The coronavirus pandemic is altering every aspect of American life, including the United States’s relationship with the rest of the world. Leaders in both parties were already looking to wind down “endless wars.” After decades of successive wars in the Middle East, the desire to withdraw is not surprising. However, Russia and Iran continue to advance their interests regardless of American desires. The United States has enduring interests in the Middle East and cannot afford to disengage entirely from the region. Shifting from conventional warfare to political warfare may allow the U.S. to check the advances of adversaries without large deployments.
“Endless wars” is a nebulous term that does not reflect the U.S. presence in the region. There are, for example, currently a few hundred soldiers deployed to Syria for a limited mission. There are also several thousand deployed to bases throughout the region. Modest deployments prevent the need for keeping larger forces in the region. The soldiers aid local partners so that they, not Americans, engage in most of the fighting.
Yet, the strategy must respond to the decreased willingness for conventional military options. Political warfare, which uses all of a nation’s capabilities outside of direct military combat, can achieve this limited aim.
During the Cold War, America used this limited, political form of warfare to contain communism. A hot war with the Soviet Union would have been calamitous. Instead, the United States turned to indirect methods of competition. These efforts included developing the Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe after World War II and the creation of NATO.
After the Cold War, competition that could avoid direct fighting became less critical. As Washington downplayed this limited warfare, its adversaries built successful strategies around it.
Russia’s information operations look to undermine American’s faith in democratic institutions and U.S. foreign policy. Russia also uses proxies, such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to ensure its footholds in the region.
This is also part of the approach by Iran. With a weak military, unconventional means are crucial to Iran’s regional expansion. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has proxies throughout the Middle East. Iran uses mines, swarming ships and suicide watercraft to harass ships and deny access to critical waterways such as the Persian Gulf. Similar to Russia, Iran has launched successful cyber campaigns against Western nations.
Too often, the Trump administration has relied on financial sanctions to punish Russian and Iranian aggression. A U.S. political warfare mission would likely demand a whole-of-government approach to deploy intelligence, diplomatic and military capabilities strategically.
First, targeted information, cyber and psychological operations can bolster the effectiveness of sanctions. These efforts should aid our regional partners and help destabilize adversaries’ connections to local populations.
Next, bilateral or multilateral partnerships such as NATO, the United Nations and the European Union are essential tools to maximizing pressure. Further formalizing relationships with partners may even mitigate the need for smaller deployments. A narrow mutual defense pact with Israel, for example, could reinforce deterrence against Iran and its proxies such as Hezbollah.
Finally, continuing support for local partners can reinforce America’s credibility. Politicians may want to bring soldiers home, but many policy analysts recognize the United States should avoid precipitous withdrawals, such as the one in Syria.
This should hold especially true for successful and longstanding regional commitments. Yet even in this regard, there are signs of politics edging out widespread policy consensus. Secretary of Defense Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: ‘Tens of thousands’ of National Guard troops could be activated for coronavirus response | Hospital ships could take week to deploy | Trump says military to help Americans stuck in Peru Navy hospital ship to deploy in 5 to 10 days to help with coronavirus relief Democrats introduce bill to send coronavirus tests to US troops in Middle East MORE and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, for example, have indicated intentions to withdraw from the international force that ensures Israeli-Egyptian peace. Since 1982, the Multinational Force & Observers (MFO) has patrolled a demilitarized section of the Sinai and been one of the region’s few undoubted successes. Despite the low financial costs and risks to soldiers, Washington’s commitment has symbolic importance that is crucial to its decades of success. Pulling out could cause others to follow suit and threaten the mission’s viability.
America’s military withdrawals from the Middle East have stretched thin the remaining soldiers. Policymakers should avoid overburdening the U.S. armed services, or giving them missions better-suited to other organizations, such as the State Department, USAID or intelligence agencies. To execute these concerted efforts, the administration should name a goal-specific director at the National Security Council to coordinate interagency political warfare. Understanding it also requires new interagency institutions devoted to its study.
Translating political concerns about “endless wars” into strategy will be an ongoing policy challenge. As attempts to withdraw continue, political warfare should dominate America’s strategic thinking.