Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, may have shed some light on a corner of America's grand strategy -- the real version that officials don't usually talk about in public.
During a media roundtable at the U.S. embassy in London on August 30, a reporter asked Dempsey whether he would get advanced warning from the Israeli military, should Israeli leaders decide to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. Dempsey said that he did not ask his Israeli counterpart for such warning, explaining, "I don't want to be accused of trying to influence -- nor do I want -- nor do I want to be complicit if they choose to do it. Really. So I haven't asked the question." When asked about Israeli concerns about a "zone of immunity" -- the time when Israeli's leaders conclude their military options against Iran will no longer be effective -- Dempsey expressed confidence in economic sanctions and concluded, "I don't think that the zone of immunity that Israel feels itself bound by, I don't think it's as significant." Finally, Dempsey said he had not prepared any military options in response to an Israeli attack on Iran.
Dempsey's remarks reveal a new approach to security issues in Central Command's area of responsibility (which stretches from Egypt to Afghanistan). Long gone -- and lamented by few -- are the days of using offensive action to resolve perceived problems. That approach wasn't just a Bush-era phenomenon; President Obama escalated the war in Afghanistan in an attempt to seize the initiative, a surge now in rapid reverse. Instead of offense, the new U.S. approach emphasizes defense.
Dempsey's London remarks show an effort to create as much distance as possible between the United States and a potential Israeli strike. The United States is building a new missile defense radar site in Qatar, it will hold a multinational minesweeping exercise in the Persian Gulf later this month, and it will conduct a scaled-back missile defense exercise with Israel later in the autumn. These steps, while important, are reactive and thus provide a contrast with the U.S. approach over the past decade.
According to the New York Times, some Obama officials believe Israel is pressuring the United States to issue an ultimatum, backed by a public military commitment, in response to the Iranian nuclear program, which the IAEA recently concluded is not slowing down. Dempsey's remarks clearly pushed back against Israel's pressure for a commitment to offensive action. But beyond that, they also reveal an attempt by the Obama administration to develop a new strategy in the Central Command region that will require fewer military resources than did the offensive-minded approach of the past.
In contrast with Jerusalem, Washington views Iran as a distant and manageable problem. President Obama has pledged that he will not allow Iran to become a nuclear weapons state and has publicly rejected a policy of Cold-War style containment. However, Iran is not likely to conduct a detectable nuclear weapons test, leaving its nuclear weapons status conveniently ambiguous. And with the memories of the Iraq WMD fiasco still fresh, a U.S. preemptive attack in the face of such ambiguity would seem out of the question.
So, despite what the president has said, in truth, containment will be the long-term strategy. That's not necessarily a bad thing. But the trick will be to implement the strategy with fewer military resources than are currently employed.
The Pentagon currently supplies Central Command with two aircraft carrier strike groups. In order to sustain this commitment, last week the Navy had to send the USS John C. Stennis carrier strike group back to sea four months early and only five months after returning from its last long cruise to the region. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta gave an almost-apologetic speech to the Stennis's crew before their departure from Bremerton, Washington. This ongoing commitment, mostly in preparation for trouble involving Iran, is absorbing at least 60 percent of the Navy's total carrier fleet and is requiring an operating tempo that is not sustainable for long.