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Monday, January 15, 2007
he's the king of the jungle:
NATO allies are alarmed by the rising temperature of U.S.-Iranian acrimony, something capped off by the appointment of Admiral Fallon to helm Central Command and the influx of a Naval carrier group to the Persian Gulf. In Kabul, Defense Secretary Gates remarks, "The United States has had a strong presence in the Gulf for a long time. We are simply reaffirming that."
Despite appearances, Gates is not asking us to return to the pre-Iraq war status quo. It's helpful to remember a bit of history here. In the 40s, recognizing the importance of Arab oil, FDR famously extended an informal security assurance to the Saudis. But it wasn't until the near-simultaneous Iranian revolution and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that the U.S., under Jimmy Carter, proclaimed access to the Gulf to be a vital U.S. interest -- or, put another way, that the U.S. would prosecute a war if denied such access. (It's hard to recall now that Carter has been vilified as an incorrigible peacenik, but this was known as the "Carter Doctrine" at the time.) Carter sent minor military assets to the Gulf, and Ronald Reagan formalized the commitment by the creation of Central Command, the U.S. military command responsible for warplanning in the region and management of U.S. military assets and relationships there.
What there wasn't was a significant U.S. military presence in the region. That all changed with Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. Lost in the swamp of memory is the agita that gripped the GHW Bush administration over putting U.S. troops on Arab soil. The administration -- including a then-pragmatic imperialist named Dick Cheney -- recognized that, in an important sense, the U.S. was crossing a Rubicon. Arab sentiment, particularly religious-nationalist sentiment, could be expected to become inflamed by this, which could further destabilize U.S. allies -- and, in a vicious circle, further require infusions of U.S. troops to ensure the survival of friendly regimes. In the end, the administration judged the threat from Saddam to outweigh this theoretical threat; and for years, it didn't materialize anyway. Something on the order of 5,000 troops remained out of view in Saudi Arabia at any given time from 1991 to early 2003, and just off the coast, the U.S. Fifth Fleet navigated the Gulf. No regime fell as a result.
But what did happen was an opening for bin Laden to portray the U.S. as a rapacious force. In his 1998 declaration of war, bin Laden argued that the military presence in Saudi Arabia was merely an inevitable manifestation of half a century of American support for apostate regimes and Israel. In other words, bin Laden said, the wages of the survival of the House of Saud will one day be American jackboots in Mecca. Like all good ideologues, bin Laden found a potent localized grievance and connected it to a much broader vision -- one that demands absolute allegiance. If we had gone back and read the 1998 declaration of jihad before the October 2002 vote for the Iraq war, we might have seen exactly how we were playing into bin Laden's argument. Further wars in the Middle East will do the exact same thing, even if they're with bin Laden's enemies, like Iran. (He once begged the Saudis to fight Saddam, remember.)
None of this is to say we should leave the Persian Gulf. It's certainly not to say we should leave the Persian Gulf because that's what bin Laden demands. What it is to say is that "after" Iraq, we need to reexamine our relationship with the Persian Gulf holistically -- assessing what it is we want (oil, stability, security for Israel & Saudi & Jordan & the GCC, etc.), what we're prepared to commit, for how long, and above all, why. To pretend that we've always been as deep into the Middle East as we are now is a sure-fire way to foreclose that debate before it begins.
I've got a suspicion that, by the time we reach the "after" part, a lot of this stuff will have been changed for us. Fasten your seatbelts, and keep your arms inside the vehicle at all times.