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U.S. Military Presence in the Persian Gulf: Challenges and Prospects

Authored by Dr. Sami G. Hajjar.

March 2002

83 Pages

Brief Synopsis

The author considers the critical questions of U.S. military presence in the Gulf, the challenges it faces, and the prospects that lay ahead. He relies, in his presentation and analysis, on a variety of regional sources including newspaper reports and personal interviews conducted in the United States and the Gulf region, as well as government and academic sources. The result is a comprehensive study, including policy recommendations for U.S. military and civilian decisionmakers that makes intelligible the complex subject of U.S.-Gulf relations.


In this monograph, the author discusses the history and evolution of U.S. military presence in the Gulf region. He focuses on U.S. national interests in the area and appraises how U.S. policies and military presence serve those interests. A regional perspective on U.S. engagement and its long-term prospects also is discussed. The tenor of the discussion is strategy and policy assessment as opposed to operational and tactical considerations.

The presence of vast energy resources and location at the center of the Middle East account for the Gulf's geo-strategic importance and its attraction to major powers. U.S. involvement and military presence dates back to the early part of the last century, and includes a host of political, economic, and geo-strategic objectives. Prior to the Gulf War, U.S. military presence was largely over the horizon, accommodating the sensitivities of local culture. After 1991, it remained deliberately low profile, and yet U.S. presence was criticized due to local perceptions of misconstrued U.S. policies that are harmful to Arab and Muslim interests. The September 11 attack on the United States and subsequent events associated with the war on terrorism have exacerbated negative public attitudes about U.S. policies and engagement in the region. Simultaneously, however, the traditional regimes of the Gulf countries continue to welcome U.S. engagement, regarding it as the cornerstone for the region's security.

Access to oil, security of Israel, and stability and security of the region are identified as perennial U.S. interests. It is argued that U.S. policies for the Gulf are affected by developments elsewhere in the Middle East and often lead to the charge of double standards and bias. The U.S. handling of the peace process and its support for Israel are contrasted with how the United States implements the dual containment policy against Iraq and Iran. U.S. security strategy for the Gulf and the defense cooperative agreements it has with Gulf Cooperation Council members that authorize its military presence are detailed. Forward presence and the pre-positioning of equipment are the linchpins of U.S. deterrence strategy and U.S. ability to enforce the United Nations (U.N.) mandated sanctions against Iraq.

Following a survey of security challenges and U.S. policies to manage them, the author presents a regional appraisal of U.S. military posture. He elaborates on the Gulf states' attitudes toward U.S. military presence on their soil and notes that each state views its engagement with the United States differently. This analysis provides a glimpse of Gulf regional politics and security concerns.

The last section deals with the war on terrorism whose consequences are regarded by Islamic radicals as a "clash of civilizations." However, others in the region are calling for a "dialogue of civilizations" to contain the phenomenon of terrorism. The discussion reveals that the Bush administration, in prosecuting the war on terrorism, has discovered a link to the festering Middle East conflict just as the former Bush administration was exposed during the Gulf War to the same conflict.

The author concludes that until September 11, the size, posture, and mission of U.S. military presence in the Gulf were appropriate for the assumed threat perception. The on-going war on terrorism and future regional security realignments that could emerge may impact the nature of U.S. military presence. This presence, however, must continue to be low-key for cultural and political reasons. Given the negative popular attitudes stemming from U.S. regional policies, force protection measures become a priority. The author offers a number of policy recommendations which include a comprehensive public diplomacy program that engages, among others, the American chaplains and Muslim clerics serving with Gulf forces. A slightly different approach to the peace process that gives hope for a breakthrough and a more neutral U.S. stance as peace broker is recommended. Finally, the author alludes to Iraq and the war on terrorism, concluding that U.S. military presence is indispensable, with the land power component being essential for the security of the world's most important real estate.

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