NEWS that the United States is considering some form of permanent military presence in the Middle East has been about as welcome in the Arab world as a desert sandstorm. Gulf state officials say they do not exclude the possibility of seeking outside help to put muscle into the region's defenses after the Gulf crisis is over.
But they say for US Secretary of State James Baker III to raise the matter now, just as Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is seeking to use the issue of foreign intervention to weaken Arab leaders opposed to his occupation of Kuwait, is insensitive at best, dangerous at worst.
There is an additional worry here that any US-backed regional security arrangements could be seen in Tehran as also being directed against Iran. That could force Iran into the arms of its old adversary, Iraq, and open a critical hole in the four-week-old United Nations trade embargo against Iraq. Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz left for Tehran yesterday on the first visit to Iran of a senior Iraqi official since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution. (See story Page 3.)
``It's premature for the US to raise the issue,'' says Sheikh Nahfeot bin Mubarak al-Nahyan, a senior member of Abu Dhabi's royal family and chancellor of Al-Ain University.
``The statement of the secretary of state is a clear-cut stab in the heart of all Arab moderate powers headed by Egypt,'' adds Egyptian intellectual Muhammad Said Ahmed. ``This statement weakens to a great extent the argument of those who defended the international forces in the Gulf.''
Mr. Baker told a congressional committee in Washington Tuesday that the US and Arab nations should create a new ``regional security structure'' for the Gulf, similar to the postwar NATO alliance, to ``contain'' Saddam. More than 40 years after the establishment of the NATO alliance, the US still maintains a military presence in Europe.
Saddam has sought to distract attention from his invasion of Kuwait by focusing Arab public opinion on the presence of a US-led foreign force in Saudi Arabia that now numbers more than 65,000.
Arab analysts say the longer the Gulf crisis continues, the stronger the appeal of Saddam's argument is likely to become, even in countries like Egypt where opposition to the Iraqi invasion remains strong. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak promised Baker Saturday that he would dispatch additional troops to defend Saudi Arabia.
Arab analysts say that hinting at a permanent US military presence in the region gives credence to Saddam's charges that the real purpose of the intervention force is not to cope with a threat from Iraq but to gain control over Gulf oil resources and the Gulf governments that control them. It is a sensitive point in a region which holds bitter memories of centuries of foreign - and most recently Western - domination.
Although President Bush insists the US is not just drawing a line in the Saudi sands to protect cheap gasoline, the security and price stability of Gulf oil is crucial to the US. Currently, 30 percent of US oil imports are from the Gulf. By 1995 the figure could jump to 55 percent, predicts a petroleum industry expert in the UAE.
Baker's proposal also reflects US concern over the possibility that, even if Iraq is forced out of Kuwait, the Gulf crisis could end with Saddam in full control politically at home and with an undiminished arsenal of medium range missiles, tanks, and chemical weapons at his disposal to threaten his Gulf neighbors. Iraq is expected to have nuclear weapons within five years.
In his congressional testimony, Baker said that by establishing a security system ``that would make it so clearly to the detriment'' of Saddam to use such weapons ``there would be very little risk that they would be used.''
Right now the Gulf states depend partly for their defense on a fragile military and economic union called the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), formed in 1981.
Compared with Iraq's massive military might, the GCC's 5,000-man joint defense force - now deployed in northern Saudi Arabia - is insignificant, even if backed by the individual ground and air forces of member states like Saudi Arabia. Underscore the GCC's impotence is the fact that it has not been convened at the head-of-state level since the Gulf crisis started.
Sources in the Gulf say that depending on the outcome of the crisis, governments in the region might be willing to consider security arrangements that would include some form of US participation. The possibilities range from permanent US military bases to an ``over the horizon'' presence based on offshore air power and prepositioned stocks for ground forces.
``The GCC could be the skeleton for the regional security arrangements Baker is talking about,'' says a source in Abu Dhabi.
But the same officials worry that any permanent military presence could invite analogies with the Baghdad Pact - a US-led regional security alliance formed in the 1950s to counter Soviet aggression but branded by Arab nationalists as a vehicle of Western imperialism.
Saddam has already tried to make the same case. Reacting to Baker's proposal, Iraqi radio termed it an ``American Zionist conspiracy implemented by the traitor of the two holy shrines [Saudi Arabia] in bringing the American troops to the region.''
Saddam also told presidents Bush and Gorbachev, in a letter read out on Baghdad radio and television Saturday, that it was futile to attempt to restore the situation that preceded Iraq's invasion.
Though many of Saddam's comments are obviously exaggerated, leaders in the region are sensitive to the criticism. In particular they worry that such statements - given apparent credence by Baker's announcement last week - will increase pressure on the very moderate Arab regimes the US is counting on to legitimize the international military presence in the region.
``The Americans may have their own good reasons for talking about this now,'' says an official source in the UAE. ``But its presentation and timing are wrong because now it will be used by Saddam Hussein against the Arab states that oppose him.''