Implications of Washington’s ‘diminishing superiority’ in the Middle East

For fiscal reasons but also technical ones, the United States and its Middle East partners will need to deepen cooperation as they move towards enhanced “burden-sharing.”
Sunday 02/12/2018
Vulnerability risks. US Secretary of Defence James Mattis speaks with troops at Base Camp Donna in Texas, November 14. (AFP)
Vulnerability risks. US Secretary of Defence James Mattis speaks with troops at Base Camp Donna in Texas, November 14. (AFP)

DUBAI - A report issued by the National Defence Strategy Commission provided a sombre assessment about the trajectory of US military power. The United States’ global primacy has rested on its unmatched military power but no more, so it appears.

Long and expensive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have allowed the United States’ adversaries to make up ground by exploiting vulnerabilities those conflicts exposed. This while the US military remained too distracted by the “low-end” of the threat spectrum, such as terrorists and insurgents.

Technological advances — accelerating in computing, cyber-attack capabilities, artificial intelligence and robotics — are changing the dynamics of military competition and what future conflicts will entail, the report stated.

The report — “Providing for the Common Defence” — declared in bold terms that, with its military superiority “eroded to a dangerous degree,” the United States is facing a “crisis of national security.”

Highlighting that the US military’s “margin of superiority is profoundly diminished in key areas,” citing near peer competitors like China and Russia, the report suggested the United States “might struggle to win or perhaps lose” a military conflict against either.

The report sounded the alarm regarding scenarios in which the United States could find itself fighting simultaneously on two or more fronts, which it would be unable to do and where it “could suffer unacceptably high casualties and loss of major capital assets.”

Such dramatic admissions reflect a fast-changing world and great uncertainty about what the future holds among the world’s great powers. It presents a less-than-assuring global backdrop for a region like the Middle East already in turmoil.

The commission, a bipartisan panel mandated by the US Congress, endorsed the vision laid out in US President Donald Trump’s National Defence Strategy. However, it raised serious questions about how that vision could be realised and identified resourcing as a strategic challenge.

Trump this year approved a budget of $700 billion for the US Department of Defence, a figure that is more than four times that of China’s and more than ten times Russia’s annual defence spending, figures from the International Institute for Strategic Studies indicate.

However, Eric Edelman, chairman of the commission, said the Defence Department needed as much as a 50% growth in funding over the next ten years to regain ground against adversaries and stay ahead of threats.

Within such a backdrop, the implications for American security partners around the world will be significant, particularly in the Middle East, where the United States has played the crucial role of regional security guarantor.

Logically, defence trade stands to benefit. US-manufactured defence systems bought by partners assures greater interoperability with US and NATO militaries, potentially reduces per unit lifecycle costs for American users, reinforces the strength of political ties and, of course, creates and sustains employment.

However, the emerging environment emphasises partnership simply beyond business.

For fiscal reasons but also technical ones, the United States and its Middle East partners will need to deepen cooperation as they move towards enhanced “burden-sharing.”

Threats such as terrorism will necessitate more intelligence-sharing, ballistic missile defence will demand more operational integration, maritime security operations will need more resource pooling and so on.

In short, the security architecture will need to become “smarter” to become optimised and partners will need to work more closely together than they ever have.

However, the Middle East’s dynamics within are becoming more complex and so, too, are the distinctions between geopolitical interests, geostrategic interests and geo-economic interests for regional stakeholders.

China and Russia do not represent military threats for the Middle East in the way the Americans view them, for instance. A conflict involving Middle Eastern countries against China or Russia is highly improbable.

Cooperation between the US military and its partners in the Middle East will thus deepen most around focused regional peace and stability enablers such as counterterrorism, missile defence and cyberspace.

Much of the success of those goals hinges on the extent to which the US military can support partner capacity-building and capability development but the diminishing superiority of the US military will likely refocus attention towards American political power to dispense its future role as a regional security guarantor.

Palestinian statehood, Israel’s recognition by Arab countries and Iran’s regional role are complex and loosely interlinked regional dilemmas on which the United States has been unable to demonstrate decisive leadership.

If American leadership continues to shy away from taking bold steps, then unprecedented crises lie in wait — crises that may expose precisely the vulnerability risks that the National Defence Strategy Commission pointed out.