Caught off guard and unprepared by the stunning and savage Hamas attacks into Israel, the Biden administration now faces a Middle East at war and on the brink of a catastrophic regional war. Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei openly praised Hamas after the attack (though he denied any Iranian involvement in the attack), and suggested a bloody Israeli ground invasion into Gaza may trigger Iranian entry into the fighting. Meanwhile, tensions mount and rockets fly along Israel’s northern border as fears mount of an attack into Israel by Lebanese Hezbollah. The grotesque images resulting from the massive blast on the Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital in Gaza will serve as a clarion call to more terror groups in the region to enter the fighting.
As senior US administration officials and then the President raced to the region in a frantic effort to limit the size and scale of the conflict, it is clear that the administration’s minimalist Middle East policy is a calamitous failure. For two years, President Biden and the National Security Council sought to increase focus on China and Russia while sidelining the Middle East. The result: a strategic misstep that seems likely to force a reorganization of foreign policy.
After years of pulling forces out of the region, the Pentagon is now rushing to put them back. In response to the Israel-Hamas war, the Pentagon dispatched two aircraft carrier strike groups – one is already there, and another is en route. This represents a massive American force: two dozen ships, more than 140 aircraft, and more than 20,000 troops. The Pentagon is frantically redeploying assets from Europe to the Eastern Mediterranean. The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower was slated to participate in a NATO exercise but has now been diverted directly toward the Middle East.
Meanwhile, the USS Bataan, an amphibious assault ship, has begun moving closer to Israel’s shores, potentially to aid in the evacuation of Americans if the situation escalates further. Similarly, air assets, including A-10 attack aircraft and F-15 and F-16 jet fighters, have been redirected back to the Persian Gulf, reinforcing the US military presence in the region. Meanwhile, thousands of Marines and sailors are streaming toward the region as a show of force to keep Iran at bay. The White House announced these ships, planes, and people are in the region temporarily, but some are almost certain to remain for many months to come. The risk of a strike by Iran or an Iranian proxy group will remain far too great beyond the immediate crisis.
The Pentagon spokespeople explain that this is a temporary surge of forces, that the US Department of Defense retains the capability to rapidly push troops and weapon systems anywhere in the world. While the Pentagon maintains a rapid deployment capability, the unplanned dispatch of a carrier strike group from one region to another is a colossal undertaking that requires a reorganization of assets across multiple continents and theaters of command.
In 2021, the US had two carrier strike groups committed to the Middle East. They’ve since been reallocated, along with many other naval assets in the region, to allow more resources toward the Asia Pacific to counter China. This reallocation of assets was consistent with President Biden’s 2022 National Security Strategy, which focuses heavily on American competition with China and does not get to a mention of the Middle East until page 42 of a 48-page document. The National Security Strategy historically communicates a president’s national security priorities, philosophy, and strategic vision. The few glancing references to the US Central Command region disclosed much about this administration’s focus.
The National Defense Strategy, a document traditionally authored and released by the US Secretary of Defense and widely read across the force, serves to apply military guidance to the president’s strategic vision. The most recent National Defense Strategy, released in October 2022, further clarifies the limited importance of the Middle East placed by this administration. The document prioritizes a “right-size” of American forces and a “sustainable” posture in the region.
Upon arriving in DC, the Biden administration immediately sought to achieve a key Obama foreign policy objective by focusing military resources away from the Middle East and toward countering China’s growing influence. The Obama cabinet sought to prioritize great power competition with Beijing while ending our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then, crises in the region – the Syrian Civil War, the stunning rise and sweep of ISIS, and unrest in Libya – pulled the Obama White House back into the Middle East.
Like the Obama White House, the Trump administration’s foreign policy prioritized countering Chinese influence around the world, investing in new technology, critical capabilities, and assets in space. Once again, Iran’s nuclear ambitions and support for terror groups in the region and its brazen 2019 attack on a Saudi oil facility, forced a push of forces – to include a carrier strike group – streaming into the Middle East.
Similarly, Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan tried a more hands-off approach, cobbling together a regional security framework that tied Arab militaries to the Israel Defense Force in a partnership focused on hedging against Iran’s most destructive impulses. President Biden ended the war in Afghanistan – a messy, chaotic, and tragic endeavor that sharply limits America’s ability to monitor and fight ISIS in that country. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin withdrew significant defense assets, including more than eight Patriot missile batteries, from the Middle East. The limited naval and aircraft deployments left behind were deemed adequate, with assurances that forces could have surged back during a crisis.
The Pentagon now faces a fact realized by presidents Carter, Reagan, George HW Bush, Clinton, and George W Bush: the Middle East demands a sizable US military presence. The region is simply too volatile, too important, and too complex to be left without a strong American hand. The Middle East, with its intricate political tapestry and historic volatility, cannot be relegated to the periphery of our strategic vision. However this current crisis ends, going forward the US must ensure that while we look to the Indo-Pacific, we remain steadfast in our commitment to stability and peace in the Middle East. The United States simply cannot deter Iran without American power permanently in the Middle East.