This is an interesting factor in the eruption of potentially crisis-creating maneuvers at the end of Barack Obama’s term. There will be no aircraft carrier in the Middle East, either in CENTCOM (east of the Suez Canal) or EUCOM (the Eastern Mediterranean).
I will have time for only the most general notes on this today. But the timing of all the “major muscle movement” factors seems remarkable enough to highlight briefly.
To summarize where we are right now, there is credible evidence that the Obama administration coordinated with the Palestinian Arabs the UN resolution, UNSCR 2334, on which a vote was forced on 23 December. The resolution’s official sponsor, Egypt, pulled back from the earlier-scheduled Security Council vote at the last minute, on 21 December. But a group of four other Security Council members – New Zealand, Senegal, Venezuela, and Malaysia – pushed to hold the vote anyway, and it took place on Friday, 23 December. The U.S. abstained from the vote, and the measure passed 14-0.
Yesterday (Wednesday 28 December), John Kerry gave a major Middle East policy speech in which he departed rhetorically in multiple, significant ways from longstanding U.S. policy. As Omri Ceren outlines at Politico, Kerry also departed significantly from sheer reality. (Omri hopes to downplay the impact of Kerry’s speech, I think, a praiseworthy goal whose effectiveness I don’t want to prejudge.)
The MSM are obediently saying the Kerry speech did not depart from U.S. policy. But for the reasons outlined at the links above, it clearly did.
Kerry’s speech served effectively to confirm that the United States abstained from the vote on UNSCR 2334 because Obama agrees with 2334. Israel’s settlements, according to 2334, are “the” obstacle to peace. And it is Israel that must give way and accept a disadvantageous “solution” – one that would enshrine losses for Israel that have never been assumed in any previous negotiation – in order to secure “peace.”
Obama/Kerry unpredictable at this point
Under these circumstances, it is by no means far-fetched to give credence to reports that Kerry is preparing another UN resolution to be introduced in January. (For a balanced, non-specific perspective on the opportunities the week of 15 January, see here.)
This reporting is unsubstantiated, and I stress must be treated as such. But it isn’t far-fetched, under current conditions. Reportedly, Kerry is preparing a resolution that would outline a “two-state solution,” and in essence, have the UN vote to recognize a Palestinian state.
France will host a conference on Middle East policy on 15 January, at which Kerry is scheduled to deliver a speech. The speculation is that he could preview the UN resolution in that speech, and then have it introduced in the UN between 16 and 20 January, when the UN is back in session and Obama is still in office.
There is also, of course, speculation that Obama may unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state on behalf of the United States, as Sweden has already done. Jimmy Carter advised Obama most earnestly to do that, just after Thanksgiving.
Carter’s language at the time was interesting:
The former President also called for the UN Security Council to pass a resolution “laying out the parameters for resolving the conflict.”
“It should reaffirm the illegality of all Israeli settlements beyond the 1967 borders, while leaving open the possibility that the parties could negotiate modifications,” he said.
I myself am not convinced one way or the other as to what Obama and Kerry will do. It would irresponsible at this point to assume – with what one can only call a foolish complacence – that they will not do anything abrupt and disruptive in January.
I hope they will think better of any incendiary plans. But keep in mind, Obama and Kerry may not even need to do anything further. Allowing UNSCR 2334 to be adopted, and punctuating that policy reversal with this week’s Kerry speech, is enough to set wheels in motion in international bodies that would be hard for President-Elect Trump to interdict. Multiple crisis situations are now likely, and could build quickly.
(There is some good news in this regard, although nothing can be taken as decisive at this point. Kerry called on the peace process Quartet to adopt the “six principles” outlined in his speech on Wednesday, but Russia has reportedly rejected Kerry on that head.)
In light of where we are now, there are a couple of very interesting factors. One is the point I started with: that there will be no carrier in the Middle East.
No U.S. carrier in the Middle East
USS Dwight D Eisenhower (CVN-69) passed through the Strait of Gibraltar on 21 December headed home to Norfolk. She and her strike group will arrive on the East Coast on 30 December.
But her relief, USS George H. W. Bush (CVN-77), has not left for deployment yet, and reportedly is not scheduled to until sometime after 20 January. The wording of the Defense News brief is in fact a bit odd, seeming to suggest that there is no deployment date scheduled for Bush, and that the ship’s deployment is somehow contingent on the new president’s inauguration.
The relief ship, the carrier George H. W. Bush, has yet to leave Norfolk, and it’s unlikely to do so before the Jan. 20 presidential inauguration of Donald Trump, according to a Navy source. The gap could last as long as two months, sources said, between the time the Eisenhower left the combat theater and the Bush arrives.
The lack of a deployment date for Bush isn’t necessarily attributable to a specific decision by Obama’s top security advisors. It could be an effect of the modified “fleet readiness plan” that went into effect in 2014. Which itself is a residual effect of Obama’s management of military assets, to be sure – but it doesn’t mean Obama or any of his subordinates said “Let’s NOT have a carrier in the Middle East in January 2017.”
Looking at Bush’s recently completed work-ups, the carrier would be ready and on schedule to deploy at any time, and could be in the Mediterranean Sea (Med) by the time Kerry gives his speech at the 15 January conference, if she departed around 4-5 January.
But the Defense News report indicates that that’s not the plan. (For completeness: the San Diego-based USS Carl Vinson, CVN-70, is also worked up and either close to or at full readiness, but has not left homeport. Vinson is scheduled for a Western Pacific, or Far Eastern, deployment in 2017.)
If the scenario we’re looking at is that Donald Trump would have to take office and then order Bush to deploy, the carrier could be in the Med by right around 1 February, if she transited at higher speed than usual.
The limitations of not having a carrier on station
Why this emphasis on the carrier? Because without a carrier, the U.S. doesn’t have full discretion over our use of air power in the Middle East. When our Air Force planes operate from local bases, the host nations have a veto over how we use the planes – if we want to retain our use of the bases.
There are any number of permutations to consider here, but the bottom line is that the timing is all but inexplicable. As the Defense News report suggests, it’s not just the potential incendiary actions relating to Israel. The situations in Iraq and Syria would call for a carrier presence under any circumstances, and a carrier presence would normally be deemed indispensable given the very touchy developments in Turkey, the Aegean, and Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula, at the very least.
But we will be facing the freighted period ahead of us without a carrier in the place we are most likely to need it.
The Mideast reshuffle and feeding frenzy
The other point is one I will just preview here. What Obama and Kerry have launched is the scenario I outlined in a series of posts in May 2009: a statement that U.S. support for Israel is contingent on Israel relinquishing the settlements. Taking this step has far bigger implications than narrow ones about the Oslo-inaugurated peace process or a “two-state solution.” The before and after of this step are two very different security situations for Israel, and for the region as a whole.
Decoupling the settlements from Israel’s security posture effectively announces that the U.S. is satisfied to have Israel be insecure. And that means it’s open season on Israel. Every incremental loss of security credibility for Israel is fuel to the fire of Middle East maneuvering by various factions to gain military advantage over her, and hold Israel at existential risk.
There’s now an arresting modification to the 2009 analysis, however. Since that year, the Arab Spring and seven-plus years of Obama’s passive policies have intervened to put most of the Middle East actors out of position to take rapid advantage of a move like the ones Obama and Kerry have just made. None of Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, or Egypt is well positioned at this point to capitalize either militarily or geopolitically on a weakened situation for Israel. Indeed, there are reasons why they don’t even really want to.
These status quo nations aren’t big friends of Israel. But none of them at the moment has the unifying, caliphate-based regional vision that Iran, Turkey, and ISIS have ready to hand. In fact, a strong, stable Israel is a net positive for the status quo Arabs, at a time when the more radical regional actors are undermining their security in pursuit of aggressive visions.
We need not have illusions about the status quo Arabs’ long-term intentions to see that they would probably get onboard with a policy that focused first on rolling back Iran and ISIS, and containing Turkey, and then turned as necessary to addressing Israel and the Palestinian Arabs. Such a policy would need spearheading from, basically, the United States – under a different, more credible president.
There are a number of ways this could play out. There’s far too much to discuss in one post. But there is an opportunity here to turn this advantageously for the region. One thing that looks certain is that whatever happens, the U.S. will not be in a position to settle or prevent anything emergent, in the next five weeks, with military force.