Commentary

Washington’s Deepening Persian Gulf Morass

By Barbara Conry
September 4, 1996

If the bankruptcy of U.S. Persian Gulf policy was not apparent before, the most recent Iraqi crisis should clarify beyond doubt the folly of meddling in gulf affairs.

Washington has been attempting to manage Persian Gulf security ever since President George Bush decided on a U.S. military response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Such high-profile involvement in the gulf is unwise and has caused one headache after another for the United States.

U.S. policymakers have long underestimated the complexity of the region, which is one of the reasons the United States is now in the bizarre position of having intervened in the Kurdish civil war on the same side as Iran against the wishes of virtually every U.S. ally. Even Saudi Arabia and Kuwait — whose security the United States is supposedly protecting — did not support the latest U.S. military operation against Iraq.

It is not clear why the United States decided to launch missile strikes in response to Saddam Hussein’s operation against the Kurdish city of Irbil. Some commentators argued that the United States had to act to preserve American credibility because Saddam’s troops violated a U.N.-designated “safe haven.” Other experts alluded to U.N. resolution 688, which demands that Saddam respect the political and human rights of Iraqi minorities.
Still others hinted that the United States should use Saddam’s latest provocation as an excuse to finish off the Persian Gulf War once and for all. Many Americans have always regretted George Bush’s decision to end the war “prematurely” by agreeing to a cease-fire without getting rid of Saddam Hussein. It is true that Washington will have to deal with Baghdad’s belligerence as long as Saddam remains in power. But if Saddam loses power, the United States will have to contend with the aftermath. There is no government in exile waiting to take over Iraq and transform it into a Western-style liberal democracy. Instead, there is an array of competing ethnic and religious groups — not only the Kurds but also the Sunnis and the Shi’ites — that hate one another.

In any event, America’s Persian Gulf problem is far larger than Iraq. Washington has effectively transformed the region into a U.S. military protectorate, thus becoming entangled in the convoluted affairs of the entire area. The United States must deal with threats emanating not only from Iraq and its troublesome northern gulf counterpart, Iran, but also from the southern gulf.

Events in the southern gulf are increasingly worrisome. Popular sentiment against the corrupt and oppressive southern gulf monarchies is growing, as is anti-American sentiment. The U.S. military presence has already been targeted in Saudi Arabia, where 19 U.S. troops died in the Dhahran truck bombing in June

and five American soldiers were killed by a bomb last November in Riyadh. Secretary of Defense William Perry has already warned Americans to be prepared for similar attacks against U.S. soldiers, in the other southern gulf states as well as in Saudi Arabia. And anti-U.S. feeling intensifies every time the United States launches another military operation — such as the recent cruise missile strikes — in the region.

The United States also gets pulled deeper into regional intrigues with every operation, to the detriment of U.S. interests. Washington put itself in the middle of intra-Arab gulf affairs with the Persian Gulf War. Then, in the aftermath of the war, Washington meddled in internal Iraqi politics when it established the northern no-fly zone to protect Iraqi Kurds from Saddam’s air attacks and one in the south to protect Iraqi Shi’ites. Now Washington has intervened in internal Kurdish politics.

The pattern of ever-deepening involvement is undeniable and will continue as long as Washington persists in taking responsibility for Persian Gulf security. The United States has no interests at stake in the region to justify the escalating risks and costs of its current policy. Proponents of the high-profile American presence usually cite access to gulf oil at a reasonable price as a vital national interest. But the human, political, and economic costs of U.S. security commitments in the Persian Gulf — which cost American taxpayers $40 billion per year — undermine that argument.

The United States needs to fundamentally rethink its Persian Gulf policy. Washington should recognize that no vital U.S. national security interests are at stake in the gulf and withdraw U.S. troops, before the United States becomes further entangled in the perennially volatile affairs of the region.

Barbara Conry is a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.