- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The Pentagon’s long-term plan to refocus on “great power competition” with China has been derailed — again — by conflicts in the Middle East, and specialists say the U.S. military will soon face a moment of reckoning and be forced to choose which theater will be its primary focus.

The pivot from fighting terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State to confronting emerging nation-state superpowers formed the foundation of the Pentagon’s landmark National Defense Strategy, a sweeping 2018 document spearheaded by James N. Mattis, the defense secretary at the time.

Current Defense Secretary Mark Esper insisted this week that the Defense Department can soon pull forces from Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere and redeploy them to the Pacific region to counter an increasingly ambitious and aggressive China. But regional tensions, including a conflict this month with Iran, have set back the Trump administration’s effort to cut the U.S. footprint in the Middle East.

Military insiders and analysts say the Pentagon could soon lack the money and manpower to effectively pursue both objectives, setting up a key decision about foreign policy priorities for the next few decades. Absent a massive increase in the $738 billion defense budget this year, the Pentagon could soon be logistically incapable of maintaining its current force levels in the Middle East while shifting enough resources to the Pacific to act as a check on China.

While the U.S. delays its pivot, China and Russia are boosting their defense budgets and even moving ahead in fields such as hypersonic weapons. U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel are likely to be unnerved by the prospect of a U.S. pivot to Asia, and even European allies are saying the move could be premature.

With the Islamic State and other jihadi movements stepping up attacks and seizing more territory across central Africa, a U.S. drawdown “would be bad news for us,” French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters this week. “I would like to be able to convince President Trump that the fight against terrorism to which he is deeply committed is playing out also in this region.”

Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former official in the Defense Department and the Office of Management and Budget, said a “fundamental tension” is marring the new defense blueprint.

“The strategy calls for disengaging from certain parts of the world, prioritizing day-to-day commitments in order to focus on great powers, particularly China,” he said. “They’re not able to bridge this tension, bridge this gap through more money.

“The strategy had assumed the United States could withdraw from the Middle East or greatly reduce its commitments. The opposite has happened. We’ve maintained and even increased our commitments,” Mr. Cancian said.

Never-ending surge

Indeed, the U.S. has sent thousands of additional troops to the region amid rising tensions with Iran and its allies. In the aftermath of the killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani this month, Mr. Trump authorized another 3,500 troops in the Middle East.

At the same time, Mr. Trump’s hopes for a rapid, substantial withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan have been dashed as peace negotiations with the Taliban have hit repeated roadblocks.

Mr. Trump made clear in recent weeks that roughly 5,000 U.S. troops will stay in Iraq for the foreseeable future despite the Iraqi government’s demand that they leave. Even the president’s deeply held desire to get the U.S. forces out of Syria has been only partially met. A few hundred American troops remain in the country to battle ISIS and safeguard valuable Syrian oil fields.

The Pentagon has considered pulling some troops from Africa despite a surge in terrorist groups’ activity on the continent. But specialists say a small drawdown in Africa won’t be enough to effectively reorient the military’s focus toward the Pacific.

Despite all of that, Mr. Esper this week strongly endorsed the approach embodied in the new National Defense Strategy. He said the shift was moving forward even as the Defense Department dealt with conflicts across the Middle East. He said he will be traveling to U.S. commands around the world to determine how many troops can be redeployed and how fast they can move.

“I’m looking at every theater and every command to look at where I can free up time, money and manpower forces, to reallocate to the Indo-Pacific, to deal with a long-term threat of China,” the Pentagon chief told NPR on Tuesday. “And I’m confident that we will be able to pull some forces out of each of these locations to make sure that I’m putting the priority of my resources to the long-term challenge facing the United States. That is the People’s Republic of China.”

Pressed on the exact figures, Mr. Esper said thousands of troops will be shifted, though he did not offer a concrete number or timetable.

“If it’s going to be a material change in our posture and our footprint around the globe, it has to be … in the thousands,” he said.

‘Principal priorities’

In the National Defense Strategy, military leaders don’t call for the entire withdrawal of forces from the Middle East. In fact, the Pentagon specifically cites Iran as a central challenge.

But as a whole, the document spells out a major shift necessitating fewer resources for the historically volatile region, which has long been a central focus of U.S. military planners.

“Long-term strategic competitions with China and Russia are the principal priorities for the department, and require both increased and sustained investment, because of the magnitude of the threats they pose to U.S. security and prosperity today, and the potential for those threats to increase in the future,” a portion of the National Defense Strategy reads. “Concurrently, the [Defense Department] will sustain its efforts to deter and counter rogue regimes such as North Korea and Iran, defeat terrorist threats to the United States, and consolidate our gains in Iraq and Afghanistan while moving to a more resource-sustainable approach.”

Military analysts say it will take extraordinary restraint for the Pentagon to stick with the road map given the demands of the day.

“This is an area that requires discipline and focus and commitment from all of our national leaders …,” Rebecca Grant, a defense analyst with IRIS Independent Research, told Defense News this month. “If we become drawn into something more hot in the Middle East, we need to maintain the discipline to be able to simultaneously remain committed to preparing [for] and competing on that great power stage.”

Pentagon leaders insist that they remain focused on the great power competition posed by China and, to a lesser extent, Russia. Officials privately push back on the notion that the U.S. is unprepared for a conflict with China in the Pacific. They argue that the tensions in the Middle East are flare-ups while China poses a threat to U.S. interests and allies that must be countered over years and even decades.

But skeptics say that implementing that strategy effectively will require a fundamental overhaul of the U.S. mission in the Middle East from the military and political perspectives, an overhaul that has been derailed repeatedly in the past.

“When it comes to the Middle East, the biggest mistake the United States made and continues to make is to conflate military necessity with post-conflict development,” said former Defense Department official Michael Rubin, now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “Ninety percent or more of the investment of blood and treasure in Iraq and Afghanistan was due to poorly conceived nation-building rather than the necessary operations to oust Saddam Hussein and the Taliban.”

The Pentagon has begun making tough trade-offs, such as the decision to cut its force level in Africa even as terrorist groups in Niger and elsewhere show an increasing ability to conduct shockingly violent, effective attacks.

But in the Middle East specifically, specialists say, the U.S. has few good options. If a terrorist group such as the Islamic State mounts a full-fledged comeback, or if the U.S. and Iran again find themselves on the brink of war, there is simply no alternative to troops and equipment on the ground in the theater.

“The only way out of this conundrum is doing less overseas,” Mr. Cancian said. “But the problem we keep running into is the fact that global superpowers are expected to stand up in crises in support of their allies. It’s very hard not to respond.”

Mike Glenn contributed to this report.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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