military matters

How is Tuberville’s military promotion blockade impacting the Middle East?

The promotions the Alabama senator is blocking include senior officials throughout the CENTCOM region as well as multiple members of the joint chiefs of staff

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Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) is interviewed for television in the rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on September 13, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) shows no signs of relenting on his monthslong blockade of more than 300 military promotions — a situation that analysts warn could have severe repercussions for American military efforts throughout the world, including in the Middle East.

Tuberville has been singlehandedly blocking the fast-track, unanimous confirmation of military promotions for months — the usual procedure by which such nominations are processed, skipping votes and extended floor debate— in protest of the Pentagon’s abortion travel policy. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, it would take the Senate more than 689 hours of floor time to individually consider and vote on the pending promotions. Tuberville’s actions have garnered bipartisan criticism on and off the Hill.

Tuberville’s “hold” is impacting senior appointments within Central Command (CENTCOM), the U.S. military forces in the Middle East, such as the deputy commander of CENTCOM, the reserve vice commander of CENTCOM, the deputy commander of CENTCOM naval forces, the deputy commander of CENTCOM air forces, the deputy director of strategy, plans and policy for CENTCOM, and the commanders of U.S. air wings based in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.

It’s also freezing top-level military promotions, including the nominees to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, army chief of staff, chief of naval operations and Marine Corps commandant.

Without the requisite officials in place, analysts said that CENTCOM officials could struggle to cement relationships and secure meetings with key counterparts in key partner countries in the region, a serious detriment at a time when the U.S. seeks to grow its unilateral and multilateral partnerships in the region.

“In many places, in many countries, in many relationships, that rank and prestige matter,” Bradley Bowman, the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former advisor to multiple Senate Republicans, told Jewish Insider. “Whether that meeting happens, whether their interlocutors take them seriously depends on some of those perceptions.”

He emphasized that naval forces in the region have proven to be a very effective deterrent to Iranian malign behavior in the Gulf, arguing that Tuberville’s actions could distract military leaders from undertaking such efforts and further advancing combined naval strength.

Jonathan Lord, the director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security and a former staff member for the House Armed Services Committee, added that it’s “hard to overstate what role these individuals” at the deputy commander levels “play on a day-to-day [basis] in coordinating with partners in the care and feeding of the defense diplomatic relationships that we have with the host countries that host our forces, with which we do partner exercises, for all the coordinated planning we do. Those are incredibly important positions.”

Bowman noted that the holds have also left military commanders and units in limbo.

“The readiness impact of leadership uncertainty is difficult to measure, but very real,” Bowman said. “And anyone who blows that off is someone who doesn’t understand the way military units operate.”

Given the global threat picture, which Bowman called the most “comprehensive” and “daunting” in his lifetime, including ongoing threats from Iran, “this is just the worst possible time” to have senior military ranks in flux, he said.

“I’m sure [Iran] see[s] this, these developments, and they’re very happy about it,” Bowman continued, referring both to Tuberville’s holds as well as what he described as insufficient defense budgets and other congressional budgetary issues.

At the same time, Bowman noted that there are detailed war plans and contingency plans in place, as well as strong chains of command and succession that can continue to function even without confirmed leadership.

Lord said that the Tuberville situation will be viewed “both by partners and our adversaries as weakness and potential instability… [it] does not inspire confidence [with] our military partners,” and is a “gift to our adversaries.” 

“It’s really quite impactful on the overall defense establishment in ways that are truly transformative that we’ve really never seen before,” Lord said. “So it’s, it’s almost hard to take the full measure of just how damaging this is to decision-making, not just in the CENTCOM region, but globally.”

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the service chiefs provide critical guidance to the various branches of the military and serve as critical decision-makers and advisers, he explained, a situation which could undermine the U.S. response in the event of a crisis situation with Iran or another adversary.

“If there is no leadership, if there is no C-suite in times of great crisis, it absolutely would have an impact,” Lord said. “Of course the military is an organization that is adaptable and seeks to overcome no matter what circumstances, but you’d be very hard-pressed to make an argument… that this would not be a challenge. And certainly most frustrating is that it’s a challenge that is wholly unnecessary.”

Both Lord and Bowman also warned that Tuberville is setting a dangerous precedent and politicizing apolitical military positions.

“He’s punishing members of the military for a policy they don’t control,” Bowman said. “And I think that’s a horrible precedent, a horrible approach that hurts our troops at a time when they need our full support to deter an extraordinary array of threats from abroad.”

Lord said that the move marks “a new bottom of political behavior… where it seems there is real bipartisan concern about what type of precedent this sets.”

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