Kenneth M Pollack. Foreign Affairs. Volume 82, Issue 4. July/August 2003.
Once More unto the Breach
In 1968, the United Kingdom relinquished its security responsibilities “east of Suez,” leaving the United States to pick up the pieces. Chief among the inherited obligations was ensuring the stability and security of the strategically vital Persian Gulf region. In the decades since, Washington has tried to do this job in various ways, relying on the “twin pillars” of Iran and Saudi Arabia during the 1970s, “tilting” toward Iraq during the 1980s, and pursuing the “dual containment” of Iraq and Iran during the 1990s. None of these approaches worked very well, and as a result, the United States has had to intervene directly three times in the last 16 years against regional threats—Iran in 1987-88 and Iraq in 1991 and this past spring.
The sweeping American and British military victory in Operation Iraqi Freedom has now cleared the way for the United States to try to establish a more durable framework for Persian Gulf security. Indeed, the Bush administration is already starting to do so by withdrawing the vast majority of American troops from Saudi Arabia, although this move seems more about closing an old chapter of American involvement than about opening a new one. With Saddam Hussein gone, a broad rethinking of U.S. strategy toward the region is necessary, because in some ways the security problems of the Persian Gulf are now likely to get more challenging instead of less.
For example, Iran’s naval threat to Persian Gulf shipping in the 1980s was easy to handle, because the vast preponderance of power enjoyed by U.S. naval and air forces enabled a relatively small military campaign to achieve the desired effect. Similarly, although the air and ground threat from Saddam’s Iraq eventually required a pair of much greater efforts to eliminate it, in essence it too was a relatively straightforward military problem. The threats that the United States and its allies will confront in the future, however, are unlikely to be as simple or discrete as these. The Bush administration must therefore start thinking now about how to counter them, or risk leaving the United States ill prepared for what it will encounter down the road.
It’s the Oil, Stupid
America’s primary interest in the Persian Gulf lies in ensuring the free and stable flow of oil from the region to the world at large. This fact has nothing to do with the conspiracy theories leveled against the Bush administration during the run-up to the recent war. U.S. interests do not center on whether gas is $2 or $3 at the pump, or whether Exxon gets contracts instead of Lukoil or Total. Nor do they depend on the amount of oil that the United States itself imports from the Persian Gulf or anywhere else. The reason the United States has a legitimate and critical interest in seeing that Persian Gulf oil continues to flow copiously and relatively cheaply is simply that the global economy built over the last 50 years rests on a foundation of inexpensive, plentiful oil, and if that foundation were removed, the global economy would collapse.
Today, roughly 25 percent of the world’s oil production comes from the Persian Gulf, with Saudi Arabia alone responsible for roughly 15 percent—a figure expected to increase rather than decrease in the future. The Persian Gulf region has as much as two-thirds of the world’s proven oil reserves, and its oil is absurdly economical to produce, with a barrel from Saudi Arabia costing anywhere from a fifth to a tenth of the price of a barrel from Russia. Saudi Arabia is not only the world’s largest oil producer and the holder of the world’s largest oil reserves, but it also has a majority of the world’s excess production capacity, which the Saudis use to stabilize and control the price of oil by increasing or decreasing production as needed. Because of the importance of both Saudi production and Saudi slack capacity, the sudden loss of the Saudi oil network would paralyze the global economy, probably causing a global downturn at least as devastating as the Great Depression of the 1930s, if not worse. So the fact that the United States does not import most of its oil from the Persian Gulf is irrelevant: if Saudi oil production were to vanish, the price of oil in general would shoot through the ceiling, destroying the American economy along with everybody else’s.
But the United States is not simply concerned with keeping oil flowing out of the Persian Gulf; it also has an interest in preventing any potentially hostile state from gaining control over the region and is resources and using such control to amass vast power or blackmail the world. And it has an interest in maintaining military access to the Persian Gulf because of the region’s geostrategically critical location, near the Middle East, Central Asia, eastern Africa, and South Asia. If the United States were denied access to the Persian Gulf, its ability to influence events in many other key regions of the world would be greatly diminished. (Much of the air war against Afghanistan, for example, was mounted from bases in the Persian Gulf.) The tragedy of September 11, 2001, finally, has demonstrated that the United States also has an interest in stamping out the terrorist groups that flourish in the region.
The three main problems likely to bedevil Persian Gulf security over the next several years will be Iraq’s security dilemma, Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and potential internal unrest in the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to these problems separately, let alone together, and so difficult tradeoffs will have to be made.
The paradox of Iraqi power can be put simply: any Iraq that is strong enough to balance and contain Iran will inevitably be capable of overrunning Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. This was the problem the region faced at the end of the Iran-Iraq War, when Iraq’s destruction of the Iranian army and air force left it in a position to conquer Kuwait and threaten Saudi oil fields soon afterward. The recent American victory over Saddam will do little to affect this basic dynamic, because it stems less from the nature of Iraq’s leadership than from simple geopolitics. Like postwar Germany and Japan, post-Saddam Iraq will almost certainly be forbidden from developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) ever again. But it will still have to find some way of protecting itself from a real, albeit distant, threat from Iran. If Iraq is not going to be allowed to possess WMD, then it will have to obtain some kind of credible external security guarantee or maintain substantial—and threatening—conventional military capabilities.
As for Iran, according to the latest estimates of U.S. intelligence and even of the International Atomic Energy Agency, its nuclear program has gone into overdrive and unless stopped—from inside or outside—is likely to produce one or more nuclear weapons within a decade. (Of course, the mistaken estimates of Iraq’s nuclear program over the last 20 years reinforce the uncertainty underlying all such assessments.) In the case of Iraq, preemptive intervention was a thinkable (and ultimately doable) option because the United States could invade and occupy the country without a massive mobilization. But that is simply not true in the case of Iran. Its population is three times the size of Iraq’s, its landmass is four times the size, its terrain is difficult and would make operations a logistical nightmare, and its population has generally rallied around the regime in the face of foreign threats. Invading Iran would be such a major undertaking that the option is essentially unthinkable in all but the most extraordinary circumstances.
Of course, it is possible that the Iranian nuclear problem might solve itself. The Iranian people are deeply unhappy with the reactionary clerics who cling to power in Tehran, and since 1997, they have voted consistently and overwhelmingly against the hard-liners. Moreover, Iran’s population is very young, and the Iranian youth most strongly oppose the current regime and favor a more democratic system of government. Thus time is on the side of Iran’s reformers. What’s more, most Iranian reformers have expressed an interest in good relations with the United States.
All this matters because although the United States preaches a policy of universal nuclear nonproliferation, in practice, Washington has consistently, and probably correctly, been much more concerned with proliferation by its enemies (such as Iraq and North Korea) than by its friends (such as Israel and, to a lesser extent, India). American fears about Iran’s nuclear program might well be lessened, therefore, by the emergence of a pluralist and pro-American government in Tehran (although even then Iranian nuclear advances would cause a major headache because of their inevitable effects on proliferation elsewhere in the region).
The problem is that no one can be certain that the reformers will triumph in Iran or, if so, when. In particular, it is not clear that the hard-liners will fall before Iran has obtained nuclear weapons. It is thus only prudent to assume that Iran will acquire nuclear weapons while its hard-line clerics are still in power, and so the United States must be prepared for that contingency. But the very actions that might be indicated in such circumstances—continued diplomatic and economic pressure, an aggressive military posture on Iran’s borders, even threats to use force—could easily backfire in the maelstrom of Iranian domestic politics in ways that undermine or forestall the prospects for a “velvet revolution” in Tehran. Iran’s hard-liners maintain power in part by stoking popular fears that the United States seeks to rule the country and control its policies, and so aggressive containment or active counterproliferation measures could play right into their hands. The Iranian paradox, in other words, is that preparing to deal with the worst-case scenario of Iranian hard-liners possessing nuclear weapons might very well make that scenario more likely.
Tehran appears to want nuclear weapons principally to deter an American attack. Once it gets them, however, its strategic calculus might change and it might be emboldened to pursue a more aggressive foreign policy. Iran’s armed forces are still too weak to contemplate either a ground advance through Iraq into the Arabian Peninsula or an amphibious operation across the Persian Gulf, and they will remain so for a while. So the risk is not so much conventional military invasion as attempts to shut down tanker traffic in the Strait of Hormuz as a method of blackmail or foment insurrections in neighboring countries. Unfortunately, the security posture that would best deter future Iranian aggression—sizable American forces dispersed throughout the Persian Gulf—is the worst option of all from the perspective of dealing with the third major problem, terrorism and internal instability in the states of the GCC.
Terrorism and internal instability in the Persian Gulf are ultimately fueled by the political, economic, and social stagnation of the local Arab states. It is true that American policies anger many Arabs and that the Palestinian issue is a matter of great popular concern. But these are not really what creates fertile ground for domestic insurrection or the recruitment efforts of radical Islamist groups such as al Qaeda. What is more important is that too many Arabs are unemployed or underemployed because of the utter failure of their economic systems. Too many feel powerless and humiliated by despotic governments that do less and less for them while preventing them from having any say in their own governance. And too many feel both threatened and stifled within a society that cannot come to grips with modernity.
Most Middle East experts think that a revolution or civil war in any of the GCC states within the next few years is unlikely, but few say so now as confidently as they once did. In fact, even the Persian Gulf regimes themselves are increasingly fearful of their mounting internal turmoil, something that has prompted all of them to announce democratic and economic reform packages at some point during the last ten years. From Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to the emir of Qatar to the new king of Bahrain, the Persian Gulf rulers recognize the pressure building among their populations and the need to let off some of the steam. If the reforms do not succeed and revolution or civil war ensues, the United States might face some very difficult security challenges. Widespread unrest in Saudi Arabia, for example, would threaten Saudi oil exports just as surely as an Iranian invasion.
The best way for the United States to address the rise of terrorism and the threat of internal instability in Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states would be to reduce its military presence in the region to the absolute minimum, or even to withdraw entirely. The presence of American troops fuels the terrorists’ propaganda claims that the United States seeks to prop up the hated local tyrants and control the Middle East. And it is a source of humiliation and resentment for pretty much all locals—a constant reminder that the descendants of the great Islamic empires can no longer defend themselves and must answer to infidel powers. So pulling back would diminish the internal pressure on the Persian Gulf regimes and give them the political space they need to enact the painful reforms that are vital to their long-term stability. But such a withdrawal, in turn, would be the worst move from the perspective of deterring and containing Iran—or of being in a good position to respond swiftly to, say, a civil war in Saudi Arabia should one ever emerge.
Given these conundrums, finding a workable new security architecture for the Persian Gulf will be far from easy. Iraq must be kept strong but not too strong. Iran must be kept in check while being pushed to liberalize. The governments of the GCC states must be given breathing room to reform but still be protected from their external and internal enemies. Balancing these various interests, threats, and constraints will be difficult, so much so that it would not be surprising if the next American strategy for doing so ultimately failed, just as the previous ones did. Still, the situation is not entirely hopeless. There may not be a silver bullet, a perfect policy that secures every interest and counters every threat while avoiding all the strategic, political, and cultural minefields. But three broad approaches—pulling back “over the horizon,” trying to form a local NATO-like defense pact, or trying to establish a security condominium—have enough merits to be considered seriously.
Back Over the Horizon
The most conservative approach to Persian Gulf security would be to return to the initial American strategy of offshore balancing. When tried in the 1970s and 1980s, this approach failed because Iran and Iraq were still quite strong and the United States’ over-the-horizon posture was not a sufficient deterrent. Today, however, Iran and Iraq are much weaker and are likely to remain so (at least until Iran acquires nuclear weapons). Washington, meanwhile, has repeatedly demonstrated that it will intervene in the Persian Gulf to protect its interests and prevent aggression. So the strategy might work better this time around.
In this approach, the United States would dramatically reduce its military footprint in the region, leaving only the bare minimum of the current arrangements in place. The headquarters of the 5th Fleet would remain in Bahrain (where a U.S. Navy flag has been welcome for 50 years), but fewer American warships would ply the waters of the Gulf. The air force would retain its huge new base at al Udeid in Qatar, again because the Qataris seem pleased to have it there. The army might keep some prepositioned equipment in Kuwait and Qatar and might regularly rotate in battalions to train on it—if those states were comfortable with such guests. In addition, if a future Iraqi government were amenable, the United States might retain an air base and some ground presence there. Alternately, army bases in the region might be dispensed with altogether, and instead the United States could simply rely on equipment stored on container ships stationed at Diego Garcia, in the Indian Ocean.
On the political level, the United States would preserve its informal relationships with the GCC states and possibly add a similar association with a friendly new Iraqi government. It would continue to contain Iran by making clear that any Iranian aggression would be met by an American military response. And it would continue its efforts to secure European, Japanese, and Russian support in pressuring Tehran both economically and diplomatically so as to end Iran’s support for terror and its unconventional weapons programs.
This smaller military footprint would go a long way toward alleviating the internal problems caused by the presence of U.S. combat forces in the Persian Gulf region—so not surprisingly, this is the strategy that the Gulf Arabs themselves favor. With Saddam gone, their overriding goal now is to minimize domestic discontent, and they believe that the United States can keep peace in the region with a minimal presence. This approach would also be popular in certain quarters of the American military, which would be glad to shed the burdens of policing an inhospitable and less than luxurious region far from home.
On the other hand, the mere fact that the Persian Gulf states are so enamored of this strategy ought to give American planners pause. With the exception of Kuwait after the Iraqi invasion, most of these countries have shown a distressing determination over the years to ignore their problems—both external and internal—rather than confront them. Although returning to a mostly over-the-horizon presence could provide the Persian Gulf states with the leeway they need to push through reforms, it is equally likely that they will see the withdrawal of U.S. forces as a panacea for all their problems and decide that internal reforms are therefore unnecessary. A reduced U.S. military and political presence, in turn, would weaken Washington’s ability to press its local allies to make the tough choices they need to for their own long-term well-being.
A return to an over-the-horizon posture would also risk re-creating some of the same problems that made the strategy untenable the first time around. If Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, a minimal American presence in the region might tempt it to new aggression. The GCC countries have often shown a willingness to accommodate powerful, aggressive neighbors, and a reduced American presence could increase their willingness to do so again—giving Iran, say, an unhealthy degree of control over oil flows. Finally, a limited American presence might tempt other outside powers—such as China—to fish in the Gulf’s troubled waters at some point down the road.
A Middle Eastern NATO
A second approach to securing the Persian Gulf would be to create a new regional defense alliance of the kind that worked so well in Europe during the Cold War. This approach has an even worse reputation in the region than offshore balancing, but it is somewhat undeserved. In 1954, the United States convinced Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey, and the United Kingdom to sign the Baghdad Pact, pledging them to mutual defense. Four years later, Iraq withdrew, leaving Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey to form the Central Treaty Organization, which became little more than a vehicle for the United States to arm the shah of Iran for the next 20 years. These alliances performed poorly because their members had widely divergent security problems (Pakistan was concerned with India, Turkey with Russia and Greece, and Iran with the Middle East) and because of the revolutions in Iraq in 1958 and Iran in 1979, which knocked out the central players. In today’s circumstances, a regional alliance would stand a better chance of succeeding.
The idea would be for the United States to establish a formal defense alliance with the GCC states and a new government of Iraq. To paraphrase Lord Ismay’s famous quip about NATO, the goal would be to keep the Americans in, the Iranians out, and the Iraqis down. A formal defense pledge would be the best way to lock in an unflinching American commitment to the security of the region; would serve as the best deterrent to outright Iranian aggression; and, by extending a security guarantee to Iraq, would effectively solve Baghdad’s security dilemma as well, providing a benign framework for Iraq’s conventional rearmament while obviating the need for it to acquire WMD to deter Iran. As a bonus, if Persian Gulf publics could be convinced that American forces were there as part of a community of equals, such an arrangement might also help legitimize the U.S. presence in the region. Such an alliance should be more viable than its predecessors, meanwhile, because the GCC states and Iraq share the same primary external security threat: Iran.
Still, this approach also has its drawbacks. In particular, the GCC states do not actually want a formal alliance relationship with the United States, at least not at the moment. GCC leaders fear that far from legitimizing an American presence, such an alliance would be seen as the ultimate act of colonialism and cronyism and would thus help to delegitimize their own regimes. Even a very pro-American Iraqi government might be uneasy with a formal treaty relationship, for similar reasons. It is also unclear how such an alliance system could address the threat of domestic instability in the GCC. Because of the weakness of its armed forces, if Tehran does ever decide to pursue a more aggressive policy, it is more likely to try to undermine its neighbors from within than attack them directly from without. And despite its fearsome punching power, a Persian Gulf alliance would still be vulnerable to an enemy that hits below the belt.
A Gulf Security Condominium
If a return to offshore balancing might be inadequate to deal with external aggression and a new alliance system might be inadequate to deal with internal instability, a third course offers the tantalizing prospect of handling both problems simultaneously. This approach would have the United States pursue a security condominium for the Persian Gulf, modeled on the arms control experiences in Europe at the end of the Cold War.
Beginning in the 1970s, NATO and the Warsaw Pact engaged in a host of security engagement forums, confidence-building measures, and arms control agreements (such as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions talks, and the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe) that were intended to deal with all of the continent’s various security issues as a whole. Negotiating these deals took over two decades of painful wrangling. But in the end, they produced a Europe that was much more stable and secure than ever before.
In the Persian Gulf, such a security condominium would entail a similar set of activities bringing together the United States, the GCC countries, Iraq, and Iran. The process would begin by establishing a regional security forum at which relevant issues could be debated and discussed, information exchanged, and agreements framed. The members could then move on to confidence-building measures, such as notification of exercises, exchanges of observers, and information swaps. Ultimately, the intention would be to proceed to eventual arms control agreements that might include demilitarized zones, bans on destabilizing weapons systems, and balanced force reductions for all parties. In particular, the group might aim for a ban on all WMD, complete with penalties for violators and a multilateral (or international) inspection program to enforce compliance.
Such an approach has a lot to recommend it. It would be the least rancorous way to handle the inevitable prohibition on Iraqi WMD, for example. Framing the ban within a larger process in which all of the regional states were working toward similar disarmament and Iraq was simply the one leading off would help the pill go down more easily in Baghdad. Likewise, for the GCC states, if a regional security condominium succeeded in eventually defanging Iran and locking in limitations on Iraq, it would address their security problems without having to rely on a heavy, destabilizing American military presence. Moreover, U.S.-GCC military relations might be more agreeable to the Persian Gulf populations if they took place within the rubric of a regionwide forum.
Another advantage would be that the Iranians might actually be willing to participate. For 20 years, Iran has demanded that the United States, Iraq, and the GCC take its security concerns seriously, and this process would grant Iran a venue and an opportunity to discuss those concerns for the first time. Inviting Iran to discuss security issues in the Persian Gulf at the same table with the United States would give Tehran the sense that it was finally getting the respect from Washington that it believes it deserves. More to the point, such a process is the only possible way that Iran could affect the military forces of its toughest opponent, the United States. For such a system to work, Washington would have to be willing, as it was in Europe, to agree to limitations on its regional deployments. Such limitations by themselves might be worth the price of admission for Iran.
Even if the hard-liners in Tehran opted not to participate, that would not be a disaster, since they would likely isolate themselves both internally and internationally as a result. At home, it would be very difficult for them to justify any action based on a supposed threat from the United States (or Iraq or the GCC) if they were unwilling to participate in a process in which they would have the opportunity to address that threat through diplomacy and arms control. To foreign audiences, meanwhile, Tehran’s refusal to accept such an olive branch from the United States would demonstrate that Iran was a pariah state uninterested in peaceful means of addressing its security concerns. This, in turn, would make it easier for Washington to muster international support for tighter sanctions and other forms of pressure.
Some might oppose such a system for fear that it would legitimize the current Iranian government. But it need not do so unduly, and it would not stand in the way of regime change if that was where political development in Iran seemed to be heading. After all, a similar process did not impede regime change in Russia and Eastern Europe.
The real problem with this approach is that such a regional security condominium might be impossible to achieve. It is worth remembering that in Europe it took between 20 and 25 years of excruciating negotiations to produce a workable system. The United States has had agonizing experiences negotiating multilateral agreements in the Middle East, and there is no reason to believe this one will be any easier. All of the parties will come to the table with their own agendas and will attempt to subvert or structure the process to address only those issues that interest them. One of the dirty little secrets of the Persian Gulf is that GCC unity is a fiction: the Qataris want American military bases not to shield them from Iran or Iraq but to deter Saudi Arabia. Likewise, Bahrain wants powerful missiles not to make it an effective member of the Peninsula Shield Force but so that it can strike Qatar if it ever feels the need. A regional security forum coupled with arms control measures could bring out all of these intra-GCC insecurities, further complicating the process.
The Iranians, meanwhile, might try to scuttle the entire effort by demanding Israel’s inclusion, a call that would have tremendous resonance among the Arab populations of the Persian Gulf. Bringing Israel into such a system would mean saddling the Persian Gulf security system with the additional problems and endless disputes of the Arab-Israeli peace process and the Middle East as a whole, which would clearly be impractical.
Still, if it could somehow be made to work, a regional security condominium would offer the best prospect of creating a stable, secure Persian Gulf. But making it work will be quite a feat and take years, if not decades. The United States should thus enshrine this as its ultimate goal and start moving in that direction promptly. The mere process of announcing it as Washington’s intention and convening a conference on Persian Gulf security, in fact, could have powerful positive effects, legitimizing the U.S. presence in the region and discrediting those who oppose it.
A condominium, however, should not become the sole focus of American efforts to create a new security architecture in the region, because better solutions are needed for the more immediate term. In truth, the three models proposed above are not mutually exclusive and perhaps might most usefully be seen as steps in an ongoing process. The United States could make some moves today to diminish force levels in accord with the offshore balancing approach. Meanwhile, it could begin exploring the possibility of either a new alliance system in the region or the inauguration of a process to construct a security condominium. Indeed, the threat of a new U.S.-GCC-Iraqi alliance might be another powerful incentive for Iran to participate in a security condominium, whereas the articulation of such a goal might make an alliance more acceptable to the GCC states. Ultimately, if the security condominium succeeds, peace is maintained, and forces throughout the region are considerably reduced, the road may be clear for a truly over-the-horizon American presence in the Persian Gulf—a development that would be greatly welcomed by all concerned.