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Future Security in the Gulf

By David D. NewsomDavid D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Marshall B. Coyne Research Professor of Diplomacy at Georgetown University. / September 13, 1990



SECRETARY of State James Baker, in a recent appearance before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, referred to the possibility of establishing ``a new regional security structure'' in the Persian Gulf region. The reference was in response to a question and probably does not yet reflect considered policy. Still, Mr. Baker is correct to begin looking beyond the immediate crisis and is correct to assume that, however the crisis is resolved, the volatility of this region will continue to pose a threat to the vital economic interests of the industrialized countries. If, however, he is thinking in terms of a new formal regional security structure, both past and present history suggest major obstacles to such an arrangement. In the 1950s, the United States and Britain sought a formula for Middle East regional security - at that time with the Soviet threat in mind. Efforts to create MEDO (the Middle East Defense Organization) were shot down by the opposition of Egypt's Gemal Abdul Nasser. In 1954, the Baghdad Pact was formed with Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan, Iran, and the United Kingdom. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles saw this, in part, as an effort to move the security concerns of a key Arab state, Iraq, away from Israel and toward the Soviet Union. Bitter opposition to the Pact within Iraq was a factor in the 1958 overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy. The US, although it fostered the pact, never joined; Secretary Dulles assumed that the US Senate would only ratify such a pact if it were paralleled by formal security pact with Israel - a step that would, at that time, have further complicated US relations with the Arab world.

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Then, as now, the US concern for the safety of Israel was an essential factor and complication in any American effort to enlist Arab countries in a security structure. Although, for understandable diplomatic reasons, Washington's interest in Israel is not highlighted in today's military deployments, that interest is a significant element underlying current policy. Saddam Hussein is at least as likely to use his arsenal of unconventional weapons against Israel as against another Arab state. An attack on Israel would almost certainly demand a military response from the US.

That aspect of the current threat is muted by both the US and the nations of the Gulf in the face of the clear and present Iraqi danger. If there is, however, a diplomatic solution that appears to lessen the threat to the Gulf states, the US-Israeli relationship will reappear to plague any efforts to create a more permanent US presence in the region. The early idea of the Reagan administration to create a ``strategic consensus'' of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel was quickly dropped when the realities of regional attitudes became apparent.

If a formal regional pact involving the US, the Gulf countries, and Egypt is not possible, three other possibilities exist:

1. An extension of NATO to the region: Despite heavy dependence on the oil of the area, NATO countries have been disinclined to extend their responsibilities outside of Europe. The reluctance of most NATO countries to contribute military forces to the effort suggests this is still the case.

2. A UN force: However appealing this may be to most of the other nations of the world, the United States and Israel are likely to be skeptical about the capacity of such a force over the long run to preserve security. Memories are still fresh among leaders, especially in Israel, recalling the ease with which Nasser removed a UN force from the Sinai, precipitating the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

3. Bilateral arrangements between the United States and the Gulf countries: Assuming that the monarchies of the Gulf emerge from the crisis with the support of their populations, some arrangements with Washington that preserve a US military presence in their countries and in the region may be possible. A pattern exists in the Middle East Resolution of 1957 (the Eisenhower Doctrine) under which Congress provided authority for the negotiation of bilateral security arrangements with a number of Middle East countries.

Whatever pattern is chosen, the likelihood of a continuing US involvement with the countries of the Gulf seems certain. Few of the present actions, either in the US or in Europe, suggest any major effort to reduce in any near term dependency on the energy resources of that region. Given that fact, the US will once again need to find a long-term solution to the problem of balancing its commitments to Israel with its interests in defending friendly nations in the Arab world. The answer will probably lie not in a grand ``structure'' but in individual arrangements with Arab nations that continue to feel seriously threatened and are able to contain the political risks of close relations with the US.