Reassessment: Why 2011 Should Force a 2012 American Rethink of its Middle East Military Relationships
by Gabriel M. Scheinmann
JINSA Visiting Fellow
by Gabriel M. Scheinmann
JINSA Visiting Fellow
It is an odd situation when your strongest ally finds itself surrounded by increasingly hostile forces whose militaries you arm and train. And yet, this is exactly the state of U.S.-Israel affairs. 2011 witnessed the decline or fall of many of America’s Middle Eastern allies. Islamist groups made major gains in Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan and Egypt. The “partner for peace” Palestinian Authority (PA) concluded a reconciliation agreement with the terrorist group Hamas, Iran extended its domination of Lebanon through its Hezbollah proxy, and the Iraqi government took a pro-Iranian authoritarian turn following the American withdrawal. The common thread to all these regimes: the U.S. has continued its military aid, assistance, or training to all of them despite these substantial negative political changes.
Take Egypt. The United States has been Egypt’s prime military benefactor since the signing of the Camp David Accords in 1978, providing $1.3 billion in military aid in 2011 and selling it many of its heavy arms systems including M1 Abrams tanks, which are assembled in Egypt, and over 200 F-16 fighter jets. Following the fall of the Mubarak regime last February, Egypt has permitted passage of Iranian warships through the Suez Canal, been unable to secure the Egyptian-Israeli border from increased terror attacks and arms smuggling into Gaza, and was unwilling to prevent a mob attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo. Most recently, radical Islamist parties, with an anti-Israel if not anti-Semitic agenda, have won an overwhelming victory in lower house parliamentary elections, promising to put the Egyptian-Israeli peace accord to a popular referendum. Israel could soon face a situation where it is being threatened by radical, Islamist regime whose military is American trained and armed.
Comparable developments have occurred in the West Bank. Since 2007, the United States has overseen the training of a 5,000-man Palestinian Authority Security Force in Jordan. At a cost exceeding $500 million, the effort is intended to train Palestinian forces to fight terror in the West Bank. Although Israel has largely been supportive, Israelis reiterate that these forces cannot be counted on to operate independently following a potential full Israeli withdrawal. 2011, however, saw major changes in the PA’s commitment to fighting terror. First, in April, a U.S.-trained PA battalion opened fire on a group of Jewish worshippers at Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, killing one Israeli. Second, Fatah, which controls the PA and is purportedly the moderate, secular pro-peace wing of the Palestinian movement, signed a political reconciliation agreement—yet to be implemented—with Hamas, the genocidal terrorist group. Third, it embarked on an international campaign to contravene the Oslo Accords, to which the United States is a signatory, and unilaterally declare statehood. Washington is once again training a military force that could soon be commanded by an Islamist group that aspires to destroy Israel.
Washington has also made similar strategic short-sighted decisions with other Middle Eastern countries. In the 1980s, the United States provided billions of dollars of funding and weapons to Afghan mujahideen in their fight against the Soviet Union, only to have those same fighters turn on the United States after the Cold War. Since 2005, the U.S. has provided military aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces, even though Lebanon’s government is controlled by Hezbollah. Over the past few months, the Obama administration agreed to sell Iraq $11 billion of arms, including 36 F-16 fighter jets, despite the increasingly authoritarian turn of its government. Given the ruling Shiite party’s closeness to Iran and America’s full withdrawal from Iraq, America may be incidentally arming Iran’s closet collaborator.
If 2011 was the year of sweeping regional change, then 2012 should be the year of a regional American military reassessment. Washington needs to decide whether the regimes it currently funds and arms are advancing or contesting American interests in the region. Can one reasonably imagine a future where the new Egyptian regime is as friendly to American interests as the previous one?
Washington canceled Operation Bright Star last fall, the biennial exercise it has held in Egypt since 1980, but the modest conditions of the recently passed foreign aid law—transition to a civilian government and maintenance of the peace treaty with Israel—are waivable by the Secretary of State. Does the Obama administration truly think that the American withdrawal from Iraq will encourage Baghdad to balance against the Iranian regime rather than ally with it? Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki has launched a campaign against Sunni politicians, rejecting Sunni demands for increased autonomy, saying it would lead to “rivers of blood.” Is Washington confident that the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority will maintain its superficial commitment to peace despite including Hamas? In 2012, the United States needs to literally put its money where its mouth ought to be and stop arming regimes that do not serve the long term American interest.
Gabriel Max Scheinmann, JINSA Visiting Fellow, is a Ph.D. candidate in Government at Georgetown University, focusing on international security, alliance architecture, and grand strategy. His publications have been featured in the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the Hudson Institute-New York.