The Trump administration is right to respond cautiously to last week’s Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia. As the U.S. protects its interests in the Middle East, it must not allow its military focus to be wrested away from Asia.
The threat from Iran pales in comparison to that from China. Iran’s economy is less than 1/20th the size of China’s. The leadership in Tehran may be especially hostile to the U.S., but it’s increasingly evident that their counterparts in Beijing are hardly friendly.
And while Iran’s military is a threat to neighbors in the Gulf, especially through proxy militias, its capabilities are sharply limited. Its armed forces are decidedly inferior to the U.S. military. Iran could not take the territory of U.S. partners and hope to hold it. If Tehran invaded another state, its assault could readily be defeated by a combination of regional partners and U.S. forces as they surged into the theater.
The Chinese military is in an entirely different league. It has benefited from staggering economic growth to transform from a relatively backward land army in the 1950s into a cutting-edge force that can take on the U.S.
China wants its military to be able to block effective American defense of its allies and partners in Asia—first Taiwan but ultimately the Philippines and beyond—and has made disturbingly long strides toward this goal. This is a frightening prospect because Asia is by far the world’s most economically important region, with 46% of global GDP and growing much faster than competitors in Europe and North America.
The state that sets the rules in Asia will therefore set them for the world. And China would likely apply an economic model to the region similar to the one it has practiced at home. China’s state capitalism has flouted global economic trading rules, leading to serious economic pain among America’s middle and working classes. If China attains mastery over Asia, Americans will suffer.
Meanwhile, the Middle East is becoming less important to the U.S. Domestic energy production has skyrocketed, making Americans far less reliant on oil transported through the Persian Gulf. China may benefit more than the U.S. from a stable Middle East oil supply.
Middle East terrorism continues to pose a security challenge, but big-footprint military interventions aren’t the answer. Terrorism is better handled by aggressive intelligence activities combined with special and select conventional forces, diplomacy and law enforcement.
The U.S. can equip local partners with capabilities to address the threat from Iran, such as missile defense and surveillance and reconnaissance assets. The Pentagon announced Sept. 20 it was boosting such aid to Saudi Arabia.
The trade-offs from a large American military operation in the Middle East would be significant. Such an intervention would not only cost American lives but also consume vast munitions and equipment and distract American readiness from Asia, harming U.S. capacity to deter China.
Some believe that Washington can conduct a major military effort in the Middle East and maintain its advantage in Asia. That’s a self-comforting delusion. The 2018 National Defense Strategy warned that America’s military edge against great-power competitors has eroded substantially. The past 18 years of Middle East focus have taken a toll. Weapons systems, manpower, money and expertise that might have been directed to the Pacific theater have instead been focused on the Middle East.
A significant conflict with Iran would only worsen this deterioration. Reorienting U.S. power-projection toward the Pacific requires deprioritizing other things. That means making hard choices.
The U.S. rightly objects to Iran’s behavior, but its consequences pale in comparison to China achieving military dominance in Asia. If Iran’s provocations need to be answered, Washington must do so in a way that limits military involvement in the Middle East. If this means doing less than we might like against Iran, so be it.
By Elbridge Colby | WSJ
Mr. Colby is a principal at the Marathon Initiative. He served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development, 2017-18.