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US Stakes Out a Sentinel's Role

Access to 65 percent of the world's oil reserves keeps America planted in a sometimes-hostile land

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 6, 1997


Under bright American security lights, on a sticky Saudi Arabian night last year, an unmarked tanker truck crawled slowly past a concrete barrier outside the Khobar Towers apartment complex.

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It backed up to a fence and a double row of concrete barriers - brushing noisily against a hedge - then two men jumped from the cab into a white Chevrolet Caprice getaway car.

The alarm was raised, but minutes later the truck bomb exploded, killing 19 American servicemen and wounding 400 others. Shredded clothes and mattresses dangled from the torn edges of the structure. The crater, made by one ton of explosives, was four times as deep and three times as wide as the one left by the Oklahoma City bomb.

Warnings of such an attack and anti-American threats had been received by US forces in Saudi Arabia for months, and the bombing at a US training center in Riyadh half a year earlier proved they were serious.

The airmen had long known about the vulnerability of Building 131. The base newsletter just a week before gave a reminder that "everyone must wear their dog tags at all times."

But the hostility in a "friendly" country raises tough questions: So long after the 1991 Gulf War, why are 20,000 US troops still required for the "security" of the Persian Gulf? And despite unprecedented military spending since the war, why can't America's Gulf allies yet protect themselves?

Today the nearly $50-billion-a-year US presence - which Secretary of Defense William Cohen called "a premier example of power projection" during a June visit - is used to enforce Washington's policy of "dual containment" against the two regimes it considers the neighborhood bullies: Iran and Iraq.

But the root of the problem is oil, America's most crucial strategic interest in the Middle East. Because it is the essential lubricant for US and Western economies, access to the 65 percent of the world's known oil reserves in the Gulf ranks as the top priority for US strategists, even higher than close ties with Israel.

"We are in it for as long as needed," says Col. Robert Pollard, commander of US Army forces in Kuwait, echoing the Pentagon's oft-stated policy. "We stuck out Europe during the cold war, we stuck out Korea, and we are committed to protecting our vital interests here."

For years, American planners dreamed of having their own military presence in the Gulf. But despite the US-led victory over Iraq in 1991, fully achieving this aim has meant walking a political and cultural tightrope.

The US has no formal defense treaties here, so a surprised Senate delegation was "just aghast" when told during a January visit that the Pentagon was planning for a 20-to-50-year Gulf deployment.

Most Gulf leaders concede that their security today depends upon the US, though American troops are often viewed suspiciously as Christian "infidels" in the lands of Islam.

For them, any half-century deployment plans will amount to American imperialism. Before the war, barely 1,000 troops were in Saudi Arabia. But since then, the buildup has been aggressive.

"Sovereignty is a very sensitive issue over there," Gen. Binford Peay, commander of US forces in the Middle East, recently told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "They look at any kind of permanent move as being intrusive, burdensome."

But the alternative is "haunting and daunting" for Gulf sheikhs, says John Duke Anthony, head of the National Council on US-Arab Relations. "Iran has three times the population of Iraq, is almost three times the size, and the military of each is greater than all the Gulf states combined."

Egged on by Washington, Gulf states have spent millions on new high-tech weapons systems in recent years. But they have been unable to absorb all the hardware and continue to squabble among themselves, so US forces in the Gulf compensate for their weakness.

"Saudi had been the heart of Arabian Peninsula defense until 1990," says a senior Western diplomat in Doha. "Saudi was 'the protector,' but [the Gulf War] showed that the emperor had no clothes."

After the war, Muslim leaders asked that "atheist" troops never again be relied upon for defense. Saudi Arabia promised to be the "pillar" of security and double its troop strength to 200,000. Neither promise has been kept.

Still, Saudi Arabia has been the largest weapons buyer in the world for a decade. It created an army from scratch in a few decades. But missiles sometimes sit in their boxes, even as more pile up. "The Gulf states are all constrained by the reality of low manpower and can only assimilate so many systems," says retired Lt. Gen. John Yeosock, commander of US, British, and French forces during the Gulf War.