Gulf states wary of fixed U.S. presence

July 30, 1991|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Five months after forcing Iraq into a bloody retreat from Kuwait, the Bush administration is running into trouble convincing Persian Gulf states to accept an expanded U.S. security umbrella to guard against a similar crisis.

The administration is also drawing criticism from some members of Congress and military analysts who say the White House still needs to define U.S. interests and assess the potential threats before deciding what is required for an adequate regional


For now, current efforts to scale back U.S. forces from a wartime peak of 541,000 military personnel are expected to continue until sometime in December, when the last ground troops are scheduled to leave Saudi Arabia. About 44,000 remain in the region.

At the same time troops are being withdrawn, however, the Bush administration has been eagerly seeking a greater U.S. military presence than existed before Iraq invaded Kuwait last Aug. 2.

It also wants to place stockpiles of tanks and war-fighting gear in the region, stage more training exercises with Arab armies and sell more conventional arms, especially to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Israel, despite pressures in Congress for an embargo on the Middle East arms trade.

U.S. officials had hoped that the war unleashed by Iraqi aggression would have destroyed old assumptions about regional security and opened up new opportunities for U.S. military cooperation with the Arabs.

But some of these officials believe that they may have overestimated the war's effect on Arab sensibilities about keeping close or conspicuous U.S. connections.

"Most people thought that you can't go through this experiencewithout thinking you've got to do it differently next time," said one administration official.

"With the war gone, people have returned to their usual, slow approach to these issues," said the official, who asked not to be named.

"If one sees the Saudis as the key to future security arrangements, I think there has been a sense of backsliding," he said. "They really aren't going to do a lot of radical new thinking about their security doctrine."

As a result, talks with several gulf states over long-term military cooperation remain unresolved, conventional arms packages are moving slowly down the pipeline, and diplomatic discussions with Middle East arms suppliers to reduce the arms buildup have only just begun, U.S. officials said.

Meanwhile, members of Congress and independent defense analysts are questioning the need to maintain a larger peacetime military force in the region. With the postwar euphoria ebbing, there are expressions of alarm that President Bush may be committing the nation to the dangerous role of a world policeman.

"The American forces, as much as possible, should be small in number, offshore and over-the-horizon," said Representative Lee H. Hamilton, D-Ind, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East. He prefers major peacekeeping roles for the Gulf Cooperation Council, Arab League and United Nations.

Michael T. Klare, who has written extensively on regional conflicts, said that he feared the United States would be more inclined to exercise its military muscle than resort to diplomacy to keep the peace.

"Stationing a permanent trip wire in the Middle East without making regional conciliation and arms control the priorities is crazy," he said.

Still others believe that the Pentagon must refine its strategy in the gulf before it can decide what is required for adequate regional defense.

"What's the threat? A resurgent Iraq? Iran? An Arab attempt to overturn Israel? It hasn't been articulated," said John M. Collins, senior defense specialist for the Congressional Research Service. "Until you have a handle on what the threat is, what type of time frame you're looking at, then you can't figure out what we should do militarily."

For more than a generation, the security of the oil exported to the West and the succession of upheavals in the region convinced U.S. military planners of the importance of building adequate forces in the Middle East.

The U.S. military presence in the gulf has grown over the years from the post-World War II deployment of a Navy task force in gulf waters to a network of support facilities improved at U.S. expense during the Reagan years but belonging to the host countries. Those facilities are in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain in the gulf and Somalia and Kenya in east Africa.

Although gulf rulers were persuaded it was in their interests to provide sites for U.S. forces, they balked at repeated appeals to allow U.S. forces to be stationed there permanently.

Implicit promises existed of a U.S. defense against outside aggression, but Arab leaders stopped short of openly aligning themselves with U.S. policies in the region, fearing it would make them vulnerable to attacks by radical elements at home.

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