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.