But the trend may start to reverse if McKenzie gets his way. In an interview on the aircraft carrier, he told The Wall Street Journal that he was considering recommending returning to a larger U.S. military footprint in the region, where the U.S. has begun to draw down in Syria following the territorial defeat of ISIS. The new deployments since May, including 2,500 additional troops and a Patriot missile-defense battery, have only partly replaced assets withdrawn from the region just in the past year.
McKenzie’s ambitions aren’t necessarily unusual. “Every combatant commander always wants more forces,” Magsamen said. “There’s never enough forces, and Central Command is in particular notorious for kind of waving their arms in the air and saying we must have more forces.” In past years, for example, Centcom had two aircraft carriers continuously in the region; the Abraham Lincoln, though, had been in the Mediterranean on its way to the region when its deployment was sped up.
In the current case, moreover, the deployments were relatively minor and routine. What made them especially noteworthy was the public messaging surrounding them.
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Some say the attacks demanded the buildup, which the military characterizes as deterrent and defensive—many of the recent deployments have been related to surveillance and missile defense. When a combatant commander sees evidence of an imminent threat, as the military has described it, there are three options, according to Brad Bowman, who directs the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “One would be to retreat, and that will only invite more of the same from our adversaries,” he told me. “Two would be to do nothing, and that would leave our troops unprotected and arguably would be a dereliction of duty. And three would be to increase our force posture to ensure that our troops are protected and that we’re prepared to deter and, if necessary, defeat aggression.” McKenzie picked the third option, which in Bowman’s view was the right choice.
Some lawmakers are skeptical. Adam Smith, the Democratic chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, called the buildup “concerning” in a statement earlier this week and cited the risk of miscalculation “clearing a path for an unwanted all-out armed conflict.”
Some argue that a ramp-up contradicts the goals laid out in the National Defense Strategy, which is supposed to be guiding the military’s decisions. McKenzie, however, has noted that the document also calls for contending with the challenges of North Korea, Iran, and violent extremism. In a May speech at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which is known for advocating a hard line on Iran and is close to the administration, McKenzie laid out his own vision this way: “Any major fight we are going to be involved in will be, in all likelihood, transregional versus regional … It will cut across multiple combatant commands and involve all domains.”