Shortly before he left office in February 2011, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told West Point cadets that "in my opinion, any future defense secretary who advised the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,' as General MacArthur so delicately put it." The remark no doubt reflected Secretary Gates's fatigue and frustration from the enormous intellectual and emotional burdens associated with overseeing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One suspects, however, that in a more reflective moment, Gates would have acknowledged that "never say never" is a wise rule of thumb in planning for military contingencies, especially in the region that makes up Central Command's area of responsibility. Few, for example, predicted the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Gates himself -- who was a senior CIA official during the covert war supporting the Afghan resistance -- surely did not anticipate then that the United States would have to return to Afghanistan two decades later to oust a Taliban regime that was harboring terrorists. Before 1990, moreover, no one predicted that Iraq, having just ended a bitter eight-year war with Iran, would swing its battered forces south to invade Kuwait.
So if it's conventional wisdom that the United States will not, or should not, intervene militarily in the Middle East or South Asia after it draws down forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's also likely dead wrong. What is true, however, is that political and military trajectories in the Middle East and South Asia are likely to increasingly challenge U.S. contingency access in the coming decade. The ability for the United States to surge large-scale forces into the region, as it did in the 1990 and 2003 wars against Iraq, will grow increasingly circumscribed. The United States will have to adapt to this new strategic landscape by developing more nimble, highly-mobile, stealthy, and networked forces, and by abandoning the traditional practice of slowly and steadily building up conventional forces at regional logistic hubs prior to launching war.
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Perhaps the most significant factor that portends against further intervention in the Middle East and South Asia is increased political resistance -- and outright opposition -- from the countries in the region. That resistance is likely to come from the new regimes emerging from the Arab uprisings, as well as a number of Gulf monarchies.
Indeed, the political trends in the region are unlikely to conform to the rosy predictions of democratic peace theorists, whose musings have implicitly informed the security policies of both Republican and Democratic administrations for decades. Old authoritarian regimes seem to be passing the way of the dodo bird, but the new regimes taking shape are heavily influenced by militant Islamic ideology that will make them less likely to engage in security or military cooperation with the United States.
Democracy optimists argue that these ideological regimes, once entrenched in power, will have to moderate their zeal in order to govern. Pragmatism will ultimately trump ideology. That line of reasoning, however, is based on the assumption that the policy decisions of such regimes can be explained by rational choice economic theory. In other words, if they want to attract international capital and participate in the world economy, they are going to have to break with their ideological affinities. But that reasoning ignores a hard fact of international politics: that time and again, political and ideological prerogatives trump economic rationality. It made little economic sense, for example, for Pakistan to pursue a nuclear weapons program in the 1970s, just as it makes little economic sense for Iran to do so today. Clearly, both Pakistan and Iran made major policy decisions based on political-military priorities rather than economic calculations.
As for the surviving monarchies in the Middle East, they too will likely be less accommodating to American military forces than they have been in the past. To be sure, much of the Arab support for past American military operations -- like both Iraq wars -- was hidden from the public eye. Arab states often loudly and publicly denounced "unilateral American" military action in the region at the same time as they supported it in backroom dealings, quietly authorizing facilities support and air, land, and sea access.
But if Arab Gulf states were quietly supportive in the past, their opposition to American military force is likely to grow in the future. They read the aftermath of the Arab uprisings much differently than did American and European policymakers. The Gulf monarchies were shocked that the United States "abandoned" Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in his time of need in early 2011. Their leaders expected the United States to push for Mubarak and the Egyptian military to crack down on public protests in Cairo. After all, American policymakers during the Carter administration had at least given this policy option consideration during the Iranian revolution in 1979.
Already, several Gulf states have begun to translate their displeasure into policy independence from Washington. In 2011, for example, a coalition of Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia intervened in Bahrain to quell domestic unrest in the island country. They did so under the banner of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which for years had been a feckless military force. Largely unnoticed in Western commentary was that the GCC, for the first time in its history, mounted a relatively effective military intervention.