Beyond Containment: Defending U.S. Interests in the Persian Gulf

Strategic Forum, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Beyond Containment: Defending U.S. Interests in the Persian Gulf


About this report

This report summarizes the key judgments and recommendations of a forthcoming NDU Press book entitled The United States and the Persian Gulf: Redesigning U.S. Forces for the Post-Containment Era. The report was drafted by Richard D. Sokolsky, distinguished research fellow in the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) at NDU. Other contributors include Richard L. Kugler, distinguished research fellow, INSS; Kenneth Pollack, Director of Research, The Saban Center for Middle East Policy, The Brookings Institution; Joseph McMillan, distinguished research fellow, INSS; Eugene B. Rumer, senior research fellow, INSS; and Judith S. Yaphe, senior research fellow, INSS. Mr. Sokolsky can be contacted at (202) 685-2249 or sokolskyr@ndu.edu.

Key Points

With or without regime change in Iraq, the U.S. military posture toward the Persian Gulf will require significant adjustments over the next decade. The future of Iraq--and the outcome of U.S. efforts to effect regime change and Baghdad's compliance with United Nations Security Council resolutions--will be the key driver of the size and character of these changes. Regardless of how regime change occurs in Iraq--whether it happens quickly and decisively or is protracted and messy--and whatever type of post-Saddam regime finally emerges, the United States will need to diversify its dependence on regional basing and forward presence, as well as reduce the visibility and predictability of its forward-deployed forces.

In the long term, eliminating Iraq's ability to threaten its neighbors and destabilize the region is the sine qua non for success in guaranteeing the security of the Gulf while reducing the political costs that the U.S. military presence imposes on other American interests and Gulf partners. Unless and until a stable, moderate, and nonexpansionist regime assumes power in Baghdad, significant American forces will be strategically "fixed" in the Gulf area, performing the containment mission. The United States will need to redesign its forward presence in the region through transformed capabilities and operational concepts that provide improved combat capabilities while reducing dependence on forward-deployed forces in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the region.

However, even successful regime change in Iraq does not mean that the United States can safely end its military engagement in the Persian Gulf, given its strategic location, role in global energy markets, and vulnerability to other potential threats. In short, removing Saddam is no panacea. There is no escaping the U.S. role as a guarantor of Gulf stability. Thus, the United States needs a viable concept for its future forward presence that can be sustained over the long haul. There are three broad options: long-term access to the lower Gulf with reduced ground and air presence; an over-the-horizon presence, as existed pre-1990 with diversification of bed-down locations; and a combination of reliance on other regional partners and U.S. capabilities.

Changes Ahead

Significant changes lie ahead for U.S. security strategy in the Persian Gulf after almost a decade of stasis. In the decade between the Gulf War and the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the strategy of dual containment of Iraq and Iran was a key driver of U.S. military planning and force posture for the region. The overriding American concern was preserving access to Gulf oil at reasonable prices and keeping the region secure from threat or invasion. The U.S. strategy benefited from the facts that both Iraq and Iran possessed a limited ability to project power and influence beyond their borders; the Gulf States acquiesced in a significant U.S. military presence on their soil despite the domestic costs; and the United States was reasonably successful, at least until the second Palestinian intifada in September 2000, in insulating U. …

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