A Need for Prudence in the Persian Gulf

In the debate about the United States-Saudi relationship, there are growing indications in Congress and reportedly among Saudi officials that a reduction of American military forces in Saudi Arabia is politically inevitable. A drastic change like a complete withdrawal of forces is unlikely. But a force reduction is prudent as both nations assess their relations.

While the Saudis benefit from American military protection, it is clear that the United States presence in the region is driven by our own interests.

America’s military strategy in the Persian Gulf has always been as much about denying control of oil to enemies as assuring the flow of oil to the West. And the significance of the relationship with Saudi Arabia has always been more political than military.

During the cold war, the policy of the United States was intended to guard against the possibility of Soviet control of oil supplies in the Persian Gulf region in addition to defending against disruption of America’s own oil supply. As declassified government documents reveal, an oil-denial strategy was put in place by the Truman administration in 1949, when it embarked on a policy?without the knowledge of local governments?to blow up oil installations and plug oil fields in the gulf states, with cooperation from Britain and American and British oil companies, if a Soviet invasion seemed imminent. The deployment of “radiological” weapons to make the oil fields unusable was also considered. Despite concerns by State Department officials that such a policy would be opposed by the host countries if it ever leaked, this policy was implemented in the 1950’s and remained in place at least through the early 1960’s, so great was the worry that the Soviet Union would come to control a substantial share of the world’s oil.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, a big fear was that an aggressive and powerful Iraq would come to control more of the world’s oil supply. This fear was even bigger than the concern about spikes in oil prices. Today, American concerns are focused on the threat from Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and so long as Iraq and Iran are seen as threats in the gulf, United States military needs in a region that holds two-thirds of world oil reserves are unlikely to change.

At the same time, the deployment of a large American military force in Saudi Arabia has not necessarily been in the best interests of either state, as some analysts have argued for a while. In 1997, a group affiliated with the Council on Foreign Relations, and with Gen. Joseph P. Hoar, former commander in chief of the United States Central Command, as co-chairman, recommended reassessment of the configuration of American forces in Saudi Arabia and cautioned against maintaining a visible, permanent presence. That presence can be readily exploited by our enemies to inflame Arab sentiments against the Saudi government and the United States.

Nonetheless, a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia remains indispensable, even if the military presence there is reduced. First, a necessary American presence in Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf will continue to require Saudi acquiescence. Saudi Arabia remains the central power in the Gulf Cooperation Council, and its position will ultimately affect the decisions of the smaller states. Second, Saudi Arabia has the ability to use its oil production capacities to reduce the effect of short-term spikes in the oil market. In this respect, Saudi Arabia is likely to become even more important in the future because it controls more than a quarter of the world’s proven oil reserves.

It would be unwise to alter our policy dramatically while the war on Al Qaeda continues. Indeed, a sharp change now might be seen as rewarding Osama bin Laden. But quietly, over time, the United States and Saudi Arabia should begin talks to reduce the American military presence, because our mutual interests will require that change.