Over the past few weeks, the parts of the world still dependent on fossil fuels—which is to say, all of them—have anxiously watched tensions rise in the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow channel between the oil-rich Persian Gulf and the deepwater shipping channels of the Indian Ocean.
Television broadcasts show images of U.S. naval vessels escorting oil tankers through the strait, ensuring that oil and gas reach their markets. And on the one hand, this is entirely appropriate and encouraging: The purpose of a navy, after all, is to safeguard the movement of friendly armies and commerce—and to deny one’s enemies the ability to do the same.
On the other hand, the fact that U.S. naval vessels are escorting commercial ships in and out of the Persian Gulf is also an indictment of a U.S. policy initiative that has spanned at least six U.S. presidential administrations and has, until very recently, garnered bipartisan support in Congress: Our efforts to build military capacity among our partners in the Gulf.
The current crisis in the region offers an opportunity to assess not only the scale and efficacy of our efforts but also how we might tailor them to fit our strategic needs as much as those of our partners. Because it is not clear to me that what we’ve been doing over the past three decades has served U.S. interests.
Recently, of course, representatives and senators from both sides of the aisle have begun to question arms sales in the Gulf—to our Saudi and Emirati partners, in particular. Appalled by the loss of civilian life in Yemen and—in the case of Lindsey Graham, among others—pushed over the edge by the killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, they have taken steps to prevent the administration from providing certain weapons to our traditional partners. The administration has responded by invoking a national-security emergency to continue doing just that, citing the threat posed by Iran.
I’m largely agnostic about the roles that the legislative and executive branches play in arms sales. I have more to say, though, about the strategic utility of the arms sales themselves. From 2015 to 2017, I served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, which meant I had oversight of security-cooperation programs, including foreign-military sales, in the region. And during an earlier stint at the Pentagon, between 2012 and 2013, I led a project that examined, on a country-by-country basis, what actual stand-alone military capabilities our partners in the region had developed since U.S. security-cooperation efforts had really picked up, in the aftermath of the Gulf War.
That project was spurred by a persistent fantasy among think-tank types of a certain generation: What if we could build an “Arab NATO” in the Gulf? What if we could build a military coalition among our Gulf partners to constrain Iran in the same way we built a Western European military coalition to constrain Russia during the Cold War?
It’s easy to see why some people advanced this idea. First, they were often among the same people who had argued for removing the most effective actual constraint on the ambitions of the Islamic Republic of Iran: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Second, despite in many cases serving as architects of, or cheerleaders for, America’s greatest blunder in the post–Cold War era, they retained enough strategic sense to realize that keeping tens of thousands of U.S. service members in the Gulf didn’t make a lot of sense in a century in which China would challenge the United States for hegemony in the Pacific.
Indeed, by the time I left the Pentagon in January 2017, we had roughly 35,000 troops in the Gulf alone, and these troops were mostly housed in semipermanent bases. I used to review the annual construction plans submitted by U.S. Central Command and marvel at all the concrete we were pouring into a region that we all knew, in our heads if not our hearts, should matter less to us in the coming century.
I hope the Saudi-led embargo of Qatar and the self-defeating fracturing of the Gulf Cooperation Council has finally pounded a wooden stake into the heart of the Arab NATO vampire, and that future Pentagon desk officers will not be as tormented as I was. What did we learn, though? Well, a few things. I’ll give you the bad news first, which isn’t entirely bad. And then I’ll give you the good news, which isn’t entirely good. (Sorry, this is the Middle East—you need to get used to such ambiguities.)
First, let me be impolite but clear: Despite spending billions of dollars on military hardware, our Gulf partners do not have very good militaries. They sport large collections of weapons and equipment—some shiny, some rusted—but not real capabilities. That’s why I raise my eyebrows when administration officials cite the threat posed by Iran as a reason to keep arming these partners over the objections of Congress: In an actual war with Iran, we would likely not ask our Gulf partners to do much more than stay out of the way. We do not, for the most part, trust their ability to participate in what would be a very stressful, very challenging, and highly kinetic conflict.
The war in Yemen has been a humanitarian nightmare, but it has also been illuminating from the perspective of defense policy. We can finally see what our various regional partners—the Saudis, the Kuwaitis, the Bahrainis, the Emiratis—can and cannot do. The result has not, for the most part, been pretty.
When I was at the Pentagon in my last job, we determined that the majority of civilian deaths in Yemen were not caused by crimes of malice but by crimes of incompetence: The Saudi-led coalition’s air force simply could not plan and execute an independent air campaign that either accomplished its strategic objectives or, failing to do that, at least minimized civilian casualties. The Saudis realized this, early in the campaign, and they begged us for more help, which we were reluctant to give, because we didn’t want to own any more of their war in Yemen than we already did—especially when we had a fight against the Islamic State on our hands and needed all available resources to defeat it.
Compounding these failures is the fact that our Gulf partners have largely invested in those areas where they cannot match the United States, and not in those areas for which the United States could actually use partner capacity. They have spent a lot of money building very expensive air forces, for example, that largely cannot do what their leaders need them to do. But these countries—whose economies depend on their ability to move oil and gas to the market by sea—haven’t spent much money at all on naval forces that can patrol their sea lanes, or minesweepers that can reopen those same sea lanes through either the Strait of Hormuz or the Bab el-Mandeb.
That’s why you are more likely to see a U.S. naval vessel escorting an oil tanker through the Strait of Hormuz than you are to see a Gulf naval vessel. As a U.S. military officer wryly lamented to me on a visit to one Gulf country, “Out of the three services here, sir, the navy ranks fourth in terms of priority.”
But ground forces don’t fare much better. Like naval surface warfare, ground combat and the things one has to do to be good at it are not sexy. You need to be physically fit (which involves running a lot), spend a lot of time on the rifle range (which involves sweating a lot), and rehearse battle drills and other collective tasks ad nauseam (which involve both running and sweating a lot).
I once spent five months doing all that with a light-infantry platoon in the heat of the Kuwaiti desert and … well, it’s not always fun. The sun sucks, the sand sucks, and you’re trying to keep a bunch of teenagers focused in 100-degree heat. I get it. Getting shot by the enemy, though, is less fun, and along the border with Yemen, Saudi ground forces in particular have proved largely incapable of closing with and engaging the enemy—which is the entire point of possessing ground-maneuver forces.
The failure of Saudi and allied ground forces has contributed to their overreliance on air forces, which have spent most of the past few decades practicing air-to-air combat (which they’re still not very good at, if we’re not grading on a curve) and were largely unprepared for what they were asked to do over Yemen—as lots of Yemeni civilians sadly discovered.
The silver lining to all this bad news is that none of our Gulf partners looks ready to challenge Israel’s qualitative military edge anytime soon, individually or collectively, and we retain some leverage over our partners so long as they remain reliant on us for their collective defense.
The good news, meanwhile, is that some of our partners in the region—not many, but some—have developed real and formidable military capabilities. Our Emirati partners, for example, are able to conduct truly independent military operations, and their air forces and special forces are capable of operating alongside ours. They have done so, in fact, over the past decade—including in Afghanistan.
Indeed, one of the things that’s missing from the spate of recent articles bemoaning the influence of the United Arab Emirates in Washington is the real value proposition that the Emiratis bring to the table. The reason U.S. military officers, especially, fall in love with their Emirati counterparts is because the Emirati crown prince, Mohamed bin Zayed, has invested in actual capabilities and has military forces the Americans can treat as peers.
Of course, the danger of helping your partners create independent military capabilities is that, if you succeed, you’ve helped your partners create independent military capabilities. They may use their newfound capabilities—from Yemen to Libya—in support of strategic aims that diverge from your own. (In Yemen, our Emirati friends have discovered something that we ourselves were reminded of in Iraq and Afghanistan: Operational excellence alone is often not enough to realize strategic victory.)
So why does the current administration fight so hard to keep arming our partners in the Gulf? I don’t think it’s as simple as the need to support the U.S. military industrial base, though that is a concern I’m sure it has. Some U.S. strategists genuinely fear that if we do not arm our partners, our Russian or Chinese rivals will. They can’t cite that fear to justify the “emergency” that allows us to continue arming the Saudis and Emiratis over congressional objections, because it’s more of a strategic concern, but based on my conversations with U.S., Saudi, and Emirati officials, it’s a major driver of American policy.
I’m just not sure that is a good-enough reason. Russia and China cannot, in the near term, rival the numbers of personnel we have deployed in the region. None of our partners is going to call the Chinese military to save them from the Iranian navy. So we should probably stop being so scared of the Russian or Chinese bogeymen, no matter how much our partners might publicly flirt with our rivals. One of the reasons they do that, after all, is because their strategic interests diverge from ours: We want to rebalance our resources toward future security challenges, while they want to keep as many of our forces tied down in their region as possible.
Going forward, we can afford to focus on building our allies’ capacity only when we expect to reap a direct benefit. Especially following large recent sales of aircraft to Saudi Arabia (F-15s), Kuwait (F-18s), and Qatar (F-15s), we’ve probably sold enough advanced fighter aircraft to the region. The Saudis and others will claim they now need F-35s and F-22s to deter Iran, but there is no evidence to suggest that Iran has been in any way deterred by the fourth-generation fighters, so I’m not sure why fifth-generation fighter aircraft would suddenly cause Qasem Soleimani & Co. to change their behavior.
We need to help our allies build capabilities that will allow the United States to do less, and that largely means building up naval forces and integrated air and missile defenses—another rare bright spot in U.S. capacity-building efforts (at least until the Gulf militaries all stopped talking to Qatar, home to the largest U.S. air base in the region). You want to sell weapons to the Gulf? Fine. But sell them some frigates and air defenses.
That’s not going to be easy for two reasons: First, unlike Egypt or Lebanon or Israel, the Gulf militaries are not the beneficiaries of U.S. largesse in the form of foreign military financing, a mechanism whereby we give countries funds to spend on U.S. weapons and training. The Gulf states have their own dollars that they can spend as they like, and they don’t have to spend those dollars on U.S. weapons. If we don’t sell them a certain weapon system, they can buy a similar one elsewhere. But they do so at their own risk. If you buy a bunch of Chinese drones and allow Chinese engineers to walk around your air bases, it will not be long before those U.S. aircraft and U.S. military personnel find another base. And our Gulf partners don’t want that. They like keeping us close.
Second, our Gulf partners have been masterful at scaring the wits out of successive U.S. administrations, by suggesting they fear we will abandon them. Condoleezza Rice, for example, came back from a meeting with the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in the second term of the George W. Bush administration, alarmed by the king’s worry the United States was leaving the region—this at a time in which we had 150,000 troops in Iraq alone. That fear helped spark what has now been a decade-long push to sell more U.S. weapons to our Gulf partners, increasing interoperability and thus deepening the bilateral ties between our respective militaries.
But our Gulf partners will always claim we are abandoning the region; even permanently relocating the XVIII Airborne Corps to Kuwait would not change that. They did it during the Bush administration, they did it during the Obama administration, and I bet they are doing it today, during the Trump administration. That fear is grounded in a clear-eyed view of our presence in the region. They can see it makes little sense—not in our current numbers. They know, in their hearts, that we have bigger priorities elsewhere.
If only our hearts knew the same.