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U.S. Military Presence in the Persian Gulf: Challenges and Prospects

Authored by Dr. Sami G. Hajjar. | March 2002

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In this monograph, the author discusses the history and evolution of U.S. military presence in the Gulf region. He focuses on U.S. national interests in the area and appraises how U.S. policies and military presence serve those interests. A regional perspective on U.S. engagement and its long-term prospects also is discussed. The tenor of the discussion is strategy and policy assessment as opposed to operational and tactical considerations.

The presence of vast energy resources and location at the center of the Middle East account for the Gulf?s geo-strategic importance and its attraction to major powers. U.S. involvement and military presence dates back to the early part of the last century, and includes a host of political, economic, and geo-strategic objectives. Prior to the Gulf War, U.S. military presence was largely over the horizon, accommodating the sensitivities of local culture.After 1991, it remained deliberately low profile, and yet U.S. presence was criticized due to local perceptions of misconstrued U.S. policies that are harmful to Arab and Muslim interests. The September 11 attack on the United States and subsequent events associated with the war on terrorism have exacerbated negative public attitudes about U.S. policies and engagement in the region. Simultaneously, however, the traditional regimes of the Gulf countries continue to welcome U.S. engagement, regarding it as the cornerstone for the region?s security.

Access to oil, security of Israel, and stability and security of the region are identified as perennial U.S. interests. It is argued that U.S. policies for the Gulf are affected by developments elsewhere in the Middle East and often lead to the charge of double standards and bias. The U.S. handling of the peace process and its support for Israel are contrasted with how the United States implements the dual containment policy against Iraq and Iran. U.S. securitystrategy for the Gulf and the defense cooperative agreements it has with Gulf Cooperation Council members that authorize its military presence are detailed. Forward presence and the pre-positioning of equipment are the linchpins of U.S. deterrence strategy and U.S. ability to enforce the United Nations (U.N.) mandated sanctions against Iraq.

Following a survey of security challenges and U.S. policies to manage them, the author presents a regional appraisal of U.S. military posture. He elaborates on the Gulf states? attitudes toward U.S. military presence on their soil and notes that each state views its engagement with the United States differently. This analysis provides a glimpse of Gulf regional politics and security concerns.

The last section deals with the war on terrorism whose consequences are regarded by Islamic radicals as a ?clash of civilizations.? However, others in the region are calling for a ?dialogue of civilizations? to contain the phenomenon of terrorism. The discussion reveals that the Bush administration, in prosecuting the war on terrorism, has discovered a link to the festering Middle East conflict just as the former Bush administration was exposed during the Gulf War to the same conflict.

The author concludes that until September 11, the size, posture, and mission of U.S. military presence in the Gulf were appropriate for the assumed threat perception. The on-going war on terrorism and future regional security realignments that could emerge may impact the nature of U.S. military presence. This presence, however, must continue to be low-key for cultural and political reasons. Given the negative popular attitudes stemming from U.S. regional policies, force protection measures become a priority. The author offers a number of policy recommendations which include a comprehensive public diplomacy program that engages, among others, the American chaplains and Muslim clerics serving with Gulf forces. A slightly different approach to the peace processthat gives hope for a breakthrough and a more neutral U.S. stance as peace broker is recommended. Finally, the author alludes to Iraq and the war on terrorism, concluding that U.S. military presence is indispensable, with the land power component being essential for the security of the world?s most important real estate.

Conclusion and Recommendations.

Had this conclusion been written prior to the September 11 attack on the United States, I would have noted that the size, posture, and mission of U.S. military presence in the Gulf was appropriate for the assumed threat perception. The United States, in partnership with Gulf allies, was poised to deter and withstand the initial phase of an attack on the region by either Iraq or Iran. The prepositioned assets make it possible for home-based U.S. troops to reach the theater of operation and engage the enemy in a short time.

Another point to be noted is that the necessity for a low profile and small footprint presence was due to cultural and political considerations. A high visibility posture of American military personnel in the Gulf is a sensitive matter to the majority conservative Muslim population. The public in the Gulf, as in the rest of the Arab world, is fundamentally opposed to U.S. policies in the region and regards them as anti-Arab and Muslim. The anti-American sentiment was accelerating, given the deterioratingIsraeli-Palestinian conflict and U.S. failure to move the peace process forward. Fueling the negative image of the United States is the continued suffering of the Iraqi people blamed on the sanctions regime perpetuated and sternly enforced by the United States. Increasingly, the United States was approaching the need to rethink its policies in the region that have become out of synchronization with the security strategy of forward presence and prepositioning in an environment of heightened ill-will towards it?this irrespective of official local governments? acquiescence or tacit support for U.S. policies.

Signs of opposition to U.S. military presence on the Arabian Peninsula, and particularly Saudi Arabia, were clear and unmistakable. As American troops began arriving in the region on the eve of the Gulf war, the popular conservative Saudi cleric Sheikh Safar al-Hawali preached a sermon that was broadcast from Mecca, in which he said,

We have asked the help of our real enemies in defending us. The point is that we need an internal change. The first war should be against the infidels inside and then we will be strong enough to face our external enemy. Brothers, you have a duty to perform. The war will be long. The confrontation is coming.158

Words were soon followed by actions. The bombings of the Khobar Towers, the U.S. embassies in East Africa, and the World Trade Center, as well as the attack on the USS Cole were all part of a violent trend against the United States by Islamic radicals linked to bin Laden?s al Qaida organization. Further attacks on U.S. interests were expected, which is why force protection became and should remain CENTCOM?s highest priority.Unfortunately, no one expected the pattern of opposition to lead to the September 11 massive and coordinated terrorist attack.

Unfolding events since the attack on America, including the war in Afghanistan, will ultimately result in a rearrangement of regional politics and security policies. The nature of this rearrangement will largely depend on how the United States decides to use its military and foreign policiesin the region in a manner commensurate with its status as an unchallenged superpower.

The Bush administration, in the name of the war on terrorism, can pursue a unilateralist approach to the issues of concern in the region by acting militarily against Iraq, tightening the sanctions against Iran, pressuring Syria and Lebanon to deal with organizations within their borders that the United States (and Israel) regard as terrorists, and turning a blind eye to Israeli government harsh measures against the Palestinian Intifada. Additionally, in the wake of the terrorist bombings in Jerusalem and Haifa in early December 2001, the administration has supported the ?war? that Sharon declared on the Palestinian Authority with little or no regard to negative Arab reaction. In brief, the United States is very much capable in the short run of creating a new regional order by imposing stability under its hegemony. There is little that governments in the region can do to effectively oppose determined U.S. actions save for the usual verbal condemnations and diplomatic protestations. Such a course, however, will certainly widen and perpetuate Arab and Muslim anger against the United States and lead, in the long run, to additional acts of terrorism. Arab popular anger may even cause the downfall of regimes regarded close to the United States.

In reality, the Bush administration is more likely to pursue less brash regional policies. Peace in the Middle East is key to the fight against terrorism by eliminating a major cause that galvanizes Arab and Muslim sentiments regarding Palestinian rights and Islamic holy places in Jerusalem. Dealing with Saddam is a complicated problem for it involves a fundamental policy review. An Iraq without Saddam and the Ba?th party is an Iraq whose future as a unified and cohesive country, as all of its neighbors desire, becomes questionable in the current circumstances. It will also deprive the United States of one of its more convincing arguments as to why it needs to be present militarily in the Gulf. It will eventually shift the balance of regional power in favor of Iran. These are among the more seriousconsiderations that U.S. policymakers must weigh before acting to target Iraq after Afghanistan.

At the time of this writing, the situation in the region is extremely volatile and fluid as U.S. forces are concluding operations against the remaining al Qaeda and Taliban supporters, and at a time that the Israeli government is deeply involved in its own war on terrorism that it blames squarely on Yasser Arafat?a blame that the United States has publicly agreed with. Sharon has drawn a parallel between the U.S. cause in Afghanistan and Israel?s efforts against the Palestinians. Ultimately this could jeopardize the strength of the coalition that the Bush administration has formed with Islamic states in any subsequent phases of the war on terrorism. U.S. Gulf and Middle East policies have rough hurdles to cross before the ultimate objective of a stable and secure region can be realized. Given the fact that U.S. regional interests have not changed but were made even more gripping by the efforts against terrorism, overcoming these hurdles must remain a priority.

I would suggest the following policy recommendations. First, the United States must develop a comprehensive public diplomacy program whose objective is to bridge the information divide between itself and the Arab and Islamic worlds. A campaign to disseminate strategic information should go beyond the general public and be specific to target the region?s elites. The objective is to create an environment conducive to a ?dialogue of civilizations,? as has been called for recently by Arab intellectuals. Several institutions and programs could be highly instrumental, including, for example, the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace and the Royal Institute for Religious Studies of Amman, Jordan, that promotes interfaith dialogue. Their programs and activities in this regard deserve material support.

In this vein, the U.S. military services, and particularly the Army, given the large size of Gulf landpower forces compared to other services, should seriously promote contacts and joint programming between Americanchaplains and Muslim clerics serving in the Gulf armed forces. Understanding each other?s concepts of war and its conduct will contribute positively to the much-needed dialogue of civilizations at the military-to-military level.

Secondly, U.S. policymakers have correctly identified the Palestinian problem as the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and, during the Clinton administration, priority was given to moving the peace process along the Palestinian-Israeli track. While efforts should continue to bring the cycle of violence to a halt, the United States should conduct a fundamental review of the basis of the peace process and adopt a broader approach to tackle simultaneously the Palestinian-Israeli as well as the Lebanese and Syrian-Israeli tracks.

The American and Israeli assumption is that the ?land for peace? formula guiding the peace process means that negotiations involve the issue of the extent of Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab land, the modality of the withdrawal, and the nature of the ensuing peace. Arabs, on the other hand, assume that negotiations are about all relevant military, diplomatic, commercial, and other issues pertaining to post-peace treaty normalization but should not involve the question of the extent of Israeli withdrawal. Israel must withdraw to the pre-1967 borders. These positions appear intractable.

A possible way to achieve progress would be for the United States to shift to the more even-handed approach of encouraging arbitration by an international tribunal of the final border issues at least between Israel and Syria, as Israel and Egypt did in 1989 with respect to the Taba beach resort. On the Lebanese front, Israel has no strategic reason to hold onto the occupied Shaba farms; and by withdrawing from this strip of land along the western slopes of the Golan Heights, it would deny Hizballah, and the Lebanese government that claims the strip, any pretext for further resistance against Israel because it occupies Lebanese territory.159 On the Syrian front, the United States shouldpromote arbitration to resolve the fate of the small area around the northern shore of Lake Tiberias (Sea of Galilee) that appears to be the principal stumbling block in achieving a final settlement between Syria and Israel. President Bashar al-Asad cannot be expected to deviate from his father?s policy and negotiate away Syrian lands, but since the exact June 4, 1967, border line is disputed, arbitration is the only face-saving approach for Syria, should the arbitration decision favor Israel.

If Israel can make peace with its two state neighbors, the political atmosphere of the region will become more positive. The Arab world and Israel will be better situated to complete the journey of peace on the Palestinian track, which is proving to be the truly complicated track as it involves the emotional issue of Jerusalem, the Israeli ideological claims to the West Bank and Gaza, and Palestinian counterclaims and national aspirations.

Thirdly, the changed focus of responsibility of CENTCOM, that finds it prosecuting the war on terrorism, suggests that the Command should have a long-term presence in the region. The Gulf has been a critical transient location in support of the war efforts in Afghanistan. It is inefficient and awkward for a command that has had to fight two wars in its AOR in the past decade to operate, as it does, from 7,000 miles away. The State of Qatar that is welcoming of U.S. military presence on its territory has been mentioned as a potential site for CENTCOM?s headquarters. I recommend, therefore, the relocation of CENTCOM?s headquarters to the region, and, in addition to Qatar, Jordan should be considered as a potential site. Jordan is centrally located in CENTCOM?s AOR (which one day will include Israel, Syria, and Lebanon) and has a tradition of pro-Western and moderate government. This recommendation makes further sense, as U.S. presence in the region is increasingly becoming de facto permanent.

I confess to being unable to suggest any fresh approaches to Iraq. An action to dislodge the regime of Saddam and to bring to power the Iraqi National Congress assumes that the leadership of this Congress will have the support of most factions of the Iraqi people. This assumption should be carefully examined before pursuing such a path that could dismember Iraq. The policy of ?smart sanctions? that would provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Iraq, but at the same time deny the regime access to military technology, is the best practical method of dealing with that country. Fundamentally, however, the United States should come to a realistic assessment as to the nature and scope of the threat the regime poses to the region. Even by Israeli account, and ?Despite the deterioration of the monitoring and verification regime applied against Iraq in the aftermath of the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein failed to rebuilt the facilities of the production of chemical and nuclear weapons.?160 Hence the continued containment of Iraq might be preferable to a hostile military engagement with Saddam?s regime whose political outcome we are unsure of.

Lastly, it should be noted that, while many Arabs and Muslims oppose U.S. policies, the overwhelming majority of them also oppose terrorism and the kind of political vision and government style as proposed and practiced by bin Laden and the Taliban. This fact presents the United States with solid opportunities to be effective should it succeed in convincing the majority of the region?s people that its policies are judicious and evenhanded.

I conclude this study with a final comment speculating on the long-term role of the Army in the Gulf. For as long as Gulf oil remains vital to the interests of the United States and its allies, the presence of an Army heavy combat capability based in the region is to be expected. This capability is to prevent a cross-border invasion into Kuwait and Saudi Arabia by Iraq. The possibility of an Iraqi incursion will remain for some time, even after the regime of Saddam has been replaced. As already noted, this is because of the Iraqi argument that historically Kuwait belongs to Iraq, and because future Iraqi governments are likely toblame Kuwait for the impact the sanctions have had on Iraqi society. Hence, even if Baghdad is ruled by a moderate regime that is friendly to the West, this should not mean that Iraqi national aspirations would necessarily be abandoned.

In addition to Iraq, the Gulf region is likely to remain fundamentally unstable for several decades to come. Iran can be a source of instability insofar as it regards itself as the dominant Gulf power that is entitled to a commensurate role in the region. Sharing major maritime oil and gas fields with the littoral Gulf states means that Iran and the Arab sheikdoms have potential friction points. U.S. military presence, especially naval and air force capabilities, in several of the Gulf countries is a critical check to Iranian ambitions and possible adventurism.161

The uncertain prospect for the long-term stability of the traditional Gulf regimes is another issue of concern. These regimes, as this study has demonstrated, welcome American military presence. Several scenarios could be discussed as to what would happen if these regimes were to fall. I believe that, in the unlikely event this is to occur, it would not simultaneously happen in all of the Gulf states. If there were a regime change in Saudi Arabia, for example, the pressure would be more and not less on the United States to enhance its military presence, and specifically the presence of heavy combat capabilities in the other Gulf states. In other words, there is no realistic end in the foreseeable future to U.S. military engagement in the Gulf. The vital interests the United States has in the region, the desire of local governments to retain U.S. military presence, and the inability of Japan and European powers that depend on Middle East oil to project power for a long period of time, mean that U.S. engagement is there for the long haul.The Army should plan accordingly, for an over-the-horizon presence strategy is no longer valid. Air and naval power are highly effective in defeating aggression by hostile forces; land power is, in the final analysis, what will secure the world?s most precious and coveted real estate.


158. As quoted in Howard Schneider, ?Saudi Missteps Helped Bin Laden Gain Power," The Washington Post, October 15, 2001, p. A01.

159. For a detailed discussion of this issue, see Sami G. Hajjar, ?Creating Peace Between Lebanon and Israel,? Contemporary Review, Vol. 279, No. 1626, July 2001, pp. 1-8.

160. See ?Israeli Strategic Dominance: A Deterrent to Regional Conflict,? Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies (JCSS), Bulletin, No. 27, Tel Aviv University, November 2001, p. 3.

161. At one point, as U.S.-Saudi relations experienced friction due to differing views on security for the region, there were reports that the Kingdom had become uncomfortable with the U.S. military presence and would ask them to leave. However, Crown Prince Abdullah dismissed reports of frictions with the United States and indicated no discussions were underway over the future of U.S. troops. See The Washington Post, January 18, 2002, p. 1, and January 29, 2002, p. 1.