Time for a New Persian Gulf Strategy


The incoming Bush Administration has an opportunity to revisit our expensive, open-ended, and ultimately self-defeating strategy in the vital Persian Gulf region. 

Our policy since the Gulf War has led to the establishment of an American protectorate over the region, 8,000 miles from our shores. It was established with virtually no public discussion and in spite of Congress usual reluctance to approve any military deployment abroad without clearly defined objectives, acceptable financial costs, and an explicit time frame. The cost of the deployment under the U.S. Central Command is estimated at $50 to $70 billion annually, depending on how one computes the figures and how much the six Gulf Cooperation Council states contribute. Furthermore, this protectorate is the most open-ended commitment in the history of U.S. foreign policy. Equally troubling is the apparent absence of a strategy for reducing or sharing with allies the commitment to defend the Gulf monarchies. On the contrary, we appear to be expanding our military presence through formal agreements. And we are forced to devote increasing resources to protect the very forces that are the lightening rod for our enemies.

Given the history of the modern Middle East, a substantial American military presence is unlikely to succeed in the long run. Every effort of Western powers to establish a military presence in the Middle East in the 20th century has resulted in violent failure. The terrorist attack on the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996 and the recent attack on the USS Cole in Yemen are precursors of what is to come. And we have many more enemies than Osama Ben Laden. Look at the historical record:

+ Violent Syrian resistance in Damascus to French forces consolidating their League of Nations mandate.

+ Violent nationalist opposition to British air bases in post-World War II Iraq.

+ Forced withdrawal of British forces from the Suez Canal Zone.

+ Demise of the U.S. sponsored Baghdad Pact by the bloody Iraqi revolution of 1958.

+ Forced U.S. evacuation of Wheelus AFB in Libya after 1969 overthrow of the monarchy.

+ Withdrawal of the Central Treaty Organization and large American presence in Iran after the Khomeini revolution of 1979.

+ Terrorist attack on Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983 after President Reagans military intervention.

The one successful American military intervention was the Marine landing in Beirut in 1958. It was successful in part because President Eisenhower had the good sense to withdraw quickly.

Americas response to the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait succeeded in reversing the occupation and the ensuing need for an American military presence was justified. However, ten years have passed and it is time to rethink this policy. Our Gulf War allies are no longer in step with us (except perhaps for the U.K). and the GCC states are increasingly uncomfortable with our military presence. Dual containment of Iraq and Iran has succeeded in accomplishing its short-term objectives largely because of our overwhelming power and CENTCOM’s effective implementation of the policy. As a result, we have time to consider a new strategy that protects our interests without a large, permanent military presence.

Mr. Arthur L. Lowrie is Retired foreign service officer and first Political Advisor to the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Central Command 1983-85