The Geopolitics of War | The Nation


The Geopolitics of War

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But this extraordinary partnership has also produced a number of unintended consequences, and it is these effects that concern us here. To protect the Saudi regime against its external enemies, the United States has steadily expanded its military presence in the region, eventually deploying thousands of troops in the kingdom. Similarly, to protect the royal family against its internal enemies, US personnel have become deeply involved in the regime's internal security apparatus. At the same time, the vast and highly conspicuous accumulation of wealth by the royal family has alienated it from the larger Saudi population and led to charges of systemic corruption. In response, the regime has outlawed all forms of political debate in the kingdom (there is no parliament, no free speech, no political party, no right of assembly) and used its US-trained security forces to quash overt expressions of dissent. All these effects have generated covert opposition to the regime and occasional acts of violence--and it is from this underground milieu that Osama bin Laden has drawn his inspiration and many of his top lieutenants.

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Michael T. Klare
Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the defense correspondent...

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“Don't do stupid stuff”—his shorthand for avoiding unnecessary entanglements—actually has deep roots in US strategic thinking.

The US military presence in Saudi Arabia has steadily increased over the years. Initially, from 1945 to 1972, Washington delegated the primary defense responsibility to Britain, long the dominant power in the region. When Britain withdrew its forces from "East of Suez" in 1971, the United States assumed a more direct role, deploying military advisers in the kingdom and providing Saudi Arabia with a vast arsenal of US weapons. Some of these arms and advisory programs were aimed at external defense, but the Defense Department also played a central role in organizing, equipping, training and managing the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG), the regime's internal security force.

American military involvement in the kingdom reached a new level in 1979, when three things happened: The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the Shah of Iran was overthrown by antigovernment forces and Islamic militants staged a brief rebellion in Mecca. In response, President Jimmy Carter issued a new formulation of US policy: Any move by a hostile power to gain control of the Persian Gulf area would be regarded "as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America" and would be resisted "by any means necessary, including military force." This statement, now known as the "Carter Doctrine," has governed US strategy in the gulf ever since.

To implement the new doctrine, Carter established the Rapid Deployment Force, a collection of combat forces based in the United States but available for deployment to the Persian Gulf. (The RDF was later folded into the US Central Command, which now conducts all US military operations in the region.) Carter also deployed US warships in the gulf and arranged for the periodic utilization by American forces of military bases in Bahrain, Diego Garcia (a British-controlled island in the Indian Ocean), Oman and Saudi Arabia--all of which were employed during the 1990-91 Gulf War and are again being used today. Believing, moreover, that the Soviet presence in Afghanistan represented a threat to US dominance in the gulf, Carter authorized the initiation of covert operations to undermine the Soviet-backed regime there. (It is important to note that the Saudi regime was deeply involved in this effort, providing much of the funding for the anti-Soviet rebellion and allowing its citizens, including Osama bin Laden, to participate in the war effort as combatants and fundraisers.) And to protect the Saudi royal family, Carter increased US involvement in the kingdom's internal security operations.

President Reagan accelerated Carter's overt military moves and greatly increased covert US support for the anti-Soviet mujahedeen in Afghanistan. (Eventually, some $3 billion worth of arms were given to the mujahedeen.) Reagan also issued an important codicil to the Carter Doctrine: The United States would not allow the Saudi regime to be overthrown by internal dissidents, as occurred in Iran. "We will not permit [Saudi Arabia] to be an Iran," he told reporters in 1981.

Then came the Persian Gulf War. When Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990, President Bush the elder was principally concerned about the threat to Saudi Arabia, not Kuwait. At a meeting at Camp David on August 4, he determined that the United States must take immediate military action to defend the Saudi kingdom against possible Iraqi attack. To allow for a successful defense of the kingdom, Bush sent his Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney, to Riyadh to persuade the royal family to allow the deployment of US ground forces on Saudi soil and the use of Saudi bases for airstrikes against Iraq.

The subsequent unfolding of Operation Desert Storm does not need to be retold here. What is important to note is that the large US military presence in Saudi Arabia was never fully withdrawn after the end of the fighting in Kuwait. American aircraft continue to fly from bases in Saudi Arabia as part of the enforcement mechanism of the "no-fly zone" over southern Iraq (intended to prevent the Iraqis from using this airspace to attack Shiite rebels in the Basra area or to support a new invasion of Kuwait). American aircraft also participate in the multinational effort to enforce the continuing economic sanctions on Iraq.

President Clinton further strengthened the US position in the gulf, expanding American basing facilities there and enhancing the ability to rapidly move US-based forces to the region. Clinton also sought to expand US influence in the Caspian Sea basin, an energy-rich area just to the north of the Persian Gulf.

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