Authors: Andrew J. Bacevich
Tags: #General, #Military, #World, #Middle Eastern, #United States, #Middle East, #History, #Political Science
In terms of immediate impact, the Carter Doctrine hit America’s military establishment with something less than dramatic effect. Adding the Persian Gulf to the list of U.S. strategic priorities in no way lessened the emphasis placed on defending Western Europe or Northeast Asia. If anything, in an atmosphere of heightened tension, preexisting priorities acquired additional emphasis. So the day-to-day existence of most U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines went on much as before.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the election of Ronald Reagan to succeed Jimmy Carter combined to revive the Cold War. The Nixon-era conception of détente joined the Nixon Doctrine on the scrapheap of discarded ideas. That the Soviet-American rivalry would within a decade pass out of existence seemed about as likely as Washington reconciling with Fidel Castro’s Cuba or North and South Korea agreeing to peaceful reunification. In international relations, some facts were, or at least appeared to be, simply permanent.
Whether the furious preparations to defend the Fulda Gap that Albert Wohlstetter had disparaged helped avert World War III, increased the possibility of its occurrence, or were largely irrelevant to the issue is impossible to say with certainty. Yet in retrospect, this much seems abundantly clear: Even as U.S. forces in Europe during the 1980s were manning what Americans liked to call the “Frontier of Freedom,” a profound shift was already underway. In almost imperceptible increments, the actual center of America’s military universe was in the process of moving thousands of miles to the south and east.
Jimmy Carter’s declaration that the United States would henceforth defend the Persian Gulf elicited this response: Okay, how? Presidential Directive 63, issued as Carter was preparing to leave office, provided a preliminary answer, detailing the “Persian Gulf Security Framework” that his administration had begun to put in place. Although PD 63 expressed the hope that allies and friendly local nations might lend a hand, it placed primary emphasis on “building up our own capabilities to project force into the region while maintaining a credible presence there.” That the United States should shoulder primary responsibility for securing the planet’s principal oil storehouse was no longer a proposition to be debated. It had been decided.
As a first step toward fulfilling that responsibility, Carter in March 1980 created the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (RDJTF).
To stand up this new headquarters, Carter selected a Marine, Lieutenant General P. X. Kelley. Despite its imposing name, the RDJTF did not qualify as an actual fighting force. As an organization, it existed largely on paper.
Minimally potent as a combat force, the RDJTF primarily served symbolic purposes, as Kelley himself admitted. Yet even in its infancy, he insisted, the RDJTF sent a “strong and powerful signal” to the Soviet Union that “we will not tolerate military adventurism” and to other countries that “we are indeed a nation to be reckoned with.”
The general was talking through his hat.
Granted, when it came to providing the RDJTF with a modicum of muscle, Kelley confronted very large practical constraints. Deploying U.S. forces across great distances into the theater of operations and then sustaining them when they got there posed major challenges. Existing transportation assets—ships and planes capable of moving military equipment over long distances—came nowhere near to satisfying projected requirements. Within the region, port facilities, airfields, and roads were limited. And in contrast to the Soviets, Kelley wrote, “we do not have—nor do we seek—a permanent base structure near the Middle East.” Yet however daunting the mission, the United States really had no choice in the matter. To an even greater extent than the United States itself, America’s allies needed Persian Gulf oil. “As long as they are dependent,” Kelley concluded, “so are we.”
A series of unspoken and largely unexamined assumptions provided the foundation for this commitment. The first was that the Soviet Union coveted the Persian Gulf and possessed both the will and the capacity to seize it. In other words, the most worrisome threat came from
the region. A second assumption was that America’s friends and allies were incapable of fending for themselves, even when their own most vital interests were at risk. They needed help that only the United States could provide—a conviction destined to remain intact for the next several decades. A third assumption, stemming from the first two, was that there existed only one sure way to guarantee access to the stores of energy that Americans and America’s allies required to sustain their economies and their lifestyles, namely the military might of the United States. Danger and dependence combined to dictate a military response.
Within a year, Lieutenant General Robert Kingston, an army officer, succeeded Kelley. Announcing with admirable candor that his job was “to ensure the unimpeded flow of oil from the Arabian Gulf,” Kingston set out to transform his command from an embryonic stopgap into a force able to mount a plausible defense against a Soviet offensive headed toward the Straits of Hormuz.
During Kingston’s tenure, his command gained both a measure of permanence and enhanced standing when the RDJTF was rechristened United States Central Command, more commonly known as CENTCOM. The three-star Kingston thereby picked up a promotion.
CENTCOM’s creation qualified as an important but not surprising development. The Pentagon had previously divided the planet into four vast territorial entities, one focused each on Europe, the Atlantic, the Pacific, and Latin America. CENTCOM now became a fifth such “unified command” assigned its own geographic “area of responsibility” or AOR.
As employed in this context, the term
carries with it quasi-imperial connotations. It is a euphemism. No senior U.S. military officer, whether in the 1980s or today, would dream of claiming to rule or govern another people or nation. Yet the “responsibility” accorded to regional commanders endows them with the contemporary equivalent of viceregal authority.
From CENTCOM’s inception, General Kingston and his successors have wielded that authority over an AOR including not only countries immediately adjacent to the Persian Gulf but others considerably further afield, such as Egypt, Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, and Pakistan. At CENTCOM’s founding in January 1983, its AOR encompassed nineteen countries in all.
Although the Pentagon created the command in response to very specific crises, in other words, right from the outset its charter reflected expectations of—or provided a pretext for—more wide-ranging action.
Yet with CENTCOM’s creation came some less obvious implications. The RDJTF had represented the Pentagon’s hastily improvised response to events in Iran and Afghanistan. It was a quick fix. By comparison, as a four-star headquarters, CENTCOM conveyed an enduring commitment—the equivalent of a government creating a new ministry or a university creating a new college. It signified that the United States was getting serious about the Greater Middle East.
“Getting serious” also implied a preference for uniforms over suits as the principal agents of U.S. policy. Henceforth, rather than military power serving as the handmaiden of diplomacy, the reverse would be true: Across the CENTCOM AOR, diplomacy now took a backseat to military imperatives.
Furthermore, there was no turning back. Once made, such an arrangement becomes irreversible and open-ended. This, at least, describes the American experience throughout the postwar era.
At the conclusion of the war against Nazi Germany, from his headquarters in Reims, France, Dwight D. Eisenhower had sent this admirably succinct cable to the War Department: “The mission of this Allied Force was fulfilled at 02:41, local time, May 7th, 1945.” In the seven decades since, no U.S. regional commander has replicated Eisenhower’s achievement. Not one has ever fulfilled his mission. That is, at no time have conditions within the command’s assigned AOR ever reached the point where the officer in charge has felt able to report the job finished.
CENTCOM would prove no exception. In that regard, it has not disappointed.
In addition to presiding over this reshuffling of organizational furniture, General Kingston faced the immediate challenge of discerning exactly what his assigned task was likely to entail. The questions he faced were fundamental. If the principal aim was to defend Persian Gulf oil, where was the prospective battlefield? What forces would the mission require? How would they get to the theater of operations? Once there, how could they be provided with the wherewithal to survive, much less to fight?
Kingston’s answer to the first question both clarified and complicated his task. Shielding the Gulf from external threat meant positioning that shield well forward of the Gulf itself. Accepting the view that Soviet entry into Afghanistan presaged a further lunge through Iran toward Iraq and Saudi Arabia, Kingston’s planners identified the Zagros Mountains—traversing western Iran along a northwest-southeast axis—as the place on which to anchor that defense. To hold the Zagros against an attack coming from the east or north was to safeguard the bulk of Persian Gulf oil reserves along with the maritime lines of communication needed to move that oil to market. Much as they had the Fulda Gap, U.S. military planners designated the Zagros as key terrain.
There were several differences, of course. Whereas the United States maintained substantial combat forces in proximity to Fulda, it had none within thousands of miles of the Zagros, save a few token naval forces stationed at Bahrain. Whereas the Federal Republic of Germany, a close NATO ally, welcomed U.S. efforts to defend its territory, Iran was unlikely to view with favor the presence of troops from a country it routinely denounced as the Great Satan. A contingent dispatched into the CENTCOM AOR, Kingston remarked, “would start from almost zero in terms of combat power and support structure in the region.”
Above all, there was the matter of already existing large-scale hostilities. In September 1980, Iraqi forces had invaded the Islamic Republic. Envisioned by Saddam Hussein as a quick land grab, the ensuing Iran-Iraq War turned out to be an inconclusive slugfest, destined to last for eight bloody years. In short, as Kingston considered how to thwart a Soviet offensive into Iran, that country was already under assault by an altogether different adversary coming from the opposite direction. It was the equivalent of U.S. forces trying to defend the Fulda Gap while the Federal Republic of Germany was simultaneously fending off a French attack from the west.
Even so, Kingston persisted in attempting to adapt the standard Cold War template for organizing a defense of this just-discovered frontier of freedom. Doing so entailed simply ignoring inconvenient cultural, religious, and sectarian complexities. So in a presentation on his command’s “new challenges” delivered to his British counterparts in London, for example, Kingston pointedly cited five occasions over the previous three hundred years when Russia had invaded Persia and proceeded to rattle off the army divisions, tactical fighter wings, and carrier battle groups for which he’d received planning authority in the event of incursion number six.
Notably, Islam did not qualify for mention anywhere in Kingston’s presentation, suggesting that the CENTCOM commander’s checklist of factors affecting developments in his AOR did not include matters of faith.
The prevailing CENTCOM worldview allowed no room for God, even in a region where God was still very much alive. Nor did Kingston even acknowledge the fault lines—Arab vs. Israel, Arab vs. Persian, Arab vs. Arab—that posed more enduring threats to regional stability than anything the Soviets were likely to introduce.
It was like giving a talk about American politics and ignoring the influence of lobbies or special-interest groups or Mammon. Do it if you like, but you will come across as naïve or simply disingenuous.
This see-what-you-want-to-see-and-ignore-the-rest perspective found expression in a document known as OPLAN 1002, formally known as “Defense of the Arabian Peninsula.” This was CENTCOM’s blueprint for war, shaped by a Cold War mindset and therefore fixated with the prospect of Soviet leaders, their forces struggling unsuccessfully to pacify Afghanistan, nonetheless launching a major offensive to conquer Iran.
OPLAN 1002 spelled out the intended U.S. response. From bases in the United States, five army and two Marine Corps divisions would deploy to Iran. Upon arrival, they would move overland to take up positions along the Zagros. To provide supporting firepower, American naval and air assets would also converge on the region. Given sufficient advanced warning, CENTCOM planners counted on these forces to deter any prospective attack or, if need be, to inflict on the Soviets the sort of crushing defeat they themselves had inflicted on the Wehrmacht at Stalingrad back in 1943.
Of course, during the few years remaining in the USSR’s existence, no such attack materialized. As to whether the Soviet offensive postulated by Central Command was ever remotely in the cards (or even operationally feasible), opinions may differ. Even at the time, Kingston himself expressed doubts. With their ongoing troubles in Eastern Europe and Afghanistan, he thought the Soviets had “a pretty full plate.” He believed the Kremlin unlikely to invite a direct military confrontation with the United States.
Yet for our purposes, what did
occur matters less than what
. A panoply of Pentagon initiatives undertaken to avert Soviet armed intervention subsequently facilitated U.S. armed intervention not only in the Persian Gulf but also throughout the entire CENTCOM AOR. In that regard, the putative Soviet threat of the 1980s served as a placeholder, providing a handy rationale for developing capabilities subsequently put to other purposes. The upshot: A posture justified by the need to defend the Persian Gulf from outside intrusion positioned the United States itself to intrude. As the Soviet Union faded from the scene, Washington began entertaining visions of policing the entirety of the Greater Middle East.