Anthony Cordesman, The Gulf and the Search for Strategic Stability: Saudi Arabia, the Military Balance in the Gulf, and Trends in the Arab-Israeli Military Balance (Boulder: Westview Press, 1984).

Occasionally, when an important head of state arrives in Washington for consultation without a previously announced agenda, he is greeted by an embarrassing series of articles and commentaries exposing the cumulative ignorance of American foreign policy analysts. Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd recently visited with President Ronald Reagan and provided just such an example.

We were treated to a spate of stories wobbling along a continuum between two seemingly contradictory poles which have clouded our perceptions of the region for several years. One is a let-well-enough-alone tendency to refer casually to the Pentagon and State Department redefinition of American interests in Southwest Asia, stretching from Egypt to Pakistan, from Turkey to Kenya, as if unpublished American military agreements and regional alliances were at once inevitable, desirable and stabilizing, but at the same time would vaporize if scrutinized publicly. At the other extreme, skeptics dismiss long-term American-Arab cooperation as a flimsy construction resting on the crumbling pillar of an overextended Saudi regime.

Reagan’s national security managers learned remarkably well from the 1981 AWACS sale debate how to couple this sort of policy confusion with the predictable domestic protest over the sale of advanced weapon systems to Arab states and turn it all to their own advantage. Reagan aides know that by simply announcing the postponement of any further arms sales decisions until the completion of the latest “comprehensive inter-agency study of security needs in the area,” they can obfuscate existing Southwest Asia military arrangements and leave the media scrambling to discern some indication of the American-Saudi secret agenda.

Remarkably, this time there is a place to which we can turn for guidance. Government decision makers and scholars would all improve the quality of discussion about the Arabian/Persian Gulf if they adopted the crisply presented, richly sourced information contained in Anthony Cordesman’s new book as the baseline of informed discussion on the region. Yet it appears that no one is giving this important new book the attention it warrants. Why?

This is no ordinary treatise. Cordesman’s detail on internal economic, development and energy policies, as well as his central treatment of political and military relations between the United States and the Gulf states, are of a quality and scope simply unavailable elsewhere. The book’s grasp of what Arab and Western leaders perceive to be the mutual problems and benefits of cooperation gives it the weight of a classified briefing by a skilled intelligence analyst. Even at 1,000 pages, I found this book clear and sufficiently concise that it could afford to be longer. Remarkably, although it must have had a data cutoff date of late 1983, it has not been overtaken by events. It is still the most relevant single source on military events in the region.

So why is such a fine book buried? The answer, I think, lies in the awesome scope and careful construction that make this book intellectually inconvenient for most of its likely audiences. To accept the book, most authorities on the region would have to accommodate some uncomfortable truths about the pertinence and accuracy of their own work.

Cordesman has mastered the art of finding open sources to document what he well knows is contained in the classified archives of the Pentagon, State Department, CIA and NSC. The richness of the material reflects both Cordesman’s background in the departments of State, Defense and Energy and also the process by which he does his own research, talks to the decision makers, sifts the source material for the details he considers relevant and then synthesizes all these neatly into a readable narrative.

Cordesman provides scholars with too much documentation to reject and language too bold to accept. Presenting his case with an advocate’s precision, Cordesman tests his data against a detailed accounting of the recent past and against his predictions of events in the near future, most of which seem to have come to pass. Cordesman’s account excels precisely where specialists flounder, at the edge of their domain, where their approach to an individual country or discipline or even region reflects the limits of their knowledge.

The narrative — and the remarkably detailed and helpful chronologies, tables and maps which comprise about an eighth of the book — are still geared to decision making, as if action or reaction is the next logical step. Researchers will find in such chronologies as those covering the origins of the Gulf Cooperation Council and the events leading up to the Saudi AWACS sale more solid information than all the journal articles, newspaper clips and press conferences put end to end. Useful charts and tables show such things as “Saudi Diplomatic, Aid, and Military Initiatives in Support of Western Security Interests, 1970-1982,” a 15-year look at the Saudi cash flow available for weapons purchases, and the organization of the Saudi defense establishment in the late 1970s. While some may quibble with his analysis of cultural and political nuance within particular regimes, I found every aspect of his account extremely surefooted.

An Accurate Map

Cordesman’s broad gauge and hands-on grasp of regional politics and the inner workings of Washington’s national security bureaucracy have given us an authoritative, candid snapshot of the contemporary situation. The book’s first section provides a well-integrated overview of the problems of Gulf stability and the American role there. The second part traces the development of Saudi-US military relations as Saudi Arabia emerges as the linchpin of a region-wide security system. The other Gulf states and the intersection of their interests with this emerging system comprise the third section. The fourth part — on which bureaucratic attention will focus — is a terse discussion of the trends in the Arab-Israeli balance. It is as accurate a road map as now exists to the school of thought that has taken over at the Pentagon, the White House and gradually even at the State Department.

Cordesman’s call for a more “forthright” relationship with Israel based on increased military and economic aid explicitly tied to Israeli cooperation with American peace efforts. His treatment of Israeli defense posture, written at least 18 months ago, provides a better rationale for the most recent round of US aid and trade concessions toward Israel than any offered by the Reagan administration. By assuring Israel of similar American assistance in various crises that it has offered key Arab states, while simultaneously building up the destructive power of both of these adversaries, the administration is maximizing the infrastructure for intervention and pre-positioning of equipment. Cordesman differs from the official doctrine principally by his open admission that the job of preventing further Israeli “defensive attacks” on Arab targets and resolving the Palestinian issue are risky, perhaps impossible propositions. True, Cordesman’s view of the region will offend many supporters of Israel in the same manner as did his arguments on behalf of the Saudi AWACS sale. Similarly, his call for marked increases in arms aid to Turkey and decoupling it from military aid to Greece will not sit well with another constituency. But beyond all the problems that various audiences may have with embracing this book, there is another problem which I think makes knowledgeable readers, including even the author himself, uncomfortable with the logical extension of the data compiled here.

Cordesman concentrates his focus on American ability to intervene in a regional conflict. He properly notes the evolution from the Carter-era doctrine of unilateral intervention by a transparently ineffective Rapid Deployment Force to the Reagan administration emphasis on working with the Gulf nations to support collective security. His detailed, perceptive discussion of the extraordinary limitations of both Soviet and American power projection capabilities emphasizes the ultimate importance of air supremacy in the region. His conclusion reflects the tempered optimism of American military analysts in the wake of the Saudi air defense package and the secret agreements to allow American use of bases and pre-positioning of equipment on Saudi soil in certain circumstances:

The US would…have a potential advantage in the number and quality of the combat aircraft it could deploy from US carriers and friendly bases. If Saudi Arabia, other southern Gulf states, Turkey, or Iran made suitable bases, AC&W [air control and warning] capability, and refueling available, the US should be able to win superiority over both any Soviet tactical aircraft and bomber forces developed in in Afghanistan and the southern USSR, except in northern and central Iran.

Cordesman emphasizes that the more global the scope of US-Soviet conflict, the more severely it will impede the Soviet ability to operate in the region compared to that of the United States. So carefully and persuasively does the author reconstruct (from unclassified sources) the dimensions of the emerging, region-wide air defense system anchored in Saudi Arabia, that his four parts light up the silhouette of a fifth — and missing — part to this book. I am even willing to speculate that there is another section, written strictly for internal government consumption and likely to remain classified for quite a while. It seems to me that it is this hypothetical fifth part of Cordesman’s study that gives his readers pause — some because they doubt it, others because they fear its exposure to the light of day.

For the rough dimensions of this fifth part, take a look at this sampling of almost throwaway lines:

  • The five Saudi bases now operational “will be sheltered with aircraft shelters and underground command facilities superior to those in NATO… It will then take the equivalent of a massive B-52 strike to use conventional hard bombs to inactivate a Saudi main military base. No Gulf air force could launch such an attack before 1990, and it is uncertain whether the USSR would be able to do so with conventional weapons.”
  • Cordesman catalogues in one table a partial list of well over $50 billion in facilities and equipment being netted into the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) air defense system, which already includes “prepositioned equipment and munitions sufficient to sustain US forces during intensive combat for 90 days or more.”
  • Cordesman observes that “every further step in military cooperation among the conservative Gulf states will have two effects: first, to reduce the need for US or other Western intervention and, second, to make it easier and more effective.” As the Rapid Deployment Force evolved into a unified Central Command, its corresponding doctrine has evolved into one which “does not require treaties, forces in being, or even open admission of its existence where this is embarrassing to a Gulf or Western state.”
  • Cordesman notes that the US can afford — even in the event of simultaneous contingencies — “to commit more than 26 squadrons to Southwest Asia.” In addition, two B-52H squadrons have been modified to fly deep-penetrating missions in the region. These 28 B-52s and seven associated reconnaissance and refueling aircraft are soon to be supplemented by more equipment drawn from the US strategic arsenal.
  • “The main threat Soviet air power poses to most of the Gulf now consists of long- and medium-range bombers” operated out of the Soviet Union and Southeast Asia.
  • The “strategic value of the Gulf is so great that both the Reagan and Carter administrations have signaled the USSR that the US would use nuclear weapons rather than suffer a decisive loss of Gulf oil.”

In plain English, of which Cordesman shows a great mastery, what is being left unsaid here? It is hard to read Cordesman’s account of this extraordinary increase in regional uses of the emerging alliance of conservative Arab states, without asking what else they could be used for.

Pushing Air Domination Northward

If, during a multi-regional war, the United States is prepared to prevail over the Soviet Union in the Gulf — particularly the bomber force based inside Soviet territory — is it not prepared to use offensively what it is ready to use defensively? To be sure, Cordesman includes dozens of caveats about the necessary local cooperation, about being invited in. But in a superpower confrontation, which Gulf state has the independent intelligence network to conclude that American warnings of imminent threat are false? If the US is committed to preserving Europe and Japan’s access to the Gulf, would it not also use its capacity to prevail over the Soviet Southern Command in order to deflect Soviet military capabilities from Europe or Japan?

It is as if Cordesman painted in the political, military and social regional forces as foreground details in a rich landscape, but refused to add a horizon. The proverbial “dog that doesn’t bark” literally laps at your hand as you read certain sections. In short, the most important implications for American military strategy in the Gulf in the decades ahead have much more to do with American abilities to “project power” across the Soviet southern border than with the Gulfs regional stability per se. Cordesman’s detailed analysis of the regional contingencies allows us to anticipate some very practical problems the United States would face in launching an attack against Soviet bases from the Gulf — the loss of host government cooperation, distances, adequacy of stock, resupply, and so forth. The bulk of Cordesman’s emphasis on regional intervention deals with precisely this question of pushing air domination northward, of prevailing against Soviet-based resources. Yet, oddly, discussion of the “nuclear exchange between the superpowers” is limited to just over a page, in which he notes simply that “the US has already run war games in which the US compensated for its weaknesses in land forces by initiating the use of tactical nuclear weapons and in which both sides responded by the large-scale employment of tactical weapons.” He details the “wide range of new difficulties” that face the United States if the Soviets used nuclear weapons against Gulf facilities, which “leaves the US with the alternative of having to deter by the threat of countervalue strikes against the USSR, and the credibility of such retaliation is uncertain.”

After detailing the Soviet targets within the Gulf (though Cordesman is notably less detailed and generally more discrete about his grasp of Soviet military organization capabilities than he is about any other country treated in the book), Cordesman limits his discussion of American considerations to this one paragraph:

The only answer to such Soviet threats or actions seems to be a US ability to launch strikes against the USSR. While the risks of such strikes are serious, the US has no choice but to plan for them and to use such forces as its SLBMS and SLCMs [submarine-launched 26 ballistic and cruise missiles] to assure countervalue targets in the Gulf by inflicting equal damage in the Soviet Union. Even with such steps it will be difficult to persuade the Gulf states to accept the risk of nuclear escalation. Such persuasion will require a great deal of prior consultation and planning. While most Gulf states may now be sufficiently unsophisticated to have failed to think out the full consequences of a major superpower confrontation in the Gulf, they are unlikely to remain so in view of the number of widely publicized US studies of nuclear options.

I suppose, in a book about regional stability and military balance, Cordesman has no inherent obligation to lay out the strategic as well as tactical uses of a netted air defense system in the Gulf. He may even feel an obligation not to spell out details on which the Gulf states have themselves not yet been consulted. But given the extraordinary lead time implicit in strategic targeting and options, can there be any question that United States contingency and operational planning has not progressed to the stage where the strategic value of a theater bordering the Soviet Union and equipped with roughly the same number and quality of aircraft, radar, facilities, nuclear-hardened command posts and so forth as NATO would not be taken into consideration? Admittedly, the US has not resolved the most serious of questions, such as how to achieve host-nation cooperation, and where to find the American pilots and ground crews to take over pre-positioned AWACS, F-15s and other aircraft. But I also have no doubt that some answer, most likely inadequate and unsatisfactory, has been proposed. Indeed, a ranking Saudi diplomat has told me that consultations have begun on precisely these questions, although without any great reassurances to the Saudis.

The last two US administrations’ strategy toward the Gulf and Soviet moves in Afghanistan seem bent on turning the world’s acknowledged tinderbox into a prime theater for war between the superpowers. Cordesman’s analysis of each nation’s internal security, his net assessment of military capabilities, his intriguing look at the region’s recent history, and his grasp of the enormous regional problems which the US faces in the Gulf are troubling in their own right. Taken with its implications for superpower balance, this book hints at new meanings for worn phrases such as “regional destabilization” and “containment.” The upgrading of NATO nuclear delivery capabilities or the provision of Western weapon and intelligence systems to China appear positively cautious compared to the next decade’s agenda in the Gulf.

How to cite this article:

Scott Armstrong "The Gulf Between the Superpowers," Middle East Report 130 (February 1985).

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