No time to change policy -- until the humiliation

July 04, 1996|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- There are two possible rationales for a large and permanent American military presence in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states. The first is to protect American access to the oil of the region. The second is to protect the proprietors of that oil, the ruling royalty of Saudi Arabia and the smaller Arabian principalities.

Neither rationale withstands examination. Access to the oil does not have to be defended since oil has no value to its owners until it is sold. It has to be sold, or left in the ground, no matter who controls it.

Withholding it, as the anti-Western OPEC boycott in the 1970s conclusively demonstrated, penalizes the seller. The buyer goes elsewhere. The oil in Saudi Arabia and the gulf, whoever holds power in those countries, is valuable only if sold -- and the Western industrial countries are the largest oil consumers.

If it can work

A policy of defending Arab governments and leaders friendly to the West is nonetheless justified, if it can work. Military defense works only against military threats. At present, the threat in these countries comes from inside their own societies, not from the outside.

If an external threat were again to develop, the United States would not need permanent bases in Saudi Arabia to respond. Washington has at considerable expense to the taxpayer provided itself with an alternative, a huge military projection force to assist allies or clients at risk.

The Navy can commit five carrier battle groups and the same number of Marine expeditionary brigades to any major regional conflict, and be there within days if not hours. One of its missions is to do this for two such wars at the same time. The Army would be slower onto the scene, but is capable of bringing decisive ground force to bear against any nation in the Middle East, as it demonstrated in the Persian Gulf war.

The aircraft at the Dhahran base, where last week's attack occurred, were surveying Iraq in connection with U.N. sanctions on that country. This too is a function that can be performed from carriers. The Air Force itself is developing a radically new range of global surveillance and intervention systems that require no foreign bases at all.

"Infidel" foreigners

The threat to the Saudi royal family, as to certain other traditional leaders, comes from within and is to a significant degree generated or exacerbated by the presence of "infidel" foreigners in a kingdom which is the site and protector of the Islamic holy places.

Those responsible for bombing an American training mission in the Saudi capital of Riyadh last November were not outsiders, but radicalized young Saudis, reportedly members of the austere and fundamentalist Wahhabi sect, to which the Saudi royal family itself belongs.

An American policy which undermines the political position of its clients, worsening the problem it is meant to solve, makes absolutely no sense. I can imagine only two reasons why it was adopted, and why it is persisted in.

The first is the inveterate impulse of bureaucracies, in this case the American military bureaucracy, to expand. The second is that the Pentagon is a more powerful Washington political player than the State Department or the CIA.

The gulf war put the American military into the region in a big way, giving it a war to fight and what undoubtedly seemed to the Pentagon a new strategic responsibility in defense of the region's monarchies. The Pentagon's natural institutional reaction was to acquire air bases, deploy forces and greatly enlarge the American connection with the host government and its military and police forces.

There was a choice of political rationales. Certain Washington analysts envisage creation of a new American "empire" in the region, which would more or less annex the oil and its proprietors. Others have a vision of an eventual struggle ''of civilizations'' between Arabs and the West. In that case, building up forces in the region is prudent preparation.

Israel's interest

Israel is an important influence in Washington and wants permanent U.S. military commitment and U.S. bases in the Arabian region, particularly if the Arab- Israeli "peace process" is about to end. If relations between Arabs and Americans also worsen, that will force the United States closer to Israel. Israel's security is enhanced whatever happens.

If the president, his secretary of state, or his national-security adviser, have no particular intellectual grasp of the problem on their own, and if the State Department and CIA cannot put up a serious fight against expanding the U.S. presence in Arabia -- or even do not see the problem -- then the Pentagon, which has the momentum and clout, prevails.

The nature of bureaucracies is to expand, aggrandize their responsibilities and power, and bury their mistakes -- or turn them into arguments for enlarged commitment. This is how the Dhahran attack already is being presented to public and Congress: America can't back down. Mr. Clinton has already said that it would be "a mistake" to change policy now.

Washington is only capable of changing, it seems, after a policy has completely failed, and the country been humiliated. That is a thought for the Fourth of July!

8, William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/04/96

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