For Oil and Allies, US Offers a $50 Billion Solution
UDAIRI RANGE, KUWAIT
With a wartime gusto, American military helicopters carry their assault teams up over the desert horizon of Kuwait. Engulfed in violent swirls of sand, they disappear as they land.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
US marines, disgorged from the cloud, find themselves 7,000 miles from home, rifles pointed toward Iraq. There is a giddy sense of dj vu as the 1990-1991 Gulf War rushes back.
But this time the only "enemy" is a pile of animal bones and a littering of spent shell casings. It is December, and these marines are temporarily replacing 5,000 Army troops here. Capt. Monte DeBel knocks the sand from his goggles and explains. "We're here for peace in the Middle East, sir," he says.
That media-friendly line came from his superiors, he adds. US taxpayers pay nearly $50 billion each year for Persian Gulf deployments, a price tag concerned senators call "staggering."
But are some 20,000 American troops here really ensuring "peace?"
It is this heavy US military presence, combined with a large political presence in the Arab-Israeli peace process, that makes America appear to some to be the "indispensable" nation.
But critics charge that US forces now in the Gulf "containing" Iran and Iraq are also destabilizing allies such as Saudi Arabia. And they wonder whether the US - long an ardent supporter of Israel - can be an "honest broker" between Arabs and the Jewish state.
"For many years, the Middle East made its living on world conflict," says Shimon Peres, Israel's former prime minister and architect of the Arab-Israeli peace process. "The window of opportunity [for peace] is narrowing, because the last seven or eight years we've just had one superpower," he says. "It's not going to last forever."
No one doubts that the US alone is able to project military power across the Mideast. US commanders led an unprecedented 28-nation coalition with 500,000 Americans during the Gulf War. They confirm they will fight again if American interests, oil and allies, are threatened. US reliance on imported oil has nearly doubled in the last 10 years to 54 percent, the portion from the Gulf soon expected to hit 25 percent.
But frequent US exercises and massive infusions of arms to autocratic Arab monarchies weaken those allies, analysts say, by making them dependent on the US and branding them with its support-Israel-at-all-costs policy.
The American presence has also brought hostility. Already, troops have been targeted by two bomb attacks in Saudi Arabia. Extremists warn that such attacks will continue as long as US soldiers remain in the home of Mecca and Medina, Islam's holiest shrines.
Shore leave in Bahrain has been cut back because of threats. Two incidents with drunken sailors in the United Arab Emirates strained relations. To adhere to Saudi laws forbidding public practice of Christianity, the Air Force must disguise chapels as "morale centers."
Among those who warn of "containment fatigue" are Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, former national security advisers, and Richard Murphy of the Council on Foreign Relations. In Foreign Affairs magazine they called dual containment of Iraq and Iran "more a slogan than a strategy" with "a high financial and diplomatic cost."
The erosion of the Gulf alliance was most evident last September, when President Saddam Hussein ordered troops into northern Iraq - an area set up as a "safe haven" for Iraq's Kurds.
President Clinton's decision to launch cruise missiles at southern Iraq for a violation in the north provoked widespread anger among Gulf allies who urged caution and was seen as "amateur hour" by one former US officer. Saudi Arabia refused to allow attacks from its soil. Only Kuwait was willing to assist. "American goodwill is being squandered every day, even as we speak," another senior US officer says.
In contrast to that tough stand, a full-scale operation deep into northern Iraq in May by Turkey, a NATO ally that has military agreements with Israel, brought little US scorn. There was also leniency toward Israel last year during its two-week "Grapes of Wrath" bombardment of southern Lebanon. In one incident, more than 100 refugees were killed when Israeli artillery shelled a United Nations post at Qana.