The scale of the US military deployment in the Persian Gulf — half of all US combat forces worldwide — is something of a shock, even to the Pentagon. “Nobody ever thought they’d be free to commit all those forces,” one military official said.

Washington’s decision to send those forces, though, should come as no surprise. “The defense of Saudi Arabia is vital to the defense of the United States,” declared President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1943. All of the subsequent presidential “doctrines of intervention” — from the Truman Doctrine to the Carter Doctrine — have had the Persian Gulf and its oil at the center of their sights. In 1958, President Eisenhower actually sent US Marines into Lebanon in response to a revolution in Iraq against the British-installed monarchy there.

In 1969, domestic US opposition to the Vietnam war forced President Nixon to design an intervention doctrine that would “change the color of the corpses,” in the words of one high official. Instead of sending US troops, the US would arm local powers to police Third World regions critical to US interests. The most important of these regions was the Persian Gulf, where the Nixon Doctrine designated Iran to play this surrogate role.

From Surrogate Strategy to Rapid Deployment

The intervention of 1990 rests on the same strategic perceptions that guided Truman, Eisenhower and Nixon. The need to send American troops in such massive numbers, however, is a consequence of important shifts in the balance of power in the world and in the Middle East. The US goal of retaining “friendly” regimes in power has become steadily more costly, both financially and militarily.

For much of the 1970s, even as the Persian Gulf came to occupy a larger place among US policy concerns, the surrogate strategy of the Nixon Doctrine appeared to be adequate to serve US interests. Washington encouraged US weapons manufacturers to sell $8.3 billion worth of arms to the Shah of Iran between 1970 and 1979, and some 50,000 US advisers helped expand and train his army and secret police. Beginning in 1972, with US encouragement and support, Iran provided arms, funds and sanctuary to Iraqi Kurdish rebels fighting against Baghdad. In December 1973, the Shah sent 3,000 of his US-equipped troops to put down a long-standing insurgency against the sultan of Oman.

The revolution which overthrew the Shah in 1979 radically changed the strategic equation in the region. Sparsely populated Saudi Arabia was never a serious candidate to play a role comparable to Iran. The real “second pillar” of US strategy in the Middle East was Israel, but Israel’s political liabilities severely limited its usefulness in the Gulf. The Iranian revolution, coupled with other developments such as the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in December 1979, upheavals that year in Saudi Arabia itself and armed conflict between North and South Yemen, compelled Washington to devise once again more costly strategies of direct US military intervention.

Soon after President Carter took office in 1977, his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, dusted off an idea that had been around at least since the Vietnam war: that the US should develop a military force that could be dispatched rapidly to the Persian Gulf or elsewhere in the Third World. Nothing much happened with the Rapid Deployment Force, though, until the events in Iran and Afghanistan commanded Washington’s undivided attention.

President Carter marked the transition to the new era of rapid deployment in his last State of the Union address, in January 1980. “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States,” he declared, “and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”

When Carter spoke these words, the Rapid Deployment Force was more a state of mind than a reality. It had no equipment, and its troops would have to be requisitioned from US forces assigned to other commands: Perhaps most critically, no country in the Gulf was willing to host its headquarters, which set up operations at Florida’s McDill Air Force Base in March 1980. Top Pentagon and State Department officials toured the region to line up “host country support” in and around the region.

Public Functions and Private Promises

While Saudi Arabia could not aspire to be a major Nixon Doctrine player, it did assume a key role under the Carter Doctrine, which required not armies but bases in the Persian Gulf region. Saudi Arabia had already purchased $3.2 billion worth of US weapons and military services between 1970 and 1979, and imported troops from Pakistan and military advisers from Jordan and the West. By 1978, some 675 US military personnel and 10,000 civilian employees of US defense contractors were building military installations in Saudi Arabia.

The Pentagon’s search for airfields, ports, barracks and support facilities to host a US interventionary force took two tracks. Publicly, the US came up against the reluctance of Arab rulers to link themselves openly with the chief Western power and the main ally of Israel. A more discreet approach was required. Egypt, Oman and Bahrain allowed US air and naval forces limited use of military “facilities.” Other bases were more distant — Kenya and Diego Garcia, for instance.

The key was Saudi Arabia itself. Iraq’s invasion of Iran in September 1980 and Saudi fears of an expanded war gave the US leverage to extract more intimate Saudi collaboration with US military plans. The centerpiece of this effort was the sale of five AWACS planes and a system of bases with stocks of fuel, parts and munitions. “No conceivable improvements in US airlift or USAF rapid deployment and ’bare- basing’ capability could come close to giving the US this rapid and effective reinforcement capability,” wrote military analyst Anthony Cordesman. An added advantage was that the Saudis paid for it all.

Over the course of the decade, Saudi Arabia poured nearly $50 billion into building a Gulf-wide air defense system to US and NATO specifications, and ready for US forces to use in a crisis. By 1988, the US Army Corps of Engineers had designed and constructed a $14 billion network of military facilities across Saudi Arabia, including military cantonments at Khamis Mushayt, Tabuk and King Khalid Military City, port facilities at Ra’s al-Mish‘ab, Jidda and Jubayl, three military schools, headquarters complexes for the air force, the Ministry of Defense and Aviation and the navy, support facilities for F-15 and F-16 fighter planes, and headquarters and training facilities for the Saudi National Guard. (Facilities at Jubayl have been especially critical to accommodate the enormous deployment of the past several months. In August 1990, the Corps returned to construct additional buildings and facilities for the US troops based there, since the original scenarios had not anticipated such a large deployment of ground forces.)

American strategists made the best of the Saudi reluctance to acknowledge publicly its military relationship with the US or to provide advance guarantees of access. Some acknowledged that too close an identity with the US could undermine rather than enhance regime security. “I don’t believe that American bases as such in that area are the right way to go,” said Carter’s Secretary of Defense Harold Brown in late 1979. “A number of countries in the area can maintain bases which, in an emergency in which they asked our help, we could then come in and use.” Brown’s successor, Caspar Weinberger, made clear in his classified 1984-1988 Defense Guidance report that US, not Saudi forces, would be the first-line forces in any crisis. “Whatever the circumstances,” he wrote, “we should be prepared to introduce American forces directly into the region should it appear that the security of access to Persian Gulf oil is threatened.”

Nevertheless, efforts to improve terms of US access continued. In early 1984, at the height of a major Iranian offensive against Iraq, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy and National Security Council staff member John Poindexter traveled to the Gulf to tell the ruling families that any military intervention on their behalf would require a public invitation and full US access. In 1985, a classified State Department study prepared for Congressional leaders by Murphy was leaked to the New York Times (September 5). “Although the Saudis have steadfastly resisted formal access agreements,” it read, “they have stated that access will be forthcoming for United States forces as necessary to counter Soviet aggression or in regional crises they cannot manage on their own.”

From Rapid Deployment to Central Command

In 1983 the Pentagon elevated Persian Gulf contingency planning by transforming the Rapid Deployment Force into a separate military command — Central Command, or CENTCOM. Seventeen ships loaded with supplies for an intervention force — food, ammunition, fuel and drinking water — were stationed off Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. Central Command now had the authority to requisition 300,000-350,000 troops, and budget allocations for “power projection” shot up.

US naval intervention became a reality in July 1987, when the Reagan administration responded to a Kuwaiti request to place its oil tankers under US protection, and sent an armada that grew to nearly 50 ships in and around the Persian Gulf. Over the course of a year, the US Navy had several confrontations with Iranian forces, providing the Pentagon with valuable battle experience with many sophisticated but untested new weapons, including the missile system that shot down an Iranian civilian airliner, killing 291 people. This naval deployment was the final step in the steadily growing US efforts to support Iraq in the war against Iran, and helped bring about a ceasefire, on Iraqi terms, in August 1988.

President Bush inherited both the apparatus and the mission for US military intervention in the Gulf from his predecessors, but the circumstances of this present intervention and its scale were hardly anticipated. US cooperation with Iraq from the mid-1980s through early 1990 appeared secure: Saddam Hussein’s regime in Baghdad seemed to be a reliable junior partner in preserving the status quo in the region. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait required a reversal of policy gears.

US contingency scenarios, moreover, had initially been based on the premise that military intervention would most likely be required to counter a Soviet offensive into Iran, or to launch offensive strikes against the Soviet Union in the context of a general war between the two superpowers. The sophistication of the air bases in Saudi Arabia is a function of these tasks. Subsequent developments led to planning for a need to stop Iranian advances in the event that Iraq might have been defeated in the Gulf war. There is no evidence that the US anticipated a need to plan against Iraqi aggression.

Nor does it seem that US military planners anticipated such a huge build-up of ground forces. Such a scenario is in many ways a product of the radical changes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe: deployment of upwards of half a million troops to Saudi Arabia is only possible because the rationale (the “Soviet threat”) for a large US troop presence in Europe has evaporated.

There is no evidence that Iraq planned to invade Saudi Arabia. The Bush administration intervened militarily in order to offset Iraq’s ability to dominate the Gulf politically following a successful and unchallenged conquest of Kuwait.

Now that the troops are there, the Bush administration and the Pentagon confront a new set of questions. This enormous deployment, whether or not there is a war, will probably help to undermine the legitimacy of the monarchies it aims to protect, which will only increase pressure for further intervention. Secretary of State Baker and Defense Secretary Cheney have spoken of the need for US troops to stay “as long as it takes.” US military officers are advocating that the Pentagon keep at least 10,000 troops in Saudi Arabia “indefinitely.”

In a real sense, this costly and dangerous intervention can be traced back to the CIA’s successful covert intervention in Iran in 1953 that overthrew the elected regime of Mohammad Mossadeq and brought the shah back to power. One intervention led to another, as Iran was used against Iraq in the 1970s and Iraq against Iran in the 1980s. Each intervention required a more substantial investment and greater risk than the one before it. The Bush administration will find this political dilemma far more intractable than the logistical ones that have obsessed military planners for years. Getting the troops there is one thing. Getting them out again may prove to be the most difficult task of all.

How to cite this article:

Martha Wenger, Joe Stork "The US in the Persian Gulf," Middle East Report 168 (January/February 1991).

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