Stop the Presses! Trump Reducing Military in the Gulf?
Update: Trump suggests that "we were protecting very wealthy countries" for very little in return.
“If we are going to defend countries they should all respect us by making a contribution.”
This, from President Trump in a press conference yesterday during a meeting with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. Trump was asked about the announcement that the U.S. would be moving Patriot missile defense systems and other military hardware and personnel out of Saudi Arabia (more below). He suggested that tensions with Saudi Arabia over their oil production is still running high, and that he has lost patience with “protecting” other, wealthy countries that don’t give much in return.
According to a “breaking news” report from the Wall Street Journal today, the Trump Administration is starting to take some of his military hardware out of Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf, citing—get this—“assessments by some officials that Tehran no longer poses an immediate threat to American strategic interests.”
Could it be that TAC’s Realism & Restraint hypnopaedia is finally working in the White House…the Pentagon?
If it wasn’t coming from WSJ we might be suspicious because it sounds like every Daniel Larison and Doug Bandow column come true:
The U.S. is removing four Patriot missile batteries from Saudi Arabia along with dozens of military personnel sent following a series of attacks on the Saudi oil facilities last year, according to several U.S. officials. The attacks were part of hostilities that took place over several months.
Two U.S. jet fighter squadrons also have left the region, and U.S. officials also will consider a reduction soon in the U.S. Navy presence in the Persian Gulf, the officials said. The redeployment of the Patriot systems, which now is under way, hasn’t been previously disclosed.
The report is brief and without much more detail than that but perhaps we can read between a few of the lines. One, at the very basic level, there’s been consistent pressure to reduce our presence in the region, and Trump has led much of that since his own foreign policy campaign speech in 2016. Two, the ramp-up of the additional military personnel (some 14,000) and weapons/defense systems, was indeed a reaction to tensions in the Gulf last summer and fall. Whether the Iranians were responsible for attacks on Saudi oil facilities or not (Tehran has never taken responsibility), those tensions have simmered down substantially since then (not counting the harassment of navy ships by small Iranian craft two weeks ago).
Three, there’s been a noticeable cooling between the Saudi Kingdom and the Trump Administration, and the White House has been increasingly unwilling to fight their battles, that’s clear. While they put more people and equipment in the country, they did not retaliate on the regime’s behalf after it was attacked last year.**
Four, and most importantly, the real issues are in Iraq, and Patriot missile defense systems have already been moved there in recent months. Up until very recently, even after COVID took over the attention of the White House, there has been a ping-pong of accusations between Washington (mostly by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo) and Tehran over militant attacks on Iraq bases on which U.S. troops are stationed. There was another attack on a military installation used to house U.S. military and diplomats near Baghdad airport just yesterday (no one was hurt). The U.S. has blamed Iranian-backed militant groups for all the recent attacks, which Iran denies (though it has vowed retribution for the U.S. assassination of its top general, Qassem Soleimani, in January). Now add to that acrimony an uptick of ISIS ambushes and clashes with Iraqi military and their Popular Mobilization Forces (which include Iranian-backed fighters) in the country—and in Syria. This is a real tinderbox, especially as the Iraqi Parliament continues to ask the U.S. to leave, and they just appointed a new prime minister who will be under pressure to make it happen.
[By the way, as this Kate Brennan and Ryan Goodman piece from April contends, we really don’t know how many U.S. troops there are in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan as of today.]
So the WSJ report probably only reflects a shift in strategic focus. It is difficult to believe that suddenly Washington doesn’t consider Tehran a problem in other places. Pompeo seems to be behind a microphone every day, affirming the Iranian bugaboo. Plus, we know the military (and others) want to put more attention on China, too.
But it can’t hurt to dream big.
** We would be remiss not to mention the recent tensions with Saudi Arabia, in which Trump has threatened the kingdom that if it did not cut its oil production, Washington would start cutting its aid. As Military Times points out:
“It’s not clear, however, whether the ongoing oil dispute or the struggle to parcel out the much-coveted Patriot systems was the key factor in the U.S. decision to pull systems out of the kingdom…Some Republican senators warned in late March that if Saudi Arabia did not change course, it risked losing American defense support and facing a range of potential ‘levers of statecraft’ such as tariffs and other trade restrictions, investigations and sanctions.”