EXPERT POINT OF VIEW — The main purpose of President Joe Biden’s recent trip to the Middle East was to signal to both partners and adversaries that the United States was serious about restoring its strategic position in the region, which has suffered considerable blows in recent years. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the visit was not intended to obtain immediate agreements from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on the increase in oil production, as invaluable as this result or others related to the strategic competition with China and Russia would have been for American interests.
Give Biden credit. Even though he knew that a meeting with Saudi leaders would cost him politically at home and could antagonize several senior officials in his own administration, he nevertheless traveled to Jeddah because he rightly put the trip in context. strategic. It was not about Saudis, Emiratis, Israelis or anyone else. It was first and foremost about America and its position in a region that has once again proven its strategic importance to global security and commerce and in particular to the long-term interests of the United States across the world.
The question is whether Biden said or did enough during and after the trip to convince skeptical partners that America is not leaving the region. Strategic messages from the administration preceding the visit certainly did not help. It was below average, if not confusing. Biden posted an opinion piece in The Washington Post to explain the reasons for his trip to the region, but it lacked both clarity and consistency.
This is unfortunate because this chaos in strategic communications does not reflect the situation on the ground in terms of US-Arab military relations. Operational ties are developing quite well in pursuit of the goals set by this administration and those that preceded it, all centered on creating more effective forms of US-Arab-Israeli security cooperation.
The head of US Central Command (CENTCOM), General Erik Kurilla, has been tasked by civilian leaders to work toward military integration between the United States and its regional partners as well as among those partners themselves. Few missions in military affairs are more difficult. First, the United States has never done this before with any of its Arab partners (although it has done so on some level with Israel). Second, all the political, procedural, technical, bureaucratic, and financial stars must line up for this to work. Third, it won’t happen in a few months — it will take many years.
Nevertheless, CENTCOM patiently and methodically lays the groundwork. Crucially, there are also the Abraham Accords and the official inclusion of Israel in CENTCOM – strategic developments that can have very positive effects on this integration mission. The Israelis have excelled in integration for years and have advanced technology that could be useful to Arab partners. In short, Israel can be one of the catalysts for success.
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But it is we who must lead and play the role of catalyst and facilitator. We are the indispensable hub. Strategically, we will remain focused on deterring Iran, countering violent extremist organizations, and pursuing strategic competition with China and Russia, in part by revitalizing and sustaining our regional partnerships. Functionally, our priorities are to pursue integrated air and missile defense and to counter unmanned aerial systems.
Gone is the obtuse concept of a Middle East strategic alliance, or MESA, as coined by the Trump administration, which was unlikely to see the light of day primarily due to lack of trust and differing threat perceptions among regional actors. A more serious, realistic and progressive framework is now in place, called the Regional Security Construct, or RSC. Its pillars are integrated air and missile defense, maritime security, crisis response, special operations forces, sustainment and theater fires.
Each pillar has a procedural, technical and integration phase. The procedural part, which is immediate, ensures that all participants have a clear understanding of the threat environment. The technical part, in the medium term, is necessary to achieve and maintain interoperability. The long-term integration part is essential to establish interconnected systems between domains as well as secure communications. All of these phases will require an enormous amount of work and cooperation through training, exercises, equipment, authorities and doctrine. It really is a heavy burden, but it is precisely what is needed to achieve at least some military integration with at least a few key regional partners.
Constant engagement with regional leaders to assess, monitor and evaluate all of these activities that make up the RSC will be crucial, which is why, in addition to regular bilateral meetings, CENTCOM has developed two regional conferences – one at two-star level , taking place every three months, and another at the four-star level, which will be held every six months with the chiefs of defense of the Gulf Cooperation Council plus Egypt, Jordan and Iraq (GCC + 3 ).
One of the most difficult tasks for General Kurilla will be to transparently outline to all regional partners the challenges of achieving any level of military integration, whether bilateral or multilateral. It took NATO, the most powerful alliance on the planet, decades to get there, and there is still room for improvement. Achieving this goal is difficult, not only because it requires a great deal of practical work, skill, perseverance and discipline, but also because it requires a new way of thinking and behaving on the part of regional partners who , historically, have struggled to work together. and accept the concept of interconnection. Defense reforms and a commitment to institutional capacity building are prerequisites for effective integration. Partners don’t just integrate hardware, they must also integrate governmental and military concepts, processes, institutions, and cultures, all of which are deficient in the Arab world to begin with.
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We ourselves have made terrible mistakes in the Middle East when it comes to security cooperation, and we do so consistently. We focused almost exclusively on trucks and weapons as well as access and base. We paid lip service to a true partnership. But, perhaps worst of all, we were strategically inconsistent. Middle Eastern leaders have come to expect that the United States’ commitment to their region will constantly fluctuate, wax and wane, creating the impression that we are looking to them for strategic coherence in a way which we do not want to demonstrate ourselves. We are beginning to change our attitude and approach to the region, but it will take some time to align our huge national security bureaucracy with our new vision.
Yet, however successful we are on the ground, none of this will work without clarity and consistency in American policy and strategy, and without strong American leadership to support and enable these invaluable military initiatives. That’s why Biden’s trip to the region was important — it was a first step in what will be a trip to persuade our regional partners that we remain the leader of choice and the global partner in the Middle East and beyond. This could well be Biden’s first and last step if he is not re-elected. But what matters most is that this new strategic approach to the region survive political change in Washington, which, if history is any guide, is easier said than done.
This column was first published by our friends at The Middle East Institute
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