The Trump administration has approved the deployment to Saudi Arabia of Air Force F-15s, new air defense systems, and other military hardware, along with U.S. troops to operate and maintain those weapons systems. These new measures the Pentagon announced on October 11 will bring the total U.S. troop deployment to the kingdom to 3,000 since a mid-September attack on Saudi oil facilities. Speaking to reporters after the announcement, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said that it is now “clear that Iranians are responsible” for the attacks and warned that Washington has additional units “on alert” that can provide increased security to both the U.S. forces and Saudi Arabia “if necessary.”
U.S. leaders have taken an unsavory step deepening Washington’s support of an odious, duplicitous Saudi regime that brutalizes its own people and has committed an appalling array of war crimes in Yemen. It also puts the United States in the middle of an escalating political and military confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The direct confrontation between Riyadh and Tehran is merely one component of a larger struggle for regional dominance pitting major Sunni powers against a loose alliance of Shia factions led by Iran. Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Bahrain are other arenas in which that power struggle continues to be waged.
The administration’s decision to elevate the U.S. military role in Saudi Arabia is all the more bizarre and indefensible in light of President Trump’s repeated condemnations of the Iraq War and other U.S. Middle East entanglements. In defending his recent decision to withdraw U.S. forces from northern Syria, the president stated bluntly that “it is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home.” Trump is correct, but he needs to follow his own advice throughout the region, not just in Syria.
Instead, he has taken a step that boosts America’s risk exposure in an especially reckless manner. Given the animosity between Riyadh and Tehran, the ongoing Saudi-Iranian confrontation could explode into a major war at any time. With the administration’s latest decision, U.S. military personnel are on the front lines between those feuding powers, acting as a tripwire.
The new deployment could endanger America in another way. Many devout Muslims regard a U.S. military presences on the holy soil of Saudi Arabia—the location of the sacred sites of Mecca and Medina—as an insult to their faith. Indeed, Osama Bin Laden cited the stationing of U.S. troops in the kingdom following the Persian Gulf War as a key reason why he ordered the 9-11 attacks. Other jihadi zealots likely hold similar views, increasing the risk to the American homeland of another revenge attack.
Trump’s policy, therefore, is unwise on multiple levels. Critics of his decision to move U.S. troops out of harm’s way in northern Syria and begin a complete withdrawal from that country implicitly want to keep America in a forever war. Unfortunately, even as he makes a prudent move on the Syria front, President Trump may be initiating another, even more dangerous, forever war entangling the United States in Saudi Arabia.