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.
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.
It was several days before Washington condemned the attack, which a UN investigation found was deliberate. The post had been watched by the Israelis using a direct video link.
Western diplomats, including many Americans, regularly charge that the US line is too "Israel specific." During the cold war, Israel's strategic value to the US was as a Mideast ally against Soviet-backed regimes. Now many supporters of Israel cast it as a bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism.
Two years before dual containment of Iran and Iraq became policy, for example, Israel began encouraging the US to isolate Iran. In 1995, at a World Jewish Congress dinner, Clinton announced a US embargo.
"The Israeli lobby has been a primary source of the problem," says Javad Zarif, Iran's deputy foreign minister in Tehran, echoing many Western diplomats. "It shows how far [the US] has gone to cater to ... a very specific interest group, that they are able to overcome all the 'experts.' "
A request by Saudi Arabia to purchase 100 F-16 fighter planes, in line with the US policy of arming allies in the Gulf, was said by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to "put into question" the strategic balance.
With Mr. Netanyahu by his side in February, Mr. Clinton said that "any decision I make about [the F-16 sale] has to be made in a way that is consistent with our first commitment, which is to do nothing that will undermine the qualitative edge of Israeli security forces in the Middle East."
The Saudi request has been quietly put off. Top Saudi officials are looking to take the $5 billion contract elsewhere. One diplomat was quoted as saying the crown prince "wants the US to stop giving the impression they side systematically with the Star of David."
For other Arab allies, the Jewish lobby can be useful. It is one of the strongest proponents of America's $2.1 billion annual "reward" to Egypt for making peace with Israel. That amount, US diplomats say, makes Israel's own annual subsidy of $3.5 billion look more palatable to US taxpayers. There is also a strategic benefit.
"The US will not allow Israel to go to war," says Mamdouh Anis Fathy of the Egyptian Army's Strategic Studies Center. "They will allow limited attacks against Lebanon, or Syria, or Iran ... but not total war."
Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld in Jerusalem says the US support has also been an "act of bribery" to keep Israel from relying too much on its nuclear deterrent. Without cash for conventional forces, he says, Israel's reliance on its atomic arsenal would have "made the Mideast a much more dangerous place for the US."
But the US-Israel alliance is widely seen to have weakened the US role. A recent poll of Palestinians found 96 percent say the US favors Israel in the process. The peace process has fallen apart since Israel began building Jewish housing in Arab East Jerusalem in March and a Palestinian suicide bomb ravaged a Tel Aviv cafe. On July 30, a double bombing in Jerusalem further dimmed hopes for progress.
Under President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker, Arab leaders were convinced by a relatively tough American stance toward Israel. Irritated at one point in 1990, Mr. Baker publicly told the Israelis: "Our telephone number is 456-1414. When you're serious about peace, call us."
" 'Provocation' is a strong term, but the manner in which Mr. Netanyahu has acted makes it apt," Mr. Scowcroft wrote in a June article in the International Herald Tribune. "The United States needs to assert the absolute priority of its own interests in the Middle East peace process. It never should provoke confrontation with Israel, but ... this sometimes is unavoidable."
Clinton only lightly criticized Israel for building in East Jerusalem and cast two vetoes against a UN Security Council condemnation. "This commitment [to Israel's security] is iron clad and unequivocal," Vice President Al Gore recently said.
In Jerusalem, meanwhile, sales are up for one long-selling T-shirt. "Don't worry America," it reads. "Israel is behind you."