In a small, tight room in a US Coast Guard building in Washington’s southwest quarter, a dozen former federal officials, academics and journalists were squeezed in on Jan. 9 with Gen. James Mattis, commander of the US Central Command. Most prominent among the officials was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, just off his failed quest for the US Republican presidential nomination. We were served coffee, sandwiches and chocolate-chip cookies, and told that under Chatham House rules, we could talk later about what was said, but not who said it.
If you are a senior general for the world’s strongest military power, you can understandably feel unsettled these days. Allied governments are under threat, al Qaeda splinter groups are on the rise, economic trends are roiling Western nations, and even the most basic of earthly constants—the weather—has turned wild.
Mattis, a bookish officer with a taste for Roman history and a deft political touch, is at the center of the worst trouble, his turf stretching from the Middle East, to Central and South Asia and the Horn of Africa. So, two months before he retires, he is trying to frame a creative strategy, at a time of extraordinary budget cuts, to be on top of this exceptional turbulence over the coming decade and a half or so.
If the exercise is an indication, the answer, in a word, is proxies. Like never before, the US should scale back its own forces and figure out imaginative alliances of convenience. The new US strategy—if it’s picked up in the Pentagon and implemented non-ideologically—can be an outsized tool to influence not just military affairs, but the politics and economics of countries around the world.
Circumstances force the US military to make this calculus. US planners assume that military spending over the next decade will be cut by at least $487 billion, and perhaps twice that sum. One participant in the Mattis brain-storming said that the US will be forced to call home an aircraft-carrier group from the eastern Mediterranean Sea, the Persian Gulf or the South China Sea.
The participant called the new strategy a “federated” approach to getting things done. Another labeled it “inter-dependence.” Whatever the case, one example of its use would be in the Persian Gulf. As we forecast earlier this week, the US and Iran will have a political opening starting in June to break their deadlock over Iran’s uranium enrichment program, and have a betting chance to strike a deal. But if they do, their relations will continue to be very tense, as yet another participant put it, simply because Iran wants to dominate politics in the Middle East, and the US doesn’t want it to.
Which is the point at which Mattis’s proxy strategy would take over. While American vessels will continue to patrol the region generally, it will be the duty of Iran’s Sunni-majority neighbors—Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan—to take up the successive battle for regional influence.
These countries already play a large role around the region, but the difference apparently will be in degree and in US willingness to intervene. America’s general visibility would decline with one carrier group out of the picture; and Washington’s capacity and appetite for projecting its influence in a pinch would diminish.
Critics will cite multiple reasons why this shift of obligations will not work; the US, it is said, is the essential power. But the theory is that when locals fix their own problems, they will arrive at a potentially more enduring, local solution.
The US regards the region’s separatist Kurdish population—straddling Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran—as another superlatively destabilizing dynamic. Yet the US could stand by while Turkey—a NATO member—continues among the most interesting diplomatic-economic strategies anywhere in the world. If Ankara is successful, Iraq’s Kurdistan will become economically independent by shipping oil and gas through dedicated pipelines to the Mediterranean and possibly Europe, and in the process Turkey will find a modus vivendi with its own Kurdish region.
Where I myself became less confident in the policy was when it came to proxies that would require truly creative, untethered thinking. I introduced the idea that in Afghanistan and Central Asia, China’s and America’s aims align: Beijing would like to mine for metals and drill for oil and gas in Afghanistan, shipping all the production north into China. The United States would like to avoid a reprise of Afghanistan’s 1996-2001 period of turmoil. In other words, both would like to see a stable Afghanistan that does not go jihadi again.
So why not encourage Chinese drilling? For that matter, why not embrace a Chinese role in the as-of-now impractical Silk Road economic project, which envisions peace through economic development? By pursuing its own self-interest, China will be simultaneously—although incidentally—carrying out US objectives as well. China certainly will not be oblivious to the US’s piggy-backing, but neither will it care.
As of now, the US doesn’t see it that way. US politics do not accept that China obtains most or all the minerals. My proposal for a Pax Sinica was greeted by stony silence in the Mattis group. Which made me think that his brain trust may be prepared to think creatively, but perhaps not for an ideologically clean break, a new thinking that could transform the US into a truly agile force in the challenging decades ahead. A type of thinking that understands that two forces do not have to sit in the same room, or even be on the same side, to be effectively collaborating.