National Security

We Shall Return

Don't be too sure there won't be another U.S. war in the Middle East.

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.

* * *

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.

Bahrain today is for all intents and purposes a province of Saudi Arabia, even if it is not polite to say so in diplomatic circles. Since the Iranian revolution, Bahrain -- like the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar -- has pursued close ties with the United States, in significant measure to counterbalance Iran and Saudi Arabia. With Washington at their back, they were able to stake out security policies that were at least nominally independent from Saudi Arabia. When Saudi Arabia wanted American forces removed from the kingdom, for example, Qatar was eager to compensate by hosting a more robust American command presence in the region.

The Arab uprisings and subsequent GCC intervention in Bahrain have turned the tables, making Saudi security backing a necessity for the smaller Gulf monarchies. From their perspective, American forces are clearly more capable than Saudi forces, but given the alignment of their interests, Riyadh is a more reliable security partner. Gulf leaders and military commanders in the coming decade will be focused on how to avoid following in Mubarak's footsteps. Part of minimizing that risk will involve decreasing security dependency on the United States. Gulf leaders have to worry that if push comes to shove, the Americans will throw them under a bus just like they did to Mubarak.

* * *

If the political dynamics in the Middle East and South Asia do not favor further American military intervention in the future, neither do the emerging military trends. The proliferation of supersonic cruise missiles and mines in the region will make for nasty forced entries into narrow maritime confines like the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf.

But the likely proliferation of nuclear weapons -- and ballistic missile delivery systems -- will pose even more formidable challenges to conventional military surges in the region. In the future, the United States will not be able to take for granted unchallenged surges of naval, air, and ground forces into regional theaters via logistics hubs. These hubs -- like the American naval presence in Bahrain -- are large, readily identifiable, and will be increasingly vulnerable to future targeting by nuclear weaponry.

Iran's nuclear weapons, assuming it gets them, will pose a direct threat to American military surge capabilities. Although American policymakers and military commanders might feel confident that they could surge forces into the Gulf despite Iranian nuclear threats because of the American nuclear deterrent, Gulf security partners might be more nervous and less willing to cooperate. As a result, they might not grant access to U.S. air, naval, and ground forces out of fear of angering Iran.

American observers who doubt that Gulf states would make such calculations should recall how Kuwait responded in the lead-up to Iraq's invasion in 1990. When faced with a build-up of Iraqi forces along its border, Kuwait decided not to mobilize its military out of fear that the move would provoke Saddam Hussein. The incentives for Gulf states to make similar strategic calculations in the future will be greater when Iran has an inventory of nuclear weapons to match its growing ballistic missile capabilities.

The Gulf states, moreover, will likely reason that the U.S. capability to threaten or use force against a nuclear Iran will be significantly diminished. Even without nuclear weapons, Gulf states have seen, in their view, a long history of American reluctance to threaten or use force against Iran. For example, the United States took no direct military action against Iran after it aided and abetted Hezbollah bombings against Americans in Lebanon in the 1980s, after Iran supported the bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996, or even after Iran supported the deadly campaign of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against U.S. troops in Iraq. Gulf states will no doubt judge that if the United States was unable and unwilling to attack Tehran under these circumstances, then it is certainly not going to attack Iran in the future, when it will be able to retaliate with nuclear weapons.

American policymakers may counter that Iran would never be foolish enough to threaten or use nuclear weapons against the United States, given its robust nuclear deterrence posture. But the threat or use of nuclear weapons might not look so foolish from Iran's perspective. One of the great strategic lessons drawn from the long history of conflict in the Middle East is this: Do not go to war without nuclear weapons, as Saddam Hussein did when he invaded Kuwait. The corollary is: Do not allow the United States to methodically build up forces in the Gulf prior to invading, as Saddam did both in the run-up to the 1991 re-conquest of Kuwait and in 2003, before the drive to topple the regime in Baghdad.

Drawing upon these lessons, Iran will likely do everything in its power to deny the United States the ability to surge conventional forces into the region -- and that might include threatening to target U.S. forces with nuclear weapons. Iran might accept the risk that preemptive use of nuclear weapons could bring on American nuclear retaliation, because failure to do so would mean certain destruction for the regime. The United States would be able to build up conventional forces in the region and oust Iran's leaders just as it did in Baghdad.

This line of strategic reasoning runs counter to conventional wisdom in the West, but we actually know little or nothing about what Iranian decision-makers think about nuclear weapons or deterrence theory. Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, opportunities for the exchange of professional views between Western and Iranian scholars, policymakers, and military leaders on these critically important issues have been extremely limited. Therefore, it's not unreasonable to assume that the Iranians, like American policymakers in the early stages of developing their nuclear triad doctrine, will think of nuclear weapons as merely "big artillery." Unfortunately, the United States and its security partners lack formal and informal exchanges with the Iranians akin to the Cold War discussions and arms control negotiations between the Americans and Soviets, which allowed both parties to develop mutual understandings of the other's perception of nuclear weapons. These understandings were essential for crisis management in the Cold War strategic relationship after the Cuban missile crisis.

Meanwhile, the Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, are likely to look for their own nuclear deterrents. Much like France wanted its own nuclear force de frappe during the Cold War, the Gulf states will want their own nuclear weapons to deter Iran. Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states will worry that the United States would be deterred from coming to their defense in future regional crises by Iran's nuclear weapons.

Saudi Arabia and other Arab states are likely to see nuclear weapons as a quick fix for all of their security woes. Although they have been on a shopping spree in the past decade, buying expensive and sophisticated Western military technology, they have had a tough time absorbing the new technology and fully utilizing and integrating weapons systems. To be sure, in a rough net assessment, Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf have significantly greater conventional capabilities than Iran. But if Iran goes nuclear, they will want to follow suit.

* * *

Americans may be weary of conflict in the Middle East and South Asia, but strategic prudence demands that we contemplate future military interventions in the Central Command theater. A scan of the horizon reveals that both political and military trends in the region pose formidable obstacles to conventional force surges into the region.

But there is another wrinkle in this story that U.S. policymakers must contend with as they plan for the future. As Gulf monarchies seek to reduce their dependence on American military power, they will increasingly look to China for security assurances. China does not have a political agenda devoted to promoting democratization, and it maintains political and diplomatic ties with both Arab states and Iran. China's military activity in the region is modest but increasing, as evidenced by its recent peacekeeping dispatches to the region and naval port visits in the Gulf. Beijing is likely to send more naval forces to the Gulf to increase its presence there and enhance its ability to protect the sea lanes which bring oil to China's thirsty economy. China is keenly aware that the United States has naval supremacy in the Gulf, but will be working to erode that strategic edge in the future.

Faced with these realities, there is a need for new thinking and innovative conceptualizations of surges into Centcom's area of responsibility. Theater campaign planners will have to think about contingencies in which the United States cannot slowly and methodically build up forces in the region and then kick off campaigns after most troops, arms, and equipment are in place. Future U.S. force build-ups in the region will be far too vulnerable to preemptive nuclear strikes. As a result, planners will have to devise campaign plans in which the insertion of U.S. military forces begins with an immediate rolling and flowing start. The United States will have to work from smaller troop footprints and be prepared to start fighting even as follow-on forces are on the way. Ideally, these forces would flow from multiple staging positions to reduce vulnerability to nuclear attack. The politics of the region, however, will work against securing a multitude of staging areas from which to deploy.

The region under the purview of Centcom has always been riddled with political violence that has posed formidable challenges to military operations. But in plotting a course over the horizon, the political and military obstacles for American military surges into the region are poised to grow even larger. As a result, theater contingency planners will have fewer good options for projecting American military power into the region -- and they'll have to do more with the bad and the ugly.

Lucas Jackson-Pool/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Rowdies with a Cause

How a bunch of soccer fans became the Muslim Brotherhood’s worst nightmare.

Soccer violence has played a surprisingly prominent role in Egypt's 2011 revolution and the protests that have flared across the nation in recent days. Tightly organized bands of soccer fans known as the Ultras were instrumental in the effort to topple Hosni Mubarak, and more recently they've stood at the forefront of the wave of bloodletting that prompted President Morsy to declare a state of emergency after more than 30 people were killed in the soccer-related riots in the Suez Canal city of Port Said. Since the Port Said fiasco, protests have continued to swell to the point that there has been serious talk of removing Morsy from power and installing an interim unity government.

The Ultras seem to be everywhere in these latest demonstrations, much as they were in all the protests that have taken place in Egypt over the past two years: Tossing tear gas canisters back at riot police, clashing with supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, and storming the presidential palace. But the violence now erupting across a nation that once stood front and center in the Arab Spring revolutions begs the question: How did a nebulous group of football fans evolve into a political force to be reckoned with?

James Dorsey, a professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, has studied Mideast soccer culture for years. "The big picture is that all Arab autocratic regimes felt the need to control public spaces," he says. "There were many forms of dissent, but they were largely suppressed except for the mosque and the soccer pitch. With these two institutions, the numbers were too big and the emotions they evoked were too strong."

According to Dorsey, the Ultras became the very first organization that dared to take on the much-despised Egyptian police force, making them irresistible to young men looking for a cause. Egypt's economic woes have created a huge population of uneducated and unemployed youths searching for purpose. As the Ultras' ranks swelled and their reputation grew, so did their hatred of the Egyptian security forces, whose brutal methods of repressing dissent were infamous. "Basically, for a period of four years prior to the overthrow of Mubarak, you had almost weekly clashes between the Ultras and security forces in the stadiums," he says. "They were fearless, they had nothing to lose, and they became battle-hardened."

Ahmed, one of the founding members of the Ultras Ahlawy, the Ultras' Cairo branch, says that, after their education in violence at the stadiums, it was only a matter of time before the Ultras moved to the forefront of the 2011 uprising against Mubarak. The soccer fans weren't the only group targeted by the government, but they were one of the few with the organizational backbone to fight back. "So we started a group that was based on freedom, inside the stadiums and out. Our stance is that we never start violence, but if someone is violent toward us, we won't remain silent. We knew we had to be a part of the revolution."

For their part, many activists say they're grateful to have had the Ultras backing them during the 2011 uprising as well as in more recent protests. After suffering at the hands of the Egyptian police during the uprising, they seem to empathize with the Ultras' hatred of the security forces. "I think many people have this impression that the revolution was peaceful, but it really wasn't," says Sharif Abdel Kouddous, an Egyptian activist and correspondent for Democracy Now. "There was a lot of physical resistance that was necessary in order to overcome the security forces, and the Ultras were very important in that struggle."

Despite its symbiotic nature, the relationship between the Ultras and the activists is a complicated one, with jealousy and rivalry on both sides. "I know female activists who are very upset with them because some of them have made it clear that they don't want women around after 8 PM at their sit-ins," says Abdel Kouddous. "There's a lot of misogyny and that sort of thing."

However, Ahmed says that after the bloodshed that took place during the 2011 uprising, the Ultras assumed a protective stance towards other protesters, especially the women, who have become increasingly vulnerable to sexual violence. "If we see a helpless person in the streets getting beaten by the police, or by anyone else, we're automatically there," he says. "We've been fighting this battle against the police for five years. We have experience in how to deal with them. Now, when there is violence anywhere, people immediately ask, ‘Where are the Ultras?"'

Not everyone in Egypt is as enthusiastic about the role the Ultras have assumed within the youth movement. In a January 26 statement, the Muslim Brotherhood made it clear that Morsy's regime was extremely concerned by the Ultras' tendency towards politicization, urging the media and political parties not to incite them to "subversion and the use of violence and thuggery." "Achievement of the objectives of the revolution is a responsibility we should all shoulder together," the statement read. "All Egyptians must condemn those violent criminals and hold them accountable in accordance with the provisions of the law. It certainly is most absurd that such individuals or groups should pretend they are claiming martyrs' rights with yet more unlawful killings and bloodshed."

Ahmed insists that the Ultras are maintaining their distance from all too-direct involvement in politics, though he does accuse some activists of provoking the Ultras to violence for their own ends. "We have our free will," he says. "We do everything when we need to do it, not when someone needs us to do it. That's why nobody can use us from the political side. A lot of people tried to use us and convince us to join political parties, but we still maintain that we are a football group and we're not concerned with politics."

According to Dorsey, given their roots and the way they've evolved into such a powerful force in the protest movement, it would be a mistake to dismiss the Ultras as thugs or garden-variety soccer hooligans, the way the Muslim Brotherhood has. He says the reality of their journey from the stadiums to Tahrir Square is much less simple.

"I very deliberately don't use the word ‘hooligan,'" he says. "If you're a British football hooligan, you're in an open, pluralistic, democratic society. You have a multitude of options to express your dissatisfaction. If you were in Egypt, violence was imposed on you. The regime was violent, by definition. There were no avenues of expression and the ones that did exist were violently repressed."

The problem with the Ultras, and the Egyptian protest movement in general, according to Tarek Masoud, associate professor of public policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, is that any government in Egypt would probably be the target of their rage. "It seems to me that the Ultras are, by now, very seasoned protesters and are able to bring a lot of attention to their demands and create a problem for the government that's in power," he says. "It almost doesn't matter who is in charge. A lot of the youth movement has grievances, and the government is incapable of alleviating those grievances quickly, because of the nature of the challenges. Not necessarily because Mohamed Morsy is incompetent, but because the Egyptian state isn't strong or competent. It's a weak state."

Although Ahmed acknowledges that choosing between Morsy's Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government and the former military-dominated regime isn't something he relishes, he rejects the idea that the Ultras are simply looking for an excuse to start trouble. "Just because there is no great alternative doesn't mean that we have to accept another dictator," he says. "We've done that before, and we saw what happened. Not after we lost all those people and started a revolution. We weren't fighting to end up back where we started."

Dorsey thinks the Ultras are a microcosm of Egypt's larger struggles with implementing democracy in a former dictatorship. "As unified as the Ultras are in some ways, they're also a very diverse group," he says. "And they're grappling with what all the youth groups in Egypt are grappling with right now: How to make the transition from street to system. These guys know street politics. It's the real politics that are the challenge at this point."

With no end in sight to the turmoil that has gripped Egypt since Mubarak's ouster, it isn't clear what role the Ultras will play in any future political solution that might take place. The next stage of Egypt's political development -- trying to create order out of chaos, transforming a weak, post-authoritarian state into a functioning democracy -- is likely to require more subtlety than the anti-authoritarian instincts of Ahmed and his friends. Whatever the outcome, Ahmed is adamant that he'll never stop fighting against the culture of official impunity, or allow his revolution to be hijacked by Islamists or members of Mubarak's old regime. "Peace will never happen unless the people know how precious their blood is," he says emphatically. "Either we have justice, or you'll see chaos."

Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images