Obama Gunshy about Gunboat Diplomacy?

by Patrick Brennan

The Daily Beast has a report that General James Mattis, head of Central Command, asked the president to send a third U.S. carrier group to the Persian Gulf, as Iran began threatening that it would close that body of water, but Obama refused, insisting that he wanted to refocus our interests on Asia. Such a move would have signaled an unmistakably hard-nosed attitude toward Iranian aggression, but after the president’s refusal, the Navy has had to make do with two groups in the Gulf, led by the USS Abraham Lincoln and the USS Enterprise, in addition to the nearby amphibious-assault ship USS Iwo Jima. (The current location of the U.S. Navy’s carrier groups and amphibious expeditionary groups can be seen here.) 

The Daily Beast explains:

As Western diplomats meet this week in Baghdad to try to coax Iran’s leaders to disclose its full nuclear program, Gen. James Mattis will be keeping an eye on the Persian military.

Mattis wanted to send a third aircraft-carrier group to the Persian Gulf earlier this year, The Daily Beast has exclusively learned, in what would have been a massive show of force at a time when Iranian military commanders were publicly threatening to sink American ships in the Strait of Hormuz. The four-star Marine Corps general and CentCom commander believed the display could have deterred Iran from further escalating tensions, according to U.S. military officials familiar with his thinking.

But the president wanted to focus military resources on new priorities like China, and Mattis was told a third carrier group was not available to be deployed to the Gulf.

The carrier-group rebuff in January was one of several for the commander responsible for East Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Working for the Obama administration, Mattis has often found himself the odd man out—particularly when it comes to Iran.

Military sources close to the general tell The Beast that Mattis was worried that the president’s decision, announced in November, to fully withdraw from Iraq would leave the U.S. military without access to the country’s bases and with few options to project power in the region. The military had been negotiating with the Iraqi government for continued access to bases there for some intelligence, training, and counterterrorism missions until Obama announced his decision to the press in November. . . .

The general did get an afloat forward staging base, or AFSB, a floating dock that can host smaller aircraft or launch the rigid-hull inflatable speedboats favored by special forces—though in February Adm. John Harvey, commander of fleet forces, denied press reports that the AFSB would be used as a SEAL mothership.

“It appears that General Mattis is at the point where he knows his power projected from land will decrease over time with the close of two land-centered wars,” said Peter Daly, the chief executive officer of the U.S. Naval Institute. Daly retired from the Navy in August with the rank of vice admiral. His last job was as deputy commander of U.S. fleet forces, the Navy’s broker in the global-force-management process that the U.S. military uses to determine where to place its numerous assets.

“Unlike the past, where we’ve had permission to go into these other countries and operate, that is less likely in the future. It is appealing to operate from the sea, where you do not need permission.”

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