One could headline this New York Times article thusly: War planners gotta warplan. Administration sources told Eric Schmitt and Julian Barnes that the acting Secretary of Defense has updated the US plans to deal with military provocations by Iran or its proxies, reportedly after prompting by “hard-liners.” Even the Times reporters note that the scale doesn’t really look that “hard-line,” though:
At a meeting of President Trump’s top national security aides last Thursday, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan presented an updated military plan that envisions sending as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East should Iran attack American forces or accelerate work on nuclear weapons, administration officials said.
The revisions were ordered by hard-liners led by John R. Bolton, Mr. Trump’s national security adviser. They do not call for a land invasion of Iran, which would require vastly more troops, officials said.
The development reflects the influence of Mr. Bolton, one of the administration’s most virulent Iran hawks, whose push for confrontation with Tehran was ignored more than a decade ago by President George W. Bush.
Perhaps. That’s likely what their sources are telling the reporters, but one would think that “the most virulent Iran hawks” would envision not just containment actions but also a theoretical invasion as well. The fact that the Pentagon doesn’t even bother to game that out shows that virulence, in this case, has the curious virtue of realism.
The maximum troop deployment in this scenario also shows a nod to reality. The troop levels cited are only about half of that deployed for the 2003 invasion of Iraq once all coalition troops were counted (~235K excluding the Peshmerga). Even that deployment was criticized at the time (and especially afterward) as insufficient for the task, and that was for a country which had been partially occupied and whose military had been suppressed for several years by that point.
So what would 120,000 military troops do in the Middle East? It’s clearly not to invade Iran, and it likely wouldn’t be to invade Syria with the objective of directly overthrowing Bashar al-Assad, either. They would likely be tasked with picking off Iranian proxies in the region, and in that they might get a lot of assistance from Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The Houthis in Yemen would be one target, but more likely the US would want to cut off the “land bridge” for Iran to the Mediterranean via Syria by going after Hezbollah. That prospect would delight Israel, which spends a lot of its energy making Hezbollah nervous about action on the Lebanon border. And it might worry Iran, especially with its proxies extending its reach without too much political or military exposure on their part. A renewed American effort to dismantle those proxies could set the Iranian regime back a generation or more, perhaps all the way back to 1979.
Is that “hard line”? Depends on one’s point of view, but given that this is a response to Iranian military provocation against American assets and allies, it sounds more like a strategic plan rather than just a tactical reaction. More to the point, it’s the kind of war planning that we expect the Pentagon to do. When reading media reports such as these, remember that “Pentagon draws up war plans” is not really a news story … it’s a job description.
Still, someone bothered to leak it. Cui bono? Is it someone who wants to stop The March To War — or someone who wants Iran to know we’re taking incidents like this weekend’s sabotage spree in the Persian Gulf seriously? The latter seems far more likely.
At any rate, Donald Trump denied it this morning, saying any such plans would be (ta da!) much larger in scale:
Pres. Trump calls report administration was reviewing plan to send up to 120,000 troops to Middle East "fake news."
— ABC News (@ABC) May 14, 2019
That should get some attention in Tehran, too.