Persian Gulf Time Bomb: America's Risky Commitment

By Conry, Barbara | USA TODAY, May 1997 | Go to article overview

Persian Gulf Time Bomb: America's Risky Commitment

Conry, Barbara, USA TODAY

The bombing that killed 19 U.S. troops in Drahan, Saudi Arabia, was one consequence of the high-profile military presence in the region, and there is great potential for similar attacks in the future.

The 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was a watershed in U.S. policy toward the Persian Gulf region. The American military response to that invasion was not a foregone conclusion--a fact that often is forgotten in light of the popularity of the Gulf War and the widespread support for follow-up operations against Saddam Hussein. There was intense debate about how the U.S. should respond. Richard Cheney, Secretary of Defense at the time of the invasion, has recalled that the Bush Administration "really needed some time to come to grips with this basic, fundamental question of our strategic assessment of what this meant. Did it matter that [Saddam Hussein had] taken Kuwait?"

The resolution of that debate in favor of military action marked the beginning of an increasingly activist U.S. approach toward the region. Today, that has evolved into a policy of essentially assuming responsibility for the security of the southern Gulf states.

In 1995, Secretary of Defense William Perry described U.S. policy as follows: "In the broadest teems, the U.S. approach to Middle Eastern security is one of engagement, forward presence, and rapid response. The United States seeks to sustain and adapt security partnerships with key states throughout the region, broaden economic and cultural ties, and promote peaceful settlement of disputes before they widen into open conflict. In the Persian Gulf, we aim to achieve these regional objectives by ensuring that Iran and Iraq adhere to international norms, enhancing U.S. and friendly capabilities to defend our shared interests, and demonstrating our enduring commitment to Gulf security."

Managing security in the volatile Persian Gulf region, however, is an expensive and high-risk strategy that is not justified by American interests. Current U.S. strategy is based on numerous flawed assumptions, is plagued by internal contradictions, and exhibits a potentially dangerous complacency about the risks associated with high-profile American involvement in the region. Moreover, the very tactics that are intended to safeguard U.S. interests may jeopardize those interests in the long run.

According to the May, 1995, United States Security Strategy for the Middle East, Washington has adopted a three-tiered approach to Gulf security. The first tier is strengthening national self-defense capabilities to allow each country to bear primary responsibility for its own defense. The second is promoting regional collective defense to enable states in the area to cooperate during periods of heightened regional tension. The third is enhancing the capabilities of the U.S. and, nominally, other states outside the region to repel major threats to the southern Gulf region.

In reality, though, Washington has made only modest, largely cosmetic, efforts to encourage the southern Gulf monarchies to develop national or regional self-defense consequences. The U.S., instead, has focused overwhelmingly on the third tier--enhancing American capability to respond to contingencies in the region--and in doing so effectively has made the southern Gulf a U.S. protectorate.

American efforts to bolster the national self-defense capabilities of the states that are members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)--Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates--largely have been confined to providing military advice and selling arms. The relatively small economies and tiny populations of those states, together with numerous military, political, and social factors, place great inherent constraints on their national military capabilities. Consequently, U.S. advice and arms sales have made but a marginal difference in their self-defense capabilities. The main result of the first tier of American policy has been increased resentment of the U. …

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