What is that big US military for, anyhow?
There are, roughly speaking, two ways to use a large, modern military force. The first is to enforce international “rules of the road,” guaranteeing freedom of the seas or punishing gross violations of international law and treaties, or keeping the peace by backing up treaties with capabilities. This includes rescuing Kuwait from invasion and occupation by Saddam’s Iraq. It includes retaliating for Syria’s use of chemical weapons. The second way a large and capable country can use its forces is to try to settle other people’s problems. This could include the Vietnam War, 18 years of war in Afghanistan, or centuries-long animosities engendered by 400 years of Turkish anti-Arab colonialism called the Ottoman Empire.
Very roughly speaking.
The historic wars of Europe engendered no American participation; world wars I and II did, and in the aftermath, keeping Germany under control as well as preventing the further takeover of central Europe by Russia was the basis for NATO. We have no formal alliance with Taiwan or Israel but we operate under the terms of the Taiwan Relations Act and decades of close security cooperation with Israel.
President Donald Trump appears to believe more in the first construct for the use of force and less in the second.
Despite fears that the U.S. might quit NATO — and pretensions by France and Germany that they could field a European military force to replace it — the fact is that under the Trump administration, U.S. spending on NATO has increased and European spending on NATO also has increased.
NATO Secretary Jens Stoltenberg noted that defense spending across European allies and Canada increased in real terms by 4.6 percent in 2019. “This is unprecedented progress and it is making NATO stronger,” he said. Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels before the G-7 meetings that the organization’s burden-sharing rules also have changed: “We have now agreed to a new formula for sharing those costs. … The U.S. will pay less. Germany will pay more. So now the U.S. and Germany will pay the same, roughly 16 percent of NATO’s budget.”
The U.S. will pay approximately $150 million less for NATO’s general budget than it had been paying, but this isn’t just cost-saving. The administration also has put in its budget request to Congress $17.2 billion over three years for the separate European Defense Initiative (EDI), tripling the three-year request of the prior administration.
So, President Trump appears committed to, and willing to fund, the NATO alliance — a peacekeeping operation in concert with people who are not at war with one another or with Russia, and hope to keep it that way. But what to make of the Wall Street Journal report that he is prepared to send 14,000 additional American troops to the Middle East, where he promised to get the United States out of “endless wars”?
To begin with, the Pentagon denied the report. But, coming on the heels of the deployment of 14,000 troops to the region earlier this year, it raises the broader question of what war the United States thinks it will fight.
The U.S. has tens of thousands of troops based in Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In addition, just across the Strait of Hormuz lies the American Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), the only permanent U.S. base on the African continent. In Turkey, U.S. troops are part of NATO. In Jordan, Syria and Iraq, they are in limited areas of the country, primarily preventing a resurgence of ISIS. In the others, the mission appears to be ensuring freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea and being appropriately placed to protect American allies, friends and interests against Iranian aggression.
Iran has announced it is targeting 21 American bases in the region with missiles. It also has shipped combinations of missiles, drones, and precision weapons factories to its proxies Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Houthis in Yemen, Iraq Shiite militias, Lebanon and Bashar Assad’s Syria. By distributing its assets around the region, Iran appears to be hoping that attacks on America or its allies will escape direct American (or Israeli) retaliation. Thus far, the U.S. has declined to retaliate for attacks on American assets or the destruction of Saudi oil facilities. Israel, on the other hand, has attacked Iranian facilities and weapons warehouses in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Attacking at the source may be only a matter of time for both of them
Iranian problems at home are increasing exponentially as riots, strikes and demonstrations wrack the country. The economy is tanking, and even the Europeans acknowledge Iranian cheating on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran nuclear deal). These problems are helping to drive Iranian aggression abroad. And anti-Iranian protests in Iraq and Lebanon, which show little sign of abating even under lethal retaliation, make the regional picture less stable.
Under the circumstances, Iran could start a war deliberately or by blunder. If the United States puts enough forces in strategically located places, it will be a shorter war than it otherwise might be.