Pandemic Bumps in the Road to Great Power Competition

Dr. Richard Russell, NESA Center

The novel coronavirus pandemic is ravaging the world’s health, societies, and economies. The full devastation of the global menace is yet to be seen, but it is already having noticeable impact on international politics and security. The security fallouts can be detected in the geopolitical centers of world power in Europe, north America, and Asia as well as in the Middle East, South and Central Asia.

The pandemic is making for an especially bumpy road for the Trump administration’s national security and defense strategy navigation from the Middle East and terrorism toward great power competitions. The Trump administration articulated this strategic roadmap in its national security and defense strategy documents. It rightly reasons that the US has focused a disproportionate amount of strategic attention, blood, and treasure since the 11 September 2001 al Qaeda attacks on counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, and conflict in the Middle East and Afghanistan. It makes a strong case that this disproportionate attention has led the US strategic focus, resources, and capabilities vis-à-vis traditional great power competitors—specifically China and Russia—to atrophy.

One can already discern the tell tail signs of the Trump administration’s lessening attention and resources devoted to counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, and security issues in the Middle East.

• The administration abruptly withdrew combat assets from what had been a relatively impressive and effective “economy of force” counter-insurgency campaign to roll back the Islamic States’ territorial gains in Syria and Iraq. The administration now appears content to let Russia and Turkey to take the lead in today’s operations in Syria despite Russia’s gross violations of just war principles of war with its sustained attacks on civilians and Turkey’s embrace of Islamist fighters.

• The Trump administration appears determined to draw down American forces in Afghanistan. It cut a diplomatic deal directly with the Taliban to facilitate the withdrawal seemingly over the heads of the Afghan government. Continued Taliban battlefield pressure, moreover, has not derailed the administration’s plans to draw down in Afghanistan. One suspects that the Trump administration rightly gauges that the American public has lost its limited enthusiasm for military operations in Afghanistan given the 2011 killing of Osama bin-Laden, continued American troop fatalities, and the political chaos and corruption in Kabul.

• Meanwhile, the Coronavirus is contributing to a drawdown and consolidation of various US Special Operations Forces bases in Iraq. The US initially withdrew its combat forces from Iraq in 2011. They had been there since the 2003 invasion and ouster of Saddam Hussein’s regime, but Special Operations Forces were reinserted in 2014 to roll back the Islamic State’s capture of sizable chucks of Iraqi territory. With the Trump administration’s assessment that “the Islamic State has been defeated,” US Special Operations Forces in Iraq are departing the country. Some astute strategists worry, however, that this withdrawal will open up a window of opportunity for the Islamic State to regenerate in Iraq much as al Qaeda was able to reconstitute itself after the 2011 American troop withdrawals.

The sticking point of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from Middle East conflict is the perennial conflict with Iran. Iranian-backed Iraqi militias continue to threaten the American military and diplomatic presence in Iraq. Escalation on this front prompted the Trump administration to kill Iran’s Al Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani in January 2020 and the Iranians retaliated with ballistic missile firings on US troops based in Iraq. Tensions seem to be boiling again between Washington and Tehran, which could lead to another round of escalation and military blows. The US is hedging against such military contingencies by deploying two aircraft carriers in the Gulf region.

The deployment of two aircraft carriers to the Gulf, however, is causing a stir among strategists who are calling for more attention to great power competitions with China and Russia. American naval strategists, in particular, are bitterly complaining that the US Navy in the future will have too few combat vessels to compete with China over sea lanes of communication in Asia. And, from their view, the diversion of US aircraft carriers to the Gulf to hedge against Iran further depletes American naval power in Asia. Even more painful for naval strategists is the recent docking in Guam of the USS Teddy Roosevelt aircraft carrier due to COVID-19 crew infections. They also must be alarmed by reports that another aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, homeported in Japan has COVID-19 crew infections. To add insult to injury for great power naval strategists, President Trump recently ordered a surge in US naval assets for counter-narcotics operations off the coast of Venezuela, a deployment that will further reduce US assets available for Pacific operations.

In short, during the global pandemic US national and defense policies are on a bumpy road shifting attention and resources to great power competitions with China and Russia. Efforts to downsize counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations in Syria-Iraq and Afghanistan against the Islamic State and the Taliban, respectively, are well underway. But the US is locked in a crisis with Iran with no near term diplomatic “offramp” which ties down American military assets that great power competition strategists want freed-up for the European and Asian strategic theaters. The Coronavirus pandemic adds yet another layer of complexity because it significantly hampers some US naval forces and might yet have similar impacts within the ranks of other American military services.

The views presented in this article are those of the speaker or author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its components.