The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
Today the American people are engaged in a rethinking of U.S. policy toward many parts of the world. In the process, it appears unlikely for the foreseeable future that we will respond to events in the world with major new commitments of arms or men, beyond maintaining established involvements-e.g., NATO, the strategic nuclear balance, and our commitments to countries like Japan and Israel.
However, there is one way in which we are slipping into more military involvements around the world-in the sale of arms to virtually any non-communist country that has the money to pay for them. From $921 million five years ago, U.S. arms sales rose to $3.8 billion in fiscal 1973, to $8.2 billion in fiscal 1974, and in the fiscal year just ended, to $9.3 billion. This tenfold spurt now involves 71 countries as customers; all told the United States is responsible for about half of a total worldwide arms trade that is approaching $20 billion.1
The dramatic American increase has so far occurred without a clear analysis of our interests, objectives, policies, or of costs or benefits. There is simply a vacuum in U.S. policy. And nowhere today is this more obvious-or the consequences of error more likely to damage interests of the United States and other countries-than in the region of the Persian Gulf.
Indeed, when one looks hard at the "arms sales" problem, it turns out to be very largely a "Persian Gulf" problem. For U.S. arms sales to a handful of Gulf countries account for $4.4 billion of the fiscal 1974 total (54 percent) and for $4.3 billion in fiscal 1975 (46 percent). In blunt terms, we cannot have a coherent arms sales policy unless we have a coherent Persian Gulf policy. And what we do there could be the first test case of our ability to adopt rational policies in the post-Vietnam world.
Nor are we alone. In 1974, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe agreed to ship about $360 million worth of arms to Iraq, while France sold more than $1 billion worth to Gulf states, followed by Britain at about $500 million, and West Germany at $120 million. This represents an acceleration of West European involvement, particularly after the rise in oil prices.
Is this increasing influx of arms into the Gulf in our interest, that of other outside powers, or even that of the local states? That question can only be answered by looking at the importance of the Gulf; its recent history, especially the evolving role of the superpowers; and the relationships and the threats to peace within and among the Gulf states themselves.
Today the importance of the region to outside powers is plain enough: it is the major source of oil for Europe and Japan (and increasingly for the United States); close to the borders of the Soviet Union; hard by the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors; and a center of growing wealth, nationalism and self-awareness. As such, the Gulf has become critically important to outside nations, both rich and poor. But it remains an area where America's interests are not well-defined, her policies even less so, and her vision of the future hardly at all.
For these reasons, last May I visited the Gulf states of Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran. I returned convinced that a major new look at U.S. Gulf policy is urgently needed. While any drastic shift must come gradually-and largely in the context of initiatives from within the area-there are things the United States can do, guidelines it can follow, that not only can serve our own short-term interests better than our present haphazard course, but also make a significant contribution to the long-term peace and healthy development of the area.
Where are we and how did we get there? For two decades following the Second World War, U.S. policy toward the Gulf was reasonably straightforward. We sought to strengthen Iran, as part of far-flung defenses against what was seen to be possible Soviet encroachment. We worked to promote a good operating climate for Western oil firms, as an aid to the prosperity of Europe and Japan and the U.S. balance of payments. And we hoped to cultivate generally good relations with individual states, both in their own right and to increase our ability to influence events in the festering Arab-Israeli conflict.
In terms of politics, this meant assuming the old British role of support for Iran, building a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia, and encouraging Britain to remain involved in the Gulf itself. Militarily we provided large-scale aid to Iran from as early as 1952, and in the 1950s sponsored the Baghdad Pact, which evolved into the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO); we also furnished small-scale aid to Saudi Arabia. Our actual military presence was limited to military assistance groups in these two countries and a miniscule naval Middle East Force stationed at the Gulf island of Bahrain.
The postwar structure of U.S. interests and policies in the Gulf area began to change during the mid-1960s. Détente, born in Europe and in U.S.-Soviet strategic relations, began to reduce anxieties about possible Soviet moves toward the Gulf or, more immediately, toward Iran and its CENTO neighbors, Turkey and Pakistan. In 1968, meanwhile, Harold Wilson announced a progressive British withdrawal from "East of Suez," including an end to a century and a half of suzerainty over a handful of sheikhdoms scattered about the Gulf. Having already granted Kuwait independence in 1961, Britain proceeded to withdraw its military presence throughout the Gulf; as it did so, it virtually abandoned its not-to-be-duplicated political role and dismantled the complex web of relations with local states which it had built up over the years. Furthermore, in the 1960s the rising prosperity of Europe and Japan pushed their dependence on Gulf oil production higher and higher, and by the end of the decade even the United States began importing significant quantities of Gulf oil. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) thus acquired its new economic leverage.
The watershed year was 1971. It began with the first concerted and successful OPEC efforts to raise the price of oil-at Tripoli and Tehran-and ended with the final departure of Britain from the Gulf. For a time, there was debate in the United States and elsewhere about the need to "fill the military vacuum." What soon became apparent, however, was that the same conditions that were leading to the increase in oil prices made "filling the vacuum" both unnecessary and unacceptable-namely, the growing sense of political and economic power and nationalism on the part of local states, especially Iran.
So American policy remained essentially unchanged. We stayed largely aloof from local politics, as Britain put together the United Arab Emirates and then withdrew; and we continued to sell arms-mostly in modest amounts but with Iran as a rapidly growing buyer from 1972 on.
Then, in October 1973, came another decisive turn, when the onset of the fourth Middle East war and the Arab oil embargo became the setting for two further steep rises in OPEC prices-to nearly five times the pre-1971 level. OPEC nations asserted their full power, and Persian Gulf countries were at the heart of OPEC's strength, with two in particular playing key roles-Iran was the most influential voice in the setting of oil prices, and Saudi Arabia was both a powerful voice in Arab councils about the continuing Arab-Israeli crisis and the fulcrum for OPEC's continuing solidarity and ability to control oil supply. American relationships in the Persian Gulf took on crucial new degrees of national interest, with respect to both oil and Israel.
On the oil front, how America should seek to deal with the OPEC countries has been the subject of widespread debate over the past two years. Many observers have long argued that factors of energy supply and demand, plus the political and economic consequences of the price rises, militate for U.S. policies centering on cooperation both with other consuming nations and with oil-producing countries, rather than confrontation with the oil producers. At the same time we should be seeking to change the terms of trade in energy, through conservation and diversification of supply.
Thus, one central focus of American policy-not limited to the Gulf but bearing heavily on it-must lie in the mutual interest that oil producers and consumers have in economic relations: the ways in which we support the development efforts of local countries; join in channeling and recycling petrodollars in productive ways; open an effective dialogue with oil-producing states on a wide range of economic issues (not limited either to the Gulf or the oil producers); promote the use of petrodollars for development elsewhere in the world; and draw the oil-producing states more firmly into the Western economy through a myriad of links between producers and consumers, and in international economic institutions. To promote these ends, we should be working with other states, rich and poor, toward the gradual creation of a new global economic compact, as a process of restructuring the world economy in ways that can benefit more nations and people than before.
Discussion and debate on these issues of promoting critical economic "security" are well-advanced. What has been overlooked, however, are the new dimensions of the issues of political and military security in the Gulf. In approaching the recent requests of the Gulf nations for massive amounts of arms, we have been guided in part by holdover policies from the pre-1973 period, in part by a general desire to keep firm ties with Iran and Saudi Arabia, in part by the need to shore up our balance of payments, and-as a kind of last-resort argument heard more in private than in public-by the belief that if we don't sell arms to the Gulf countries, some other country will.
None of these arguments is trivial or unworthy. But the effect of their unquestioned acceptance has been to draw the United States-and other nations close to us-more and more deeply into the security situation of the Gulf, as the sale of arms has increased dramatically.
Nor is it by any means a case of cash-and-carry sales. American technical teams are now spread out all over Iran, and in Saudi Arabia (where the need for initial technical help is even greater) this involvement is likely to be equally great. Already American attention has been called to a contract between the Vinnell Corporation of Los Angeles and the government of Saudi Arabia, to provide up to 1,000 ex-U.S. military personnel to train the Saudi Arabian National Guard. And Iran has reportedly asked a U.S. firm to set up a communications intelligence system for Iran in the Gulf area, with implications for other Gulf states and possibly also for the security of U.S. intelligence methods. These developments, along with the flow of arms presented earlier, mean that we have a decisive impact-for good or ill-on the development of military forces in these countries and hence on the prospects for stability or conflict, both within and among Gulf states.
Furthermore, our deepening defense relationships with these countries only increase the chances that we would be dragged into a conflict not of our choosing, in part because the lives of U.S. arms-related personnel could be placed in jeopardy in any fighting. The Defense Department currently estimates that as many as 150,000 Americans will be in the area by 1980, fulfilling both military and economic contracts.
Our involvement in issues of Gulf security, therefore, is real and growing-through both military missions and private contractors, although foreign military aid to the Gulf has come to an end. Yet it makes little difference whether the U.S. government is directly involved in supplying arms, or follows congressional mandate to get out of the government-to-government arms trade and merely licenses arms sales through the Department of State, as required by law. The United States will still be involved in the consequences of the arms flow. Already, in some Gulf countries, our military relationship is a dominant factor in the U.S. presence, at least as far as relations directly with governments are concerned.
In short, our military involvement in the Gulf area has taken on wholly new dimensions. Obviously, this has not been simply because the Gulf states have vast new wealth available, or because we need to pay for our oil imports. The impetus has come, in the main, from the Gulf states themselves, based on their own conception of their national and security needs. But if we are to frame a thoughtful American policy, we for our part need a detached view of our own security and other interests.
Clearly we have a security interest in helping to prevent any expansion of Soviet power into the Gulf area. In the postwar years, the threat of outright Soviet aggression, or overpowering pressure, against Iran seemed vivid indeed; and it was to assist Iran, and to deter and prevent such Soviet action, that the United States maintained major programs of military aid grants, loans, and credits to Iran over the years (totaling over $1.4 billion between 1947 and 1969), associated itself with CENTO (though only as an observer), and in 1959 entered into an executive agreement with Iran providing that "In case of aggression against Iran, the . . . United States, in accordance with [its] Constitution . . . will take such appropriate action, including the use of armed forces, as may be mutually agreed upon. . . ." While these actions do not add up to a formal treaty commitment to Iran, they do imply a high degree of American concern and support. The visitor to Tehran is soon reminded of how seriously America is relied on, and how seriously too the direct Soviet threat is still regarded-a factor that must be weighed against the risks that arms sales to Iran in this context may create problems in another: the Gulf stability needed to promote the flow of oil.
In particular, the close ties between the U.S.S.R. and Iraq have seemed to provide the Russians with a base of influence and involvement in the Gulf area-possibly including subversive activity. Moreover, the Iraqi link has seemed to symbolize a more subtle form of Soviet threat-that the U.S.S.R. might at some point come to control oil output from the Gulf, and thus be in a position to apply a stranglehold over oil supplies vital to U.S. and Western interests and security.
Yet in recent years, détente has altered Western concern about Soviet involvement in the Gulf. At this point, Moscow would have to weigh heavily interests in dominating the Gulf against objectives in arms control, Europe, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and elsewhere. Furthermore, the Soviet Union is not in a position to wield much leverage vis-à-vis the Persian Gulf energy situation. It will not import significant quantities of oil and natural gas from the area for the foreseeable future-nor are its goods likely to be sought after by the oil producers. At the same time, even Iraq is showing an increasing interest in Western goods and technology, as witnessed by the rapid rise in imports from the United States, up from $57 million in 1973, to $284 million in 1974, and to perhaps as much as $600 million this year.
Soviet political scope is also limited. Iran's historic mistrust of the Soviet Union has resulted in a defensive arms buildup and wariness about Soviet commercial or political links-although Iran does buy some Soviet military equipment. Iraq, meanwhile, has in recent months been loosening its ties to the Soviet Union-parallel with the end of the Kurdish rebellion-although it is far too early to tell whether this trend will continue. Certainly, despite Soviet support for Iraq in the Arab-Israeli dispute, and at times in ideological struggles within the Arab world, little love has been lost between the two countries. Finally, along the southern littoral of the Gulf, traditional regimes from Kuwait through Abu Dhabi to Saudi Arabia retain an antipathy to the Soviet Union and to communism.
Furthermore, from the point of view of the West, it is unlikely that the economic or even political incentives of Gulf states to sell or withhold oil in world markets will be deeply affected by the nature of governments in power. For example, though Iraq is the strongest Gulf opponent of Israel, for economic reasons it did not restrict its production of oil in 1973, the only Arab country to defy the cuts imposed by all other members of the Organization of Arab Oil Exporting Countries (OAPEC). While assuredly developments in the Arab-Israeli conflict could lead to a resurgence or strengthening of Soviet involvement in the Gulf region-particularly in Iraq-nonetheless the likelihood of a direct Soviet threat to Gulf nations is today sufficiently remote for that factor to be largely ruled out in the short term as a reason for Western military or naval involvement in the Gulf itself, or for the supply of substantial arms to local states. The views of local states-such as Iran-may differ, and that nation cannot be indifferent to events in places like Baluchistan, in addition to the Gulf area; but the United States should be clear in its own assessment of the Soviet factor and appropriate responses to it, in judging its arms supply policies to Gulf nations.
Recently a new concern has arisen, that Soviet naval forces might interfere in some crisis with the shipment of oil from the Gulf. Here the strategic Straits of Hormuz, at the mouth of the Gulf, do represent a bottleneck through which most of the world's exportable oil must pass. Again, however, at the moment it appears unlikely that the Soviet Union would seek to block the Straits, for the same reasons that limit its position in the Gulf itself. And it is the expressed intention of Iran and other Gulf states to provide whatever naval presence could ever be required to guard the Gulf. This is, of course, reason for sale of some naval arms as part of continuing vigilance; however, the proper limits of that buildup must also be seen in terms of problems and criteria presented below.
Psychologically, if not militarily, a growing Soviet naval force in the Indian Ocean could increase anxieties in the West about the shipment of oil from the Gulf through the Indian Ocean to ports around the world. Partly to meet this contingency, the U.S. government has now begun developing its base at the British Indian Ocean Territories island of Diego Garcia. This buildup is ostensibly a response to increasing Soviet deployments in the Indian Ocean and their use of facilities in places like Berbera in Somalia.
Many observers, myself included, have argued that an overreaction by the United States to this situation is more likely to bring on a strong Soviet response than would the exercise of caution. At the moment the combined naval forces of the United States, Great Britain and France in the Indian Ocean far outclass those of the Soviet Union; more shore facilities are available; and the United States has an afloat-support capacity the Soviet Union could not match in this decade.
Instead of proceeding with Diego Garcia, thereby risking a major naval arms race that could have an impact in the Gulf, we should first seek to open negotiations with the Soviet Union, to try limiting both sides' military deployments and facilities in the region. (This year Senators Pell, Javits and I introduced legislation to this effect.) Certainly, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union has an interest in an uncontrolled naval arms race in that part of the world. And for both sides it might also be politically costly in the region itself. Indeed, all 29 littoral states have endorsed the goal of making the Indian Ocean a "zone of peace"; widespread opposition to the naval presence of outside powers has been most strongly expressed in the Gulf; and any negotiations seeking limits on the deployment of outside naval forces in the Indian Ocean or in the Gulf would undoubtedly be widely supported.
In the process, it would also be worthwhile for America to withdraw her tiny and virtually ineffective Middle East Force, in order to discourage a Soviet reaction, to demonstrate our support for local assertions of control over Gulf waters, and to show our willingness to work constructively with these nations on matters of security.
In sum, the possible role of the Soviet Union in and near the Gulf does not at this time indicate the need for a major buildup of arms and military potential, either by local states (despite Iran's lingering concerns) or by Western powers. If the Russians should seek to increase their military presence in the region or their threat to the West's oil supply line, we can deal with that challenge, both locally and in the broader framework of détente, when it really begins to emerge, avoiding in the meantime actions that could help stimulate the very Soviet actions we seek to prevent.
Western concerns about possible direct Soviet threats to the security of the Gulf are now outweighed by concern about events within and among the local states. A period of political chaos within one or more Gulf nations, or of conflict between local states, could lead to disruptions of oil supply, despite continued economic incentives to produce.
Though the Gulf states differ enormously one from another, most have in common the existence of sharp internal divisions, often accentuated under the press of modernization and the impact of ideas and influence from the outside world. Of course, some Gulf states have offset pressures for internal change by embarking on programs of greater social justice, leading in some cases to welfare states.
Despite the tendency in the Gulf to believe that emphasis on arms and armies will help contain pressures for radical change, there is a danger that the reverse may be true. As we have seen in many other countries-most recently Ethiopia and Portugal-the development of armed forces to a level beyond that of the rest of society can itself increase pressures for the military to take a leading role in politics. In Iran, general economic and social progress may reduce this risk, but that situation does not apply in all other Gulf states.
It is not clear, therefore, whether the increasing flow of modern arms, and the accompanying increase in military forces, will help buttress current leadership, or may instead in many instances help set in motion a process of social change that itself will lead to political turmoil. At least, military modernization that is out of step with the modernization of society as a whole must be a risky gamble in the Persian Gulf. And a massive flow of arms could hasten the process, place the supplier states in the middle as supporters of the old regimes, and make the process more uncertain and more difficult to control for all involved.
In the short run, meanwhile, relations among the local states themselves are of even more pressing concern. The Gulf is an area of traditional rivalries and conflicts, with deep roots in ideology, religion (between Sunnis and Shi'ites), ethnic and cultural differences, territorial disputes, and endemic distrust of one's neighbors. Even the name of the Gulf is at issue: "Persian" on the Iranian side, and "Arabian" on the other.
Nevertheless, in recent months a remarkable series of events has indicated a desire on the part of virtually every state in the Gulf to sustain and improve relations with its neighbors. In March, Iran and Iraq took a major step toward ending years of enmity, when Iran withdrew its support for the Kurdish rebellion, and Iraq agreed to a division of the Shatt-al-Arab waterway. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have since agreed to a division of the Neutral Zone; Saudi Arabia has resolved a number of disputes with members of the United Arab Emirates; there has been continuing support by a number of Gulf states for the Sultanate of Oman against the insurgency in Dhofar Province; and visits back and forth by leaders on both sides of the Gulf have signaled a degree of amity not seen in the region since the departure of Great Britain.
This mitigation of long-standing rivalries may of course be tenuous. Iraq's neighbors on all sides, for example, will continue to watch developments there; sudden changes have often overtaken that country. Furthermore, the current phase of amity is founded in large part on common economic interests. Good relations built upon OPEC's successful cartel action might quickly evaporate if the ability of OPEC to set world prices diminishes and the unity of the cartel is weakened.
Even more important, only Iran among Gulf states now has a clear sense of the direction it wants to take in the future. In Tehran, there is a firm and definite commitment to turn economic potential into political influence and military power, not just in the Gulf, but also beyond. As I was told during my visit to Iran in May, leaders of that country now see it as part of both the Gulf and West Asia, with wider interests and ambitions, extending even into the Indian Ocean.
So far, none of the other oil-producing states has yet approached a stage of development where it could seriously hope to rival Iran. While Saudi Arabia and Iraq have sufficient oil resources, their development is bound to proceed slowly. Can Saudi Arabia, for example, achieve its five-year, $150-billion development plan, in view of the difficulties of rapidly building an industrial infrastructure and developing human resources? Saudi Arabia's small population (about five million people) is a built-in constraint; and even importing a million or so "guest workers" could not give it a real chance of rivaling Iran in economic development for years to come. Iraq, meanwhile, is many years behind Iran in development, and, despite a population larger than that of Saudi Arabia (eleven million), it has traditionally been more subject to coups and internal disruptions.
Even if Iran thus seems sure to remain by far the strongest power in the Gulf in terms of population and economic strength, it does not follow, unfortunately, that other Gulf states will not seek to compete with Iran-or with each other-in the building up of modern military forces. The worldwide trade in arms has so far ensured that any country with money can acquire the latest in military technology-limited only by the capacity of nations to develop or import the manpower to use and service equipment, and to supply and command forces. We have seen in many countries that concentrating on the development of military forces can lead to significant capabilities, even where the rest of the economy and society lag far behind. Certainly the presence of modern arms in large quantities can enable the importing nation to start a conflict-by accident or design-thus causing disruption and high levels of casualties, even if the military advantage lies decisively on the other side.
Will Iran's neighbors accept its leadership, or seek to challenge it through competition in arms-even if other areas of competition are virtually closed? A modest challenge already seems to be developing, and it is fed by recurrent speculation around the Gulf about the possibility of Iranian ambitions toward other oil-rich states, as its own oil reserves begin to dwindle. Certainly, despite the Shah's recent approaches to his neighbors, there is still a keen awareness in neighboring Arab states of Iran's continuing role as Israel's principal source of oil, as well as memories of Iran's seizure of three Gulf islands, Abu Musa and the Tumbs, in 1970.
That a regional arms race is an acute threat is shown by the dramatic growth in individual military budgets since 1970:
MILITARY BUDGETS OF PERSIAN GULF STATES
(in millions of dollars)
Iran Iraq Saudi Arabia Kuwait Bahrain
1970 961 477 213 88 3.5
1971 1351 509 236 103 3.7
1972 1847 509 674 108 3.7
1973 2452 558 988 132 4.5
1974 5694 1024 1515 389 7.0
SOURCE: Agency for International Development: Statistics and Reports Division, Office of Financial Management.
In any event it is hard to foresee the Gulf states becoming heavily armed without this leading to new definitions of relations among them, new ambitions, new points of friction-and an escalating arms race. The more heavily armed the various states become, the more likely it is that small disputes will be exacerbated by the presence and possible use of modern weapons. In some parts of the world, a balance of arms can help confer stability-as in Europe, and at times even in the Arab-Israeli conflict. But for this several conditions are necessary: among these, for both sides the performance of weapons must be related closely to the ability to command and control them. Weapons must not be so powerful or distances between contending military forces (or cities) so short that the nation striking first could gain a decisive advantage, for this could lead to hair-trigger reactions and even war by accident.
In few countries of the Gulf do any of these conditions for a stable balance of military power exist; and all of these conditions exist in no local state. Command-and-control arrangements tend to be poor, according to standards of other countries using similar high-performance equipment; the terrain along the Gulf is generally flat and the distances between possible adversaries short-while the equipment being introduced is of a standard suitable for areas like Europe, with greater distances and natural obstacles.
Therefore, an arms race between different Gulf states-or even a leveling-off at high levels of armament in several countries-contains built-in risks of increased political tensions or even conflict, by accident or design. And the risk will increase if the flow of arms into the area proceeds faster than the development either of the ability to exercise command and control, or of firm understandings about the limits of political influence and dominance. Nor can we neglect the further danger that an uncontrolled arms race may not stop with conventional arms, but spill over into nuclear weapons.
When I traveled to the Persian Gulf last May, I found only a nascent understanding of these risks. In all three countries I visited-Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran-leaders spoke of their military requirements in terms of national security and defense. Yet I gained little sense that national leaders relate their own perceived military needs to military needs in the other states; that the leaders of any country have a clear idea of where their need for defense ends, and their neighbors' needs begin. Instead there seems to be a shared sense of confidence that arms levels can be built up much higher before any contradiction develops. Yet the problem has not gone wholly unrecognized. From time to time there has been talk in the Gulf of working out security arrangements in common-with Iran in the forefront of such discussion. And in July at the Islamic conference in Jidda, the Shah tried, though unsuccessfully, to secure limited agreement among the Gulf states on their approaches to security.
Even if the will to seek genuine limits on the flow of arms does gain currency in the Gulf, many practical problems will remain. How, for example, can these disparate nations define a balance of armaments, for either political or military purposes, that will be mutually acceptable? How will they decide to share influence-in effect leadership-insofar as the size and composition of military forces are concerned? How can they resolve the inherent problems of high-performance military equipment in the Gulf area? None of these questions have easy answers. And their complexity itself may retard willingness to seek cooperation on issues of Gulf security.
In an ideal world, all the issues raised in the preceding section might be met and resolved by Persian Gulf states themselves. Clearly, the major burden of defining security, of deciding how to dispose of billions of petrodollars each year, and of coping with the risks of military buildup must rest with the Gulf states. But the major oil-importing nations also have a vital stake. A chain of events that ran from local arms races to conflict among Gulf states (or to extremist regimes within individual states) would almost surely mean serious difficulties in the continued flow of oil-however short-lived. And in part for this very reason any substantial conflict within the Persian Gulf area carries a degree of inherent risk of confrontation between outside powers asked to assist one or another of the contestants. The only true "security" of the Persian Gulf lies in the maintenance of a condition of peace and stability.
In the light of this analysis, do American and Western arms sales promote our national interest in true political and military security, or do they work against that security-by increasing the risks of rivalry, instability (within or among states), conflict, and hence stoppages in the flow of oil? I do not suggest a categorical answer, but surely there are enough negative factors to give us pause.
Certainly, in the United States we need a much clearer understanding of the factors involved in this arms trade. It was to this end that I introduced legislation this year in the Senate to impose a moratorium on U.S. arms sales to the Gulf: not to decide that issue once and for all, but rather to secure for Congress, at long last, an explanation by the Administration of its objectives and policies in the Gulf. The Nelson Amendment has now given Congress 20 days in which to disapprove individual arms sales of $25 million or above to any country. But more is needed to give Congress an overall sense of U.S. objectives and policy. Under the moratorium proposal, upon Administration presentation of these objectives and policies, and congressional approval, the moratorium would be lifted, to permit that level of arms sales deemed appropriate during the policy review.
Is there, then, some magical change in policy that would avoid the problems of difficult, continuing choices? Again, I think not. It might be desirable to have a hard and fast rule to live by, but no such rule exists. The very existence of unanswered questions about the future of the Gulf's political and military security-posed earlier-dictates that U.S. policy itself cannot be rigid and unyielding: there may even be circumstances in which an increased flow of arms to particular countries would be appropriate. Yet the dilemmas implicit in the search for Gulf political and military security-and dilemmas in U.S. involvement-require that we at least develop some guidelines for action, while we join with local states in trying to answer more basic questions about the political and strategic future of the Gulf.
I suggest seven such guidelines:
First, we should be wary of the notion that the sale of arms is an effective way to buy influence with individual states in the Persian Gulf. At the very least, experience in other parts of the world-notably in Southeast Asia-should help us understand the wisdom of seeking to keep our distance in an arms relationship.
Moreover, with the manifold commercial and economic ties developing between the West and the Gulf states, it is hard to understand why the search for influence should include such a heavy emphasis on the military realm. It is one thing to respond to real security needs accepted by both sides; but a false note creeps in if a substantial part of productive relations is based on meeting requests for armaments that go beyond such needs.
Nor should we automatically accept an assertion by local leaders that the maintenance or improvement of relations depends on virtually unlimited sales of arms, where this conflicts with our own evaluation of the risks involved. For example, there are real risks in seeking moderation toward the Arab-Israeli conflict, in countries like Saudi Arabia, through the supply of arms that could create problems both in the Gulf and in the Arab-Israeli conflict itself. And efforts to promote cooperation between Iran and Saudi Arabia in regional security, as the pillar of our position in the Gulf, hardly square with levels or types of arms sales that could help bring the two into conflict with one another.
At the very least, the orientation of the United States should be shifted significantly, to emphasize commercial and economic involvement (where until lately the United States lagged well behind other Western nations). "Influence" is more durable if it is a two-way street; and when the nature of interests tying the West together with the Gulf states is so heavily weighted in terms of economics, there should be strong incentive for both sides to promote these interests in their own terms.
Will any nation actually reduce the volume of oil it sells us if we limit the sale of arms as a form of payment? Will we turn the terms of the oil trade against ourselves by using good judgment in arms sales? By contrast, will the price of oil come down if we open wide the floodgates? To none of these questions is the answer likely to be yes. In fact, the uncertain relationship between arms sales and influence-or good relations-may be illustrated by a current example: that the United States is finding a new receptivity in Iraq that we should build upon, especially in commercial transactions (such as modernizing seaports near Basra), although we do not now sell arms to that country and are unlikely to do so in the future.
Similarly, it is doubtful that our supplying arms to Persian Gulf states will give us significant influence, much less control, over the way in which these arms are used. The record elsewhere-in India, Pakistan, Turkey-offers no comfort. Nor is it clear that U.S. arms shipped to one country will not end up in another, including Arab states in confrontation with Israel, despite agreements requiring State Department approval prior to any third-country transfers.
It is often argued that the sale of arms creates dependence, for more arms and for spare parts. During a protracted conflict, the nature of the supply relationship does confer some leverage. Yet is any war in the Persian Gulf region likely to be protracted? And does the initial supply of arms make such wars less rather than more likely? In both cases, for reasons presented earlier, the answer is likely to be no.
Second, we in the United States should seek to understand and limit the role that we play in the definition that any Gulf state makes of its own military security needs. For many years, we have had large military missions in both Saudi Arabia and Iran that have provided training in U.S. weapons as well as other services, such as those performed by the Army Corps of Engineers in Saudi Arabia. In themselves, these Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) missions have not necessarily led directly to increased arms purchases. We are often told, for example, that American military personnel in Iran for years counseled that government to restrict its military and naval buildup in the interests of economic development-that MAAG personnel actually retarded the flow of arms.
Nevertheless, it is hard to believe that the appearance of U.S. military personnel does not reinforce the message that a strong and visible military establishment is part of the coin of national power, whatever a nation's particular needs for military security. A nexus of close relations between Persian Gulf governments and U.S. military personnel-whether working for the government or private contractors-cannot help but increase the incentives local leaders have to see problems of security first and foremost in military terms. At the very least, the Defense Department should cease its involvement in arms sales, with the State Department putting policy before Defense's military response.
Third, we need to make our own independent assessments of the military needs of Persian Gulf countries, and of potential contradictions involved in the supply of arms to different countries. This guideline, already outlined in the Foreign Military Sales Act, is not easy to follow, particularly when the level of arms in the Persian Gulf is already escalating. Furthermore, the nations in the region are arming for highly diverse purposes, often outside the Gulf itself. Iraq, for example, has also armed for internal reasons (until recently including the Kurdish rebellion), plus its disputes with Syria and sometime involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Saudi Arabia has a continuing concern with South Yemen. And as discussed earlier, Iran sees a host of potential threats, including that from the Soviet Union.
Regrettably, too, the United States itself has risked stimulating Persian Gulf states to emphasize their military security needs through misguided threats to use military force in the Gulf. However problematic these threats are, however contingent on our being "strangled" economically, they tend to increase incentives in the Gulf to build up arms, while complicating our problems of forging productive relations in the area. I was in Saudi Arabia when Secretary of Defense Schlesinger renewed the thinly veiled threats of military action. Based on my conversations with Saudi, Iraqi, and Iranian officials, it is clear to me that these comments gained us nothing, while risking increased pressures both to buy more arms and to resist cooperation with the United States on the price and supply of oil. Fortunately, President Ford wisely rejected military confrontation.
Fourth, we in the United States need to separate how we pay for oil from our policy on arms supply. It is clear that selling billions of dollars worth of arms each year is a significant offset for our oil account with these nations. But just as clearly the price is not worth it, if we are only buying an increased risk of tensions, instability, and even conflict-conflict from which we could only with difficulty remain aloof.
If trying to solve the problem of recycling petrodollars requires us to sell high levels of arms-and leads some Gulf states to continue spending ten percent or more of their oil revenues on arms-then it is clear that neither we nor they have begun to come to grips with the recycling issue. Indeed, we should recognize that the desire for arms on the part of Gulf states may be an added incentive to keep the cartel oil price high.
We must also resist the temptation to lengthen the production lines for our first-line military equipment by selling it abroad. We do indeed reduce the unit cost of arms to our own military forces through foreign sales. But in doing that we are only distorting the picture of the true cost of our own defense, and building in a hidden "cost" that could even be paid for in American lives. Since we do wish to have adequate defenses, we should certainly pay for them; but not by running additional risks for ourselves and others in pursuit of what would surely be a false economy.
These first four guidelines seek to deal with the problem of short-run moderation and good judgment. It remains to consider the kind of steps the United States might take to bring about a better long-term situation. To this end:
Fifth, the United States must work directly with Persian Gulf nations, individually and on a regional basis, in seeking to reach common understandings on the future of Gulf political and military security-both within and among states. It would be best if developing regional security arrangements could be left to the local states themselves; and in time such a process may get under way, despite the tentative failure this July. But by then the level of arms may have made the problems almost impossible to solve. Moreover, with the improvement in relations among the Gulf states in recent months-and the signs that some, at least, have overspent their oil revenues for the moment-now may be a good time to move in this direction. Even if it may be safer to sell arms when conflict seems remote, we should seize that opportunity to work for the control of arms, not their unlimited expansion.
Sixth, the United States should begin now to try working with both sellers and buyers of arms on the control of sales to Gulf countries. This should be done while there is still time-before today's arms orders are fully translated into arms deliveries. No country anywhere should have a valid national interest in an uncontrolled influx of arms continuing into the indefinite future. All Western supplier states have a stake in the flow of oil; and even the Soviet Union, with its much smaller stakes in the region, is unlikely to benefit from conflict so near its own borders.
So often we are told that other seller states will not join with us in limiting the sale of arms to the Gulf, and I have already discussed the size of their involvement. Most obviously, however, there are no indications that this approach has ever been tried; it is condemned as unworkable before being tested; and too little attention is paid to the interest that other oil-importing, arms-selling countries also have in Gulf security.
Of course, we in the United States would have to weigh the dangers of an uncontrolled series of arms races in the Gulf against the costs of convincing other Western supplier states of the wisdom of joining with us in arms limitations. For them, selling individual weapons systems abroad may be quite important in reducing costs to their own armed forces, and they face needs much greater than ours for expanding exports in the face of rising oil prices. As a result, we cannot see the problems of Persian Gulf security apart from overall issues of Western economic performance and management-including the recycling of petrodollars-or apart from Western competition in arms elsewhere, including the arms markets of the NATO alliance. Only if we are prepared to see and solve these problems, together, can we hope to solve any one of them.
It will also be important to relate attempts to control the sale of arms in the area to particular interests of the Soviet Union. So far, the Russians have shown no concern with problems of arms in the Gulf states, and it may not be possible to induce them to join in arms control efforts, and to forswear opportunities to continue pursuing influence in places like Iraq-whether real or chimerical-as they have done through arms supply elsewhere. Yet there may be a greater chance of getting Soviet cooperation now than there was a few years ago, before the last Middle East war drove home again the risks of any superpower confrontation, and when Moscow's position in Egypt seemed to confirm the value of adhering much more rigidly than now to a policy of "no war, no peace" in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The problem of Soviet cooperation is linked to that of limiting the sale of arms to the Gulf from any supplier nation. And ultimately the prospects for arms control depend most critically on attitudes of the local states themselves. No agreement among supplier states can be effective if it goes against the interests and determination of the buyers. If we unilaterally ceased our arms sales, they would surely turn to other suppliers, and perhaps even to the Soviet Union, despite ideological differences. This fact increases the need for the United States to work with the local states, not against them, in trying to promote sense and sanity in the region.
But on the other hand, arms control has a chance to succeed if the local states see it to be in their common interest. If that common interest is widely recognized, then efforts of any seller state to disrupt arms-control efforts would have less chance of success.
Pursued with wisdom and patience, this approach to arms control need not be an encroachment on the sovereignty of any Persian Gulf state, nor an affront to national dignity and independence. Rather it can be a support for national aspirations, through bringing individual governments into close dialogue with major industrial powers and each other, and through reducing the risks of increased tensions and conflict in the region, and perhaps within individual Gulf states. The outcome of an arms-control process could still leave Iran in a dominant position-indeed, that may be a requirement of getting the process started at all. But as we explore with all local states the risks of not having arms control, they may find a large measure of Iranian leadership to be more acceptable, while Iran may see the wisdom of moderating its own ambitions.
Finally, we must face the prospect that the flow of arms to the Persian Gulf may not stop with conventional weapons. It is increasingly unlikely that traditional inhibitions on building nuclear weapons will hold much longer unless serious efforts are made to reduce sources of conflict in various parts of the world, and to regulate conventional arms races between powers that have the ability to produce the bomb. Nor can we hope to impose a firebreak on the search for national prestige through arms, at the point when the nuclear decision is reached. Only if we deal with the question of prestige-through-arms at every level can we have real confidence of controlling it at the nuclear level, as well.
It is sometimes argued that selling other countries all the conventional arms they want is a good way of restricting development of nuclear weapons: countries frustrated in buying the one, we are told, may reach for the other. Yet any intelligent approach to controlling the sale of arms can negate this argument: if arms control at any level genuinely contributes to political and military security, then incentives should be reduced-not enhanced-to escalate the competition in arms.
Inhibiting the introduction of nuclear arms into the Persian Gulf will require other efforts as well. We should welcome the proposal of the Iranian government to make that region a "nuclear-free-zone"-partly reflecting Iran's conventional military superiority-while pursuing other steps in a sound nonproliferation policy, including much more forthright efforts to end the Soviet-American arms race.
These seven guidelines for an American security policy toward the Persian Gulf do not answer every question, or resolve every dilemma. Iran, for example, may continue its scale of arming and ignore the potential benefits of moderating its ambitions, even if this leads in time to war with one or another neighboring state. But in the absence of any better approach for the United States-and for other seller and buyer states in the Gulf-these guidelines can help us begin thinking through our basic interests in the Gulf, before an indiscriminate sale of arms brings a host of new problems and takes the entire problem beyond our or others' control.
It is clear that much more is required, beginning with a forthcoming approach to the whole range of outstanding issues relating to oil, other commodities, and the restructuring of the global economy. At the same time, the Gulf region cannot easily be separated from the Arab-Israeli conflict. Not only is there the inherent danger that arms shipped to one country can end up in another despite legal restrictions; as the conflict continues, Washington may be tempted to put greater emphasis on arms sales to Gulf Arab countries in order to promote moderate policies toward the Arab-Israeli conflict; impatience with the United States may grow, making it less likely that we can counsel restraint in arms buildup; and there will be a greater tendency by the non-confrontation Gulf states to militarize approaches to the Arab-Israeli conflict, either through their direct involvement or through providing more petrodollars for arms purchases.
For the United States, therefore, there can be no diminishing of the effort to seek a resolution-whether interim or permanent-of the Arab-Israeli conflict. While we can and must keep separate the issues of oil politics from our approaches toward peace in that conflict, we cannot ignore the dangerous linkages that increasingly exist in the minds of local leaders between arms in the Gulf and either the potential involvement of these states in directly opposing Israel, or the possible role of arms in sustaining an oil embargo in the event of Arab-Israeli war. Nor can we ignore the risk that Iran's increasing desire for leadership in the Gulf, and good relations with Arab states generally, will lead it to abandon its dual role in supplying oil to Israel and in remaining aloof from any Arab oil embargo.
We face one final challenge. For as we look ahead a decade and more, it may be difficult to foresee with much accuracy the balance of influence and power that will exist in the Persian Gulf. Yet we can see the opportunities for the United States to play an effective role in helping to influence what will transpire in that region, provided that we neither abstain from great events that directly concern us, nor risk deeper involvement by opening the floodgates of arms.
The complexion of events in the area may change radically: through a potentially changing balance in world energy supply; new governments and a new generation of leaders in several Gulf states; an evolution of Soviet policy throughout the region and the Indian Ocean that could increase Russian interest in the Gulf (especially if superpower naval arms control fails in this region); a possible (if remote) resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict; changes in the subcontinent from Afghanistan through Pakistan to India; and the gradual restructuring of the global economy.
Our final challenge therefore lies in trying to influence the evolution of states in the Persian Gulf, as they exploit their new-found wealth and power, away from a sterile repetition of the experience of so many countries. We are finding in the West that other factors besides military power are of increasing importance in meeting the pressing issues of our age-while we must still meet the demands of maintaining the basic balance of military power with the Soviet Union. Increasingly, we are faced with the need to adapt to economic change, to see the growing importance of economic power in its own right, to meet threats to "peace" in terms of economic conflict. In all of these great developments, the states of the Persian Gulf will be directly and closely involved.
Can we help them to skip the intermediate step of defining their power and influence in military terms? Can we help them to see the immensely greater benefits of seeking their place in the world mainly through economic and political potential? For us in the Western world-and particularly the United States-this will require a serious and sustained effort of leadership in the Persian Gulf, as well as the force of our own example, including arms control with the Soviet Union. It will require us firmly and forthrightly to base our relations in the Gulf primarily on mutual economic interests, and to adopt a far more forthcoming attitude on economic cooperation, as an essential security objective in the Gulf. But to undertake that effort we must first check our present course of wide-open arms sales in the Gulf, and begin setting the standard of sanity and good sense that can lead these nations, as well, to see their role in the world in terms that will mean most to them and to nations everywhere.
1 U.S. arms sales figures are those under the Foreign Military Sales Act, and are orders, not deliveries. The Military Assistance Program, transfers of excess defense articles, and Military Assistance, Service Funded, added $1.9 billion in military export orders in fiscal year 1974. U.S. commercial sales deliveries-outside the Foreign Military Sales Act-totaled $502 million in fiscal year 1974.
The Limits of Containment