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13 the national bureau of asian research nbr special report #46 | september 2014 ROY KAMPHAUSEN is Senior Advisor for Political and Security Affairs at the National Bureau of Asian Research. He can be reached at . The United States’ Military Posture toward the Middle East: Potential Drivers of Change Roy Kamphausen EXECUTIVE SUMMARY This essay examines U.S. security commitments to the Middle East and Persian Gulf, highlights key factors shaping U.S. engagement, and raises questions about potential roles for new security providers, especially among oil-importing states in East Asia. MAIN ARGUMENT The U.S. has enduring security interests in the Middle East and Persian Gulf that will remain even as U.S. oil and gas imports from the region decline. Yet as measured from the highs in posture at the peak of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, U.S. troop levels are already much lower, leading some to conclude that the U.S. is in the midst of a strategic disengagement. Supporting this notion are historic levels of war fatigue, shifting budget constraints, and a deep concern about the long-term costs of caring for war veterans. Meanwhile, the U.S. strategic rebalance to Asia and great-power relationship with China will also have some bearing on the future U.S. posture in the Middle East and Persian Gulf, especially in light of increasing East Asian dependency on Middle Eastern gas and petroleum. However, the prospects of another state or other states providing security in this vital oil-producing region are uncertain. POLICY IMPLICATIONS • The U.S. faces hard choices about how many forces in region its enduring commitment to the broader Middle East and Persian Gulf actually requires. Part of this exercise includes reassessing what security is needed. • Oil-importing states must also assess whether changing dynamics and a potentially decreased U.S. posture create an expectation that these states provide forces and contribute to Middle East and Persian Gulf security in greater ways than before. • Several future outcomes might ensue from the current situation. In one scenario, the U.S. maintains the capacity to respond to crises but with fewer capabilities in region to shape pre-crisis events, and no other country takes over the United States’ current role. Another, if unlikely, scenario is that the U.S. and China would reach an agreement to share security responsibilities. A third scenario might entail the U.S. building on existing patterns of cooperation to construct tailored multilateral approaches that can engage a range of countries in providing for regional security. 15 THE UNITED STATES’ MILITARY POSTURE TOWARD THE MIDDLE EAST u KAMPHAUSEN T he United States has enduring security interests in the Middle East and Persian Gulf that will remain even as U.S. oil and gas imports from the region decline. These include opposing violent extremist elements, providing support for Israel, and ensuring a stable supply of oil for global markets. Yet a series of factors, including both domestic factors in the United States and regional developments, will increasingly put pressure on U.S. commitments to the Middle East and Persian Gulf, despite the policy commitments of American leaders to remain fully engaged there. The rapid military advances made by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the spring and summer of 2014 underscore the tension between U.S. security interests and the various pressures on the United States to reduce its role in the region. The carefully reached decision by President Barack Obama to provide air support to Iraqi forces battling ISIS encapsulates the dilemma faced by the United States as it seeks to manage a security crisis that is partly of its own doing, while also responding to multiple domestic considerations, including from U.S. armed forces and the American public. U.S. military force levels, though an admittedly imperfect proxy, can be a useful metric for measuring the United States’ strategic commitment to the region for two reasons: they are rapidly changeable in response to policy guidance and any changes would be readily observable. In this regard, the number of troops on the ground may be a more reliable indicator of strategic intent than more overt policy declarations. While it is not necessarily true that higher numbers of troops reflect a greater strategic commitment—some missions simply require more forces—there nonetheless seems to be a correlation, almost a strategic logic, between troop levels in a region and that region’s strategic importance, irrespective of the actual outcomes those troops produce...


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