under serious scrutiny by its Arab allies across the region.

With the proposed arms deals and security assistance packages now set in place, the US has indeed prepared itself for a period of retrenchment within the Middle East, rather than a period of retreat. How effective the US will be in defining and implementing its ‘post-Iraq strategy’ remains to be seen. But for the time being, the fate of their long-term, strategic objectives in the region lies in the present, within the crucibles of a country overrun by terror, insurgency and sectarian war.

Christopher Pang
Head, Middle East and North Africa Programme


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