Staying On in the Gulf

The tentative US deal with Bahrain for a base in the region faces rough waters

THE late March skirmishing between Washington and Bahrain over the establishment of a permanent US military base in the Gulf highlights a central strategic puzzle confronting the White House in the aftermath of the ground war with Iraq. Arab regimes in the Gulf have become more dependent than ever before upon direct US intervention to protect them from external threats, but overt collaboration with American forces both undermines the legitimacy of these regimes at home and weakens their credibility as a utonomous actors in the inter-Arab arena. This paradox became apparent when Pentagon officials told reporters on March 24 that Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney and the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell, were pushing for authorization to station a brigade of US troops in the Gulf on a long-term basis. General Powell joined Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf of the US Central Command in hinting that a forward headquarters for this unit should be set up ``someplace over here on the Gulf'' in the near future. A spokesperson for the D epartment of Defense in Washington suggested that the best site for such a facility would be in Bahrain, at whose port of Jufair US warships had enjoyed docking privileges since the island's independence from Great Britain in 1971, and in whose southern desert the US Army Corps of Engineers had recently completed work on a large-scale military airfield.

WHEN asked to comment on these trial balloons, Bahrain's minister of information told the New York Times that he did not wish to ``get ahead of the Pentagon'' by making any sort of public statement regarding the issue. He nevertheless reiterated his government's longstanding ``willingness to cooperate with the United States, with the Navy, and with the Central Command, generally.'' On March 24, the Bahraini foreign minister, Sheikh Muhammad bin Mubarak Al Khalifah, told the Times that ``we have not disc ussed this issue in bilateral talks.'' He went on to say his government recognized the US ``is interested in maintaining some military presence in the region, but it is too early to speak of specific details, except to say that the US and other members of the alliance, including Egypt and Syria, will be part of whatever arrangement we arrive at.''

Such sentiments echoed the language of the communiqu'e released at the conclusion of the 11th annual summit of the Gulf Co-operation Council convened in Qatar at the end of December 1990. This document noted that ``friendly forces which have come at the request of the GCC states will go back to their countries, whenever the GCC states call for them to do so.''

A subsequent meeting in Cairo of the foreign ministers of Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Syria discussed the shape of whatever security arrangement would replace the American troops in the Gulf. But it adjourned without reaching agreement about the size or composition of an Arab peacekeeping force for the area. Egyptian officials insisted, however, that no matter what the makeup of this formation, ``foreign forces cannot be visible. They have to be beyond the ho rizon. The primary responsibility for the protection of the Gulf will fall upon the shoulders of Arab troops.''

All this should sound familiar to Washington. In late 1974 and early 1975, US warships moved into the Gulf on a ``familiarization deployment'' as part of Central Treaty Organization exercises, while US commanders began negotiating with the government of Oman for permission to use an undeveloped air base on Masirah Island in the Arabian Sea. The governments of Egypt, Syria, and Libya responded to these initiatives by urging Bahrain to suspend docking privileges for the US Middle East Force. Sheikh Muhamm ad parried by announcing that the US Navy's right to use the port depended upon ``the American stand concerning peace and stability in the Middle East,'' particularly Washington's efforts to address the Arab-Israeli dilemma.

Four years later, when Secretary of Defense Harold Brown intimated that the US planned to reinforce its presence in the Gulf and might make use of these forces if American interests were jeopardized by events in Iran, the Bahraini prime minister announced that responsibility for Gulf security rested with indigenous military establishments.

IRAQ'S invasion of Kuwait overturned the regional status quo by drawing the Arab Gulf states into aboveboard cooperation with US armed forces. This particular genie can probably not be put back in the bottle. American military planners seem unwilling or unable to abandon their quest for a permanent forward base in the area. But heightening the US presence in the Gulf without also undercutting the stability of local regimes will prove tricky, if not impossible. The effort is sure to be resisted by the ve ry governments the Bush administration expects to be most grateful for US assistance.

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