Winter 2016
Number 30

Perspective - Gaming America: An Interview With The Honorable Dov Zakheim

The Honorable Dov S. Zakheim is one of the country’s leading defense intellectuals. From 2001 to 2004, he served as the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) and Chief Financial Officer for the Department of Defense. From 2002 to 2004, he also was DoD’s coordinator of civilian programs in Afghanistan. In the three decades before that, he served in a variety of defense-related roles in both the government and private sector—including as Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Planning and Resources in the Reagan Administration from 1985 to 1987.

In December, he spoke with Journal editor Ilan Berman regarding the changing strategic landscape of the Middle East and Asia, as well as Russia’s ambitions:

The Obama administration, to date, has not had much by way of response to the Islamic State—or to the global threat that it now poses. In crafting their response, what should American policymakers seek to accomplish? Is a renewed war front the answer?

The Administration has created a false choice, in effect a straw man: send massive land forces, or do next to nothing. In fact, the dispatch of perhaps 10,000 troops would ensure more accurate spotting for targeted airstrikes as well as troops embedded with anti-ISIS forces. In addition, the Administration needs to relax its rules of engagement regarding collateral damage, which render it exceedingly difficult to target IS personnel. Defeating IS is not in the cards—and the West should not even try. IS must be contained, but in a serious way, not as current policy prescribes. And, once encircled and forced onto the defensive, it will need to be brought down by a combination of internal dissent and Arab forces. The latter would be more likely to engage in the fight with land forces if the U.S. has real “skin in the game.”

The nuclear deal hammered out this summer between Iran and the P5+1 countries may have deferred the challenge posed by Iran, but it did not end it. Looking ahead, what can we expect from a post-JCPOA Iran, and how should we prepare?

Iran will probably violate the JCPOA in only minor ways so long as the current Administration is in office, because it knows the White House is too invested in the agreement to retaliate over minor violations. Once there is a new president, however, Tehran is likely to re-evaluate the situation, and may be far more cautious if it worries that the U.S., supported by the UK, would actually snap back sanctions.

Russia’s entry into the Syrian civil war is just the latest instance of an increasingly adventurist foreign policy line on the part of Russian president Vladimir Putin. What does Russia want, globally, and what is it seeking to accomplish in the Middle East and Eastern Europe?

First and foremost, Russia wants to be considered a great power on a par with the United States and China. Russia has already expanded its presence in the Middle East beyond what it maintained subsequent to the USSR’s expulsion from Egypt. Moreover, Russia currently has excellent ties with Israel, Egypt and Iran, and has reached out to the Gulf States. Finally, Russia has demonstrated a degree of conventional military power and technology in the Syrian civil war that has caught the West by surprise.

Russia’s grab of Crimea and its incursion into Ukraine are part of an effort to weaken NATO, which it views as an existential threat arrayed along its borders. Again, Russia wants to be treated as a virtual equal of the U.S., and will no doubt be willing to reach some understanding regarding Ukraine if its own prerogatives—which include preventing Ukraine from joining NATO and even the EU—are recognized and accounted for.

China’s global rise has been mirrored by an increasingly assertive foreign policy on the part of Beijing—one that, of late, has attempted to rewrite the legal status quo of the Asia-Pacific in its favor. What do Beijing’s recent moves tell us about Chinese intentions and aspirations?

China is simply trying to establish as many facts as it can, in order to ensure access to raw materials and sea lanes even in the face of a confrontation with the U.S. over, say, Taiwan. It does not trust the United States to maintain freedom of access for all. In addition, one cannot rule out the possibility that, as China’s annual rate of GDP growth over the next five or more years remains flat, Beijing will seek to divert an impatient population with a foreign adventure in either the East China Sea, or, more likely, the South China Sea.

It is no secret that China’s rise has become a source of increasing concern for its regional neighbors. What trends are now visible among Asian nations such as Japan and South Korea in response to Chinese adventurism, and what role can America play here?

Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has continued its military modernization program, including close cooperation with the U.S. on missile defense (e.g., the acquisition of AEGIS cruisers) and in the cyber domain. It has also lifted long-standing restrictions on arms sales, has expanded its participation in multilateral exercises, and has focused on cooperation with India and Australia. If tensions in the East China Sea persist, Japan is likely to breach the two percent ceiling on defense spending as a percentage of GDP.

South Korea’s preoccupation remains with North Korea, and subliminally with Japan. It has not confronted China in anything like the way Japan has, or, for that matter, the Philippines.