Measuring Shifting U.S. Regional Engagement
By: Greg Sanders
ISIL forces’ recent attack on Ramadi and the decision by several Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) monarchs to skip the Camp David summit has focused attention on U.S. security assistance in the Middle East. The New York Times reported that “Arab officials said [the Saudi king’s] decision not to attend reflected a broader disappointment that Mr. Obama would not be offering much concrete security assistance at the meeting.” This raises the question: how much security assistance is the United States already providing in the region after the withdrawal from Iraq? Moreover, how does this compare to U.S. assistance in the Pacific, where the United States is executing a “rebalance” strategy?
Security assistance is traditionally measured directly through training programs and arms transfers. However, that understates U.S. basing activity and a range of other support activities, including locally funded foreign military sales. An alternative method for measuring support is to examine contract spending. This includes all nonclassified payments to the range of vendors providing products and services to the United States, from arms manufacturing to laundry to private security contractors guarding diplomatic convoys. Because the United States is so reliant on vendor support, contract spending can reflect relatively well the footprint of regional U.S. activity. This metric also is easily comparable across regions and over time. Indeed, Defense Department, State Department, and International Assistance Program contract spending in the Central Command and Pacific Command have jockeyed for position for the past decade, even after excluding Iraq and Afghanistan. In FY2014, Pacific Command took the lead with $8 billion to the remainder of Central Command’s $7.1 billion. Given recent operations against ISIL, Pacific Command may lose the lead to Central Command in FY2015.
Moreover, the trend in contract spending in Central Command does not support a narrative of declining U.S. assistance since the withdrawal of forces in Iraq. In five GCC countries, contract spending has remained between $2.5 billion and $5 billion since FY2008, consistently exceeding spending from earlier in the last decade. The exception to this rule is Kuwait, in which contract spending peaked at $5 billion in FY2009 but has since dropped by half. However, Kuwait has hosted a sizable number of U.S. forces supporting operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. For the GCC beyond Kuwait, U.S. contract spending for this year is likely to remain at heightened.