Why are we sending an amphibious readiness group (ARG) with a Marine expeditionary unit (MEU) embarked to sit off the Levantine coast?
U.S. officials say it’s to be prepared for any eventuality, including the need to evacuate American citizens, as the conflict between Hamas and Israel heats up.
But let’s parse that. Are the U.S. officials suggesting we will need to evacuate Americans from Gaza? And if we were to do that, what exactly would be the process? Landing Marines from the 24 MEU in Gaza? Flying helicopters from the ARG flagship, USS Iwo Jima (LHD-7), into Gaza?
Why would we do that, when Egypt and even Hamas would cooperate, if we asked, to get Americans out of Gaza through Egypt? It’s not to Hamas’s advantage to have Americans effectively held hostage in Gaza, and both Mohammed Morsi and the Hamas leadership know that. Even if Hamas is intransigent, Morsi knows that he will retain more political independence, and greater scope of action, if he makes sure the Americans get out. (Remember, Hamas is not his endgame. Morsi has his own plans for Israel and Jerusalem. See links at the end for background.*)
Morsi would broker the evacuation of Americans in Gaza if it came to that. Neither he nor Hamas wants the U.S. Marines in Gaza.
Neither would Israel, of course, because the presence of the U.S. Marines would effectively tie Israel’s hands in dealing with Hamas’s leadership and infrastructure. Why would the U.S. put troops unilaterally into a local conflict being fought by one of our allies?
Israel and Gaza
Yet if we don’t envision putting Marines into Gaza, then there’s no role for the ARG/MEU in this situation. Americans evacuated through Egypt don’t need a Navy ship or the U.S. Marines; they need a flight out on an airline or charter jet.
I note but dismiss the media reports that we are moving the ARG/MEU to the Eastern Mediterranean to facilitate the evacuation of Americans from Israel. This purpose would assume a catastrophic widening of the conflict that is not indicated by the circumstances. More on that in a minute. It would also assume conditions of chaos or lockdown in Israel, in which American citizens would have no option for escape other than the use of armed U.S. Marines, whom we would apparently, in this scenario, send into … Israel?
In no case does the tool fit the problem here. An ARG/MEU isn’t even the right tool to influence the fight from offshore, for which you want an aircraft carrier, U.S. Air Force assets, and/or cruisers or destroyers. As far as can be determined, the Obama administration has no intention of trying to affect the fight ashore, even from a stand-off distance. But supposing it did, the fact is that an ARG/MEU is the right tool only if you especially want to put Marines over the beach. In terms of performing as an intelligence collection asset, moreover, while the ARG/MEU can hold its own in some ways, national assets and the other theater assets – Air Force, Navy – have significant advantages over it.
What, exactly, does the Obama administration expect here? Does it expect Americans to come under attack and need evacuating in Egypt? In Lebanon? If so, why? And why does it expect to need Marines and their Navy combatant ships to get the job done?
The choice to send the ARG/MEU to the Eastern Mediterranean, rather than sending it home to the East coast – from which it departed on 27 March – seems to be a gesture more than anything else. I discount the possibility that Obama plans to stymie the Israelis by putting Marines in Gaza. That would raise a howl in his own Congress. I also discount the idea that there is any real likelihood of the Middle East “exploding” if Israel does mount a ground invasion of Gaza.
If it did explode, one ARG/MEU would be wholly inadequate to deal with the multitude of crises that would erupt. But it’s not going to, because the governments with radical leaders – Egypt, Turkey, Iran – aren’t ready for it to explode yet. They are not positioned to take advantage of a tumultuous crisis in which real changes could be made to the status quo. Morsi wants to make only the changes he intends to the Egyptian relationship with Israel, and make them on his timetable; he’s not interested in being backed into anything by Hamas.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, dealing with Syria, is not prepared for the conflict to expand. Even Iran isn’t necessarily ready, not because she doesn’t have her nukes yet, but because neither Iran nor anyone else knows if the U.S. will step in to help contain the consequences, if the Gaza-Israel conflict expands across the region. It’s one thing to plan on pushing against a U.S.-backed order. It’s another to be uncertain what might happen to the order, if you pushed.
The radicals are in charge of governments now, and they aren’t going to let things get out of control in their own countries. Terrorists can’t mount a militarily meaningful attack on Israel, and Morsi isn’t going to let them do it from Egypt, in any case. Hezbollah isn’t letting them do it from Lebanon either. Jordan certainly will not allow it. And none of the national governments – Egypt’s, Lebanon’s, Turkey’s, Iran’s, Jordan’s, Saudi Arabia’s – sees this as the time to try to rock Israel on her heels.
The reason is that they’re not ready for what could happen afterward. Most of them don’t mind if it happens – I exclude Jordan and Saudi Arabia from this, as their monarchies would be at risk – but they want to prepare themselves and be positioned to exploit the turn of events.
Four years ago, the U.S. could have made it clear, with relatively little effort, that the status quo would be protected. It would naturally take a little more effort now, because of the outcomes of the Arab Spring: Mubarak gone, Hezbollah firmly in control of Lebanon, Syria in an uproar and Assad unable to govern. But the most basic difference between November 2008 and November 2012 is that the actors in the Middle East can no longer reliably assess what the U.S. will and won’t tolerate.
Fortunately, they aren’t ready to push the status quo’s house of cards down just yet. It still has benefits for them. Even if Israel does mount a ground invasion of Gaza, there is no reason to expect that any kind of rioting in the region would turn into an uncontrollable conflagration. The Middle East’s rulers don’t want it to.
Originally published at the Optimistic Conservative.
About the Author: J.E. Dyer is a retired US Naval intelligence officer who served around the world, afloat and ashore, from 1983 to 2004.
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