Ten Key Elements of a U.S. Strategy for the Gulf

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By Anthony H. Cordesman

The United States sometimes seems to have a strange definition of the word “strategy.” It focuses on concepts to the near exclusion of detailed plans, programs, and budgets, but it rarely ties a given strategy to a supporting net assessment.

Very often, a U.S. “strategy” consists of reacting to a near-term problem by advancing short-term objectives or goals – sometimes driven mostly by theory or ideology than analysis. In other cases – such as the Quadrennial Defense Review or QDR – it looked so far into the future that the end result had to be the equivalent of a prophecy. These desired end results would set goals so broad that they would have little functional mean and would only advance strategies that were equally as vague.

The United States has so far dealt with the Gulf on a crisis by crisis basis since at least 2003. It has focused on the most immediate issues dealing with terrorism in Iran, Syria, and Yemen. Since 2013, the United States has focused largely on ISIS – although the Obama Administration did at least attempt a broader approach to dealing with Gulf security by negotiating the JCPOA nuclear agreement with Iran.

The United States must not go on simply reacting to events. It needs a strategy that is based on net assessments, which takes the form of detailed plans, programs, and budgets. In the case of a strategy for the Gulf, the United States needs to look at the future in practical terms and realize that any plans for the future should be reviewed and revised on at least an annual basis.

This means focusing strategy for the next half decade – the maximum period where the United States has ever been able to advance a meaningful Future Years Defense Program (FYDP) – with some attention to the coming decade. Any shorter period means failing to think through the strategy’s implication. Any longer period has proven in the past to be largely a waste of time.

There are many urgent timing issues that affect the Gulf, which the United States needs to address. At the same time, the United States also needs to examine a set of broader issues that go far beyond simply addressing today’s wars and terrorism threats. Specifically, the United States needs to address the following issues:

  1. Meeting Immediate Needs for Action and Dealing with the Backlash from Past Strategic Mistakes
  2. Placing the Wrong Emphasis on the Russian and Chinese Threats in America’s New National Security Strategy
  3. Rejecting the Illusion of Energy Independence
  4. Understanding the Role that the United States should Play in the Gulf and its Cost
  5. Recognizing the Importance of Arab Gulf Strategic Partners
  6. Making Iran an Offer It May Not Be Able to Refuse
  7. Realizing that a Strong and Independent Iraq is a Key to a Successful Gulf Strategy
  8. Creating an Affordable Effort to Develop and Stabilize the Civil Sector of Gulf Strategic Partners to Limit the Rise of Extremism
  9. Dealing with Lebanon, Syria, Yemen – and the Kurds
  10. The Continuing Struggle Against Terrorism and Extremism

This report entitled, Ten Key Elements of a U.S. Strategy for the Gulf, is available for download at https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/200116_Key_Elements_for_US_Strategy_In_Gulf.pdf?_KZRnjfdpCKpxUqyv07Wu71kjJtzSkxr.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the United States Department of Defense and the United States Department of State.