There is probably no country on earth where US military might is more welcome than it is in Kuwait.
In anniversary celebrations here this week, former President George Bush and retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf are being hailed as heroes for leading the international coalition that evicted Iraq from this tiny Persian Gulf state a decade ago.
The war against Iraq was the crystallizing moment of a half-century American effort to become the truly indispensable nation for the family-ruled, oil-rich states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
In one of the Gulf War's most important legacies, the US maintains a steady presence of about 4,500 troops here to deter future aggression against Kuwait, which controls 10 percent of the world's known oil reserves. US aircraft depart from Kuwaiti bases, among other places in the region, to patrol the skies over Iraq. Just don't ask US officials to discuss their military role in the Arabian states of the Persian Gulf in any detail.
"We've made a conscious decision across the
region not to be specific," says Lt. Col. Rick Thomas, a spokesman for the US Central Command, which oversees most of the Middle East.
This sort of cageyness contrasts with how US officials present the American military role in, say, East Asia. The 100,000 US troops based in Japan, South Korea, and aboard ships are endlessly touted as necessary to Asian security and prosperity.
The US may be the protector of the Persian Gulf, but it has to speak very, very softly. The reasons range from America's relationship with Israel to the leverage that oil gives the Gulf states, but the bottom line is the same: Few people in the Gulf are enamored of their guardian. "We want to be aligned with the Americans, we want to be defended by them, but in a low-key way," says a Kuwaiti businessman.
Beginning with the British decision to pull back from the region in 1971 and culminating in the 1991 Gulf War, the US replaced Britain as the guarantor of regional security.
America's ties to Iran and Saudi Arabia were once the bulwarks of the US presence here, but the Iranian revolution of 1979 - in which America was derided as a "great Satan" - created a need to find new friends and solidify the relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Today, Bahrain discretely hosts the Navy's 5th Fleet, and the Army stores tanks and other war-fighting supplies in Kuwait and Qatar. "We have aircraft 'forward-deployed' in the region and that's as specific as you're going to get," says Colonel Thomas. Somewhere between 17,000 and 24,000 US troops are on duty in the Gulf, most on rotations lasting a few months.
Kuwait provided $176 million in financial support for the US military during 1999, according to a Department of Defense report to Congress last year. The Kuwaiti contribution, which leads among the Gulf states, pales in comparison to the $4 billion Japan paid in 1999.
'We are dangerous too...'
A massive training exercise held in the Kuwaiti desert on Sunday - involving US, Kuwaiti, and British forces - demonstrated a readiness to deal with a return visit from the Iraqis. Troops used jets, tanks, rockets, and a range of exploding devices to pulverize mock enemy tanks that were obvious stand-ins for Iraqi invaders.
As the desert sun set before them and concussive waves from the explosions shook the air, Mr. Bush, General Schwarzkopf, and senior Kuwaiti officials watched the display from a carpeted pavilion on "VIP hill."
Afterward, Schwarzkopf said that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein "is a very, very dangerous man, but we are dangerous, too, and he ought to remember that."
Leaving aside the Kuwaitis and the Saudis, more and more Arabs are convinced that Iraq - weakened by a decade of sanctions and hobbled by two US-imposed "no fly" zones - doesn't pose that much of a danger.
"For us, I don't see that threat," said Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, standing next to Secretary of State Colin Powell at a press conference in Cairo on Saturday. But Mr. Moussa acknowledged that those in the Gulf states feel otherwise.
Even if the threat from Iraq fades, it is inconceivable that the US will scale back its military presence in the Gulf anytime soon. Even though the Gulf states are working on common defense arrangements, inner divisions and conflicting priorities suggest a force big enough to deter heavyweights such as Iraq and Iran is decades away.
Some Kuwaitis fear US influence
"I don't see who else would be there if it isn't us," says Michael Palmer, a historian at East Carolina University, in Greenville, N.C., and the author of a book on the US role in the Gulf. "I don't think any of [the Gulf states] could last long without an external presence."
In previous decades, alongside the need to secure US access to oil, the American idea was also to push the Gulf states down the road of liberalization, democratization, and the Western way of doing things.
The overriding strategic interest remains oil, but the other goals have been sidelined in deference to local sensibilities. "The Arabs in general don't like foreigners on their land," says Gen. Brent Scowcroft, former President Bush's national security adviser, who is attending the anniversary celebrations here.
But the reasons for speaking softly go beyond xenophobia. America's support for Israel makes life in the Arab world uncomfortable for Kuwait and other Gulf states. Iraq routinely lambastes the Kuwaitis in particular for being an American puppet and for hosting US forces that routinely attack an Arab state - Iraq.
"The general perception ... is that Americans have come to dominate the Gulf: to promote investment and to Americanize the Gulf," says Abdullah Sahar, an international relations professor at Kuwait University. US officials would deny any such intention, but the people of the region are sensitive about the erosion of what they call their "traditional societies."
Islamist politicians take advantage of this sensitivity, rallying supporters around the idea that the region should be free of foreigners and able to defend itself. The Americans and the Gulf regimes are united in their desire to tamp down such ideas.
But America's role as protector doesn't make it impervious to the leverage that the Gulf states have over the US by virtue of their oil supplies, another reason why the US opts to speak softly about its role here.
Here for the long haul?
There are indications that the US presence is gradually becoming more entrenched. This week the US and Kuwait renewed a 10-year defense cooperation agreement, a decision that provokes roughly zero controversy in a country where newspapers effusively thank Americans for their actions during the Gulf War.
The desert tent-city that houses most US troops rotating through Kuwait is slowly becoming a bit more permanent - last year the sleeping tents were fitted with air-conditioning and heating systems. Cement pads replaced sand floors.
As in other parts of the world, US troops in Kuwait are told to behave carefully when mixing with the local population. The restrictions are partly to protect the troops from becoming the target of an unexpected attack and partly to prevent untoward incidents.
One Army sergeant who recently rotated through Kuwait says troops were told never to look at women garbed head-to-toe in black, as many Kuwaiti women are. "The ones that aren't garbed," he adds, "you can look, but don't touch."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society