Walter Pincus
Walter Pincus
Fine Print

‘Leading from behind’ in the Middle East? Force buildup tells a different story.

Here are some facts that should be considered by those who criticize the Obama administration for “leading from behind” in the troubled Middle East.

A steady buildup in the number of U.S. ships and aircraft available for possible new military action in the Middle East has been underway for months, and the Pentagon has done little to hide it from the leaders of Iran and Syria.

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While American officials say the U.S.-generated land-air-sea military exercise Eager Lion 2012, held in Jordan in May, was an annual event not related to developments in Damascus or Tehran, CNN was allowed to show parts of the action. Moreover, the U.S. and Jordanian generals running the program held a May 15 news conference that publicized the start of the main parts of the expanded exercise, involving 11,000 troops from 19 countries.

Army Maj. Gen. Ken Tovo, who is head of Special Operations for U.S. Central Command and who was in charge of the American forces taking part, told reporters that the exercise was the largest since the Iraq invasion. One purpose, he said, was to apply “the skills that we have developed over the last weeks in an irregular-warfare scenario.”

U.S. Navy Seabees built the joint operations center for the exercise. The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima, moved into the Red Sea to take part, accompanied by two other ships. Marine tanks were landed for joint training with Jordanian units. U.S. Special Operations troops participated in urban combat and counterterrorism exercises with Jordanian special forces units, while American and Jordanian army parachutists jumped together.

F-15C Eagles from the Massachusetts Air National Guard’s 104th Fighter Wing, temporarily based in the United Arab Emirates, took part from a base in Jordan, flying with Saudis and Jordanians. The jets flew eight sorties the day after their arrival “and didn’t let up throughout the deployment,” according to a June report in the unit’s publication, AirScoop.

Other forces involved came from Australia, Bahrain, Britain, Brunei, Egypt, France, Iraq, Italy, Kuwait, Lebanon, Pakistan, Qatar, Spain, Romania, Ukraine and the United Arab Emirates.

Wide public exposure is also expected for the annual International Mine Countermeasures Exercise, which will take place in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf. This year’s exercise, running Sept. 16-27, will involve a record 20 countries.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta’s spokesman, George Little, told reporters in mid-July that the 11-day event would be “a defensive exercise aimed at preserving freedom of navigation in the international waterways of the Middle East and aimed at promoting regional stability.” He added, “This is not an exercise that’s aimed to deliver a message to Iran.”

I don’t believe that, and certainly Tehran didn’t. The announced exercise drew this response from the commander of Iran’s navy, Rear Adm. Habibollah Sayyari: “The United States assumes that it can affect Iran through announcing that it will hold a minesweeping exercise in the Persian Gulf, but it is not the fact.”

On another level, U.S. intelligence agencies are also at work. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton referred indirectly to this at her news conference Saturday with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Istanbul.

“We are providing $25 million in nonlethal aid, mostly communications, to civil society and activists,” she said. “And I don’t want to go into any further details as to how we are helping people, at the risk of endangering them at this time.”

In an analysis published Thursday on al-Jazeera’s Web site, Robert Grenier, a former CIA station chief in Pakistan, gave this authoritative view of the assistance: “Such [communications] equipment would have the dual benefit not only of improving intelligence flow to, and tactical coordination among the armed rebel units, but also of facilitating the flow of information from inside Syria to the providers of this assistance.”

Grenier, who worked in the White House on Iraq and was later chief of the CIA’s counterterrorism center, also referred to an earlier “leaked” presidential finding that authorized the agency to assist the Syrian opposition.

Some of that activity, he wrote, reportedly takes place at a joint operations center in Adana, Turkey, 60 miles from the Syrian border. Adana is “also home to Incirlik, a U.S. airbase where U.S. military and intelligence agencies maintain a substantial presence,” Grenier noted in an earlier article.

Incirlik, an important American installation since the Cold War, serves as a forward base for NATO deployments. Most recently, it handled transports during the Iraq war and certainly would play a role in any Syrian or Iranian operations.

“Our intelligence services, our military, have very important responsibilities and roles to play,” Clinton said, “so we are going to be setting up a working group to do exactly that.”

Asked about establishing a possible no-fly zone over Syria, Clinton said: “It is one thing to talk about all kinds of potential actions. But you cannot make reasoned decisions without doing intense analysis and operational planning.”

A basic part of such planning requires that the forces to carry out agreed-upon missions be in place. Along with the units already mentioned, two U.S. Navy carriers, the USS Enterprise and the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, with more than 100 aircraft plus their strike groups, are operating in the area to help in Afghanistan. But they could be used in any other regional role. They include five destroyers and two cruisers. In Bahrain, the U.S. 5th Fleet’s five minesweepers were augmented recently by the arrival of four more.

While Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are fully aware of the growing U.S. land, sea and air forces they face, White House critics refuse to recognize what’s going on.

It’s easy to speak or write about no-fly zones or surgical strikes if you cavalierly overlook the weight on President Obama. The president, acting from the safety of the White House, must consider sending more Americans — husbands and wives, sons and daughters — into another war knowing that their lives will be endangered or even lost.

It’s even easier if you have never been to war yourself.

To read previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

 
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