Commentary

Troops in Saudi Arabia Are Superfluous and Dangerous

Following the military’s stunning success in removing Saddam Hussein’s regime from power, Air Force General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently admitted that U.S. forces might no longer be needed in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. And although Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld hastened to clarify that no final decision has been made on troop withdrawals, the earlier comments of other Pentagon officials suggest that the Bush administration has no intention of keeping troops in the region.

That is good news: for the troops, for the taxpayers, and for the people of the region. The troops are unnecessary. They are costly. And their presence in the region makes us less, not more, secure.

Our military forces exist to serve one essential purpose: defend vital U.S. interests. When forces sent abroad — or forward deployed, in Pentagon-speak — do not contribute to this mission they are, at best, a waste of money. And the costs are substantial. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz estimated that operations against Iraq in the 12 years since the end of the first Gulf War cost $30 billion, but this figure focused only on Iraq, therefore underestimating the total cost of all forces in the region. Earl Ravenal, professor emeritus of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, estimated that the United States spends $50 billion a year to maintain forces in the region.

The costs are measured in more than strictly dollar terms. Ending the permanent deployment of American military personnel to the Persian Gulf would go a long way toward reducing the operational tempo for our forces, which were stretched to the breaking point even before the latest military buildup. This, in turn, will reduce the unseen and immeasurable hardships, including family separation, and will likely contribute to better troop retention.

The troop withdrawal is further justified by the recognition that the Saudi bases were completely superfluous in the Iraq War. Saudi Arabia first agreed to the deployment of U.S. forces in the kingdom in late 1990, following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, on the understanding that the troops would be removed.

But the troops remained. The risk, and the evidence of widespread resentment towards the American presence, was revealed when the Khobar Towers barracks in Dahran were bombed in 1996, an attack that left 19 Americans dead, and another 372 wounded. American forces were then redeployed to more secure locations elsewhere in the country, but they have become virtual prisoners in closely guarded enclaves.

The Saudis, sensitive to domestic opinion, officially barred U.S. aircraft based in the kingdom from conducting strikes on Iraq. No matter. Hundreds of sorties were flown by aircraft launched from bases that were located thousands of miles away from the target area. We know of aircraft launching from the United Kingdom and tiny Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. Even more incredible: a number of bombing missions were conducted by aircraft flying round-trip from the United States.

Ground troops are hardly superfluous in modern warfare. But many of the most successful infantry operations combined vertical envelopment — inserting troops into combat zones from the air — with ground assault by tanks and armored vehicles. These troops need not sit for weeks or months in the midst of a hostile landscape. Besides, with the removal of Saddam’s regime, no sensible person is contemplating another major ground invasion of any other Gulf State.

But American forces in the Middle East are not just unnecessary, they are demonstrably harmful. In late February 2003, before the start of the war, Wolfowitz admitted that the price paid to keep forces in the region had been “far more than money.” Anger at American pressure on Iraq, and resentment over the stationing of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia, Wolfowitz conceded, had “been Osama bin Laden’s principal recruiting device.” Looking ahead to the post-Hussein period, Wolfowitz implied that the removal of Hussein would enable the United States to withdraw troops from the region. “I can’t imagine anyone here wanting to … be there for another 12 years to continue helping recruit terrorists.”

The president of the United States should never submit American foreign policy goals to the vagaries of international public opinion. But when the troops serve no useful purpose, and when their presence is known to contribute to anti-American sentiment, and when those who wish us ill capitalize upon this anti-Americanism to encourage disgruntled psychopaths to fly airplanes into buildings, it is clear that our forces in the Middle East make America less, not more, secure.

Christopher Preble is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.