Potential US Nightmare in the Gulf

IN the early phase of the Gulf crisis, US policymakers and Saudi and Kuwaiti officials were in agreement that America must stand tall in the Gulf. Long accustomed to dependence upon Western and third-world expatriates manning and maintaining their economy, the Kuwaitis and Saudis have extended this ideology into military matters. This could result in severe political and economic losses for the US.

Economic Considerations

The US military presence in Saudi Arabia will soon rise to more than 100,000 men and women. Though maintaining this military force is costly, it is just a fraction of the expense of protecting US interests.

President Bush also approved a multi-billion-dollar US arms package to bolster Saudi Arabia's military strength and capabilities.

Furthermore, Egypt was promised an additional $1 billion in military aid on credit. Given Egypt's economic straits, however, these loans will have to be written off at some future date. Also, in return for President Mubarak's support, $7.1 billion of military credits to Egypt will be written off.

When all is said and done, Operation Desert Shield will cost the US taxpayers an estimated $3 billion a month. A shooting war, attempts to topple Saddam Hussein, or to restore Kuwait's ruling family could double this estimate.

American taxpayers with a per capita income of $14,500 will be asked to pay for the defense of Kuwaitis and other Gulf Arabs with a per capita income of $24,000. The financial burdens of such an open-ended commitment are considerable.

To make matters worse, traditional US aid recipients (Turkey, Egypt, Jordan) expect additional financial compensation. Egypt wants $2.5 billion for its losses from reduced Suez Canal revenues and lower remittance - 1.8 million workers have started returning.

Turkey hopes for a $2 billion aid package for transit fee losses from a closed Iraqi pipeline and severed Iraqi trade. And requests for additional military aid could follow, increasing the total to $2.5 billion. Morocco will surely want an increase in its military and economic aid. This could cost up to $500 million. The compliance of Jordan when it finally comes could cost up to $1.3 billion.

All in all, US allies may present Washington with a $12 billion bill. The defense of Saudi Arabia and the restoration of the ruling family of Kuwaiti could cost US taxpayers $44 billion this year.

America, the largest debtor country, would have assumed a Saudi and Kuwaiti financial burden. Both Arab countries have an estimated net foreign investment of more than $170 billion and hardly qualify as aid recipients.

The Gulf countries must assume the major if not total costs of this operation. Japan and Europe should cover the balance.

Kuwait's ambassador to Washington and Saudi leaders have promised to share the burden. However, Kuwait's track record in aid disbursement since 1979 has fallen consistently short of official pledges.

US allies will look to Washington and not Kuwait for fulfillment of unkept financial promises.

Political Compromises

Arab leaders believe in American gadgetry, AWACS, and quick solutions. President Bush's ``line in the sand'' to stop Saddam Hussein was a quick move for which the ruling families of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were appreciative.

But now, hunkered down in the desert heat of Saudi Arabia, American men and women are watching Saddam's moves. It is likely to be a long vigil. Saddam is a patient man. He spent his life in the bazaar of Arab politics. He knows how to haggle. Americans are unfamiliar with this kind of trading. And on his side are also some 2,000 Americans held against their will.

The Saudi defense minister, Prince Sultan, is drawing other lines on the Saudi Arabian sand. At his last news conference he announced that, ``Saudi forces would not initiate hostilities against brother Arab states.'' The minister went on to say that Saudi Arabia is not the staging ground for military actions to release US hostages. Thus, he declared veto power over US military options.

This is a harbinger of things to come. More limits on US military and political options will follow. The spirit of localism and its powers narrows the options of the ruling tribal families of the Gulf.

In the meantime, Saddam can afford to wait. While he does, American men and women - soldiers in the desert, hostages behind Iraqi lines, and us at home are held prisoner to his next moves and pronouncements.

America can ill afford that. Christmas on the sands of Arabia is not an American fantasy. A seemingly successful move by Mr. Bush could become a political nightmare. It is already bad economics.

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