Members of the Gulf Cooperation Council sit at the closing session of their 17th summit, December 9, 1996.
Reuters

Five months after Ronald Reagan's inauguration, his Administration's approach to the vital Persian Gulf region is clear-but the logic behind its policies remains obscure. More disturbing, the policies themselves are contradictory and self-defeating; unless modified, they won't work.

Eager to demonstrate American resolve and assertiveness, the new Administration has embarked on a geostrategic East-West military strategy that compounds the errors of the Carter/Brzezinski White House and revives memories of some of John Foster Dulles' more ill-conceived ventures. By concentrating single-mindedly on the Soviet threat to the Gulf, the Administration thus far has failed to shape the type of comprehensive strategy needed to meet the most likely dangers to Western interests-and it has badly misjudged regional realities.

The Reagan approach is based on several assumptions:

- the Soviet Union is the primary threat to a region which supplies about 35 percent of the oil consumed in the free world economy;

- in order to concentrate on thwarting Moscow's expansionism, Washington should deemphasize efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli dispute;

- Soviet power can best be contained militarily by putting more money and muscle into the Rapid Deployment Force and encouraging a European contribution, even if indirect, to the RDF;

- a "consensus of strategic concerns" should be developed among the countries stretching from Pakistan westward through Saudi Arabia to Egypt and Turkey, and including Israel;

- if a "strategic entity" can be created among these countries, some of the regional states may be persuaded to accept U.S. ground forces-a necessary requirement if the Soviet threat is to be effectively curbed.

This conceptual framework is deficient on a number of counts. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan upset the regional geopolitical equation, but this does not mean that the Soviet Union is the primary threat to Western interests in the Persian Gulf area. The Islamabad-to-Ankara "strategic entity" theme evokes memories of the containment policies of the 1950s, but it lacks political coherence or a structural underpinning. Any attempt to shape an effective regional security framework, while downplaying the Arab-Israeli issue, is doomed to failure. Equally unrealistic is the belief that Washington can line up the Gulf states in an anti-Soviet phalanx, possibly including U.S. troops, at a time when the littoral countries want to exclude any superpower presence.

A U.S. military buildup is an essential response to the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan-the first full-scale Soviet invasion of a country outside Eastern Europe since World War II. But an exclusively anti-Soviet military approach can be dangerously destabilizing if pressed with excessive zeal in the politically volatile Persian Gulf region. A more sophisticated multilateral approach is essential-one that is better attuned to the most likely threats and to regional sensitivities, and that defines "security" in other than simply military terms. Closer attention ought to be directed to the interrelationship between U.S. military measures and the political, economic, energy and alliance policies which are integral parts of a comprehensive security strategy. While military scenarios must be prepared to meet all threats, longer term political planning is also needed to defuse U.S.-Soviet confrontation in the region.

II

Overt Soviet seizure of the Gulf oil fields would-and should-trigger an American military response. Any such Soviet action must be deterred by the clear prospect of a U.S. response not only on the ground but if necessary through retaliation outside the immediate Gulf region that could draw on the full range of military options, not excluding the use of nuclear weapons. A direct Soviet attack on Pakistan could invoke the 1959 bilateral agreement, which provides for possible use of U.S. military force to protect Pakistan against communist-inspired aggression.

But these contingencies are near the bottom of the threat list. The most likely challenges to Western interests will come from wars between regional states, transborder incursions, civil disturbances, oil embargoes or production cuts, or the overthrow of existing regimes. Whether the Soviet Union abets or exploits these developments depends upon how it assesses its interests, including its ability to project political, military and subversive power beyond its borders-weighed against the Kremlin's concerns about regional and Western retaliation, and the security of its Muslim Central Asian Republics.

Although a direct Soviet attack on the Gulf is improbable, we must continue to strengthen American global military capabilities and the U.S. naval presence in the Indian Ocean. A substantial naval force is required as long as the Soviet Union remains in Afghanistan, Ethiopia and South Yemen, and Soviet ships operate in adjacent waters. A naval presence provides deterrence against Soviet adventurism, and military and psychological reassurance to Saudi Arabia and other regional states. It also signals American determination, as demonstrated at the outset of the Iraq-Iran war when the two carrier battle groups off the Gulf of Oman reminded both belligerents that the United States along with others would act to ensure free passage through the Strait of Hormuz. Diego Garcia, although 2,200 miles from Hormuz, is an indispensable naval support base and a staging area for P-3 reconnaissance aircraft and, later, for B-52 bombers.

It is also important to create a mobile force which, in extremis, can be quickly deployed if truly vital U.S. interests are jeopardized. But as some military analysts and members of Congress have suggested, a small, highly mobile force, based at sea and supplied by sea, might be superior to the ungainly Rapid Deployment Force-which could become "a standing invitation to a military disaster."1 Aside from its military deficiencies, the RDF is encumbered with political liabilities because of the interventionist rhetoric which has flowed out of Washington since Henry Kissinger's we'll-seize-the-oil-if-we-need-it interview in Business Week in 1975. Most Gulf states view the RDF as a threat to their oil resources, rather than as a protector of their national integrity. Moreover, the inevitable escalation in demands for logistical support for the projected 225,000-member RDF carries the risk of imposing intolerable political strains on the four states-Egypt, Kenya, Oman and Somalia-which have granted the United States military facilities.

A naval presence and small mobile force are key instruments of U.S. policy. But the severe limitations on the use of military power to ensure the flow of Gulf oil must be faced realistically. The task of protecting the oil fields from attack by regular armed forces or by terrorists is vastly complicated by the expanse of the major fields, the exposed character of the wells, pipelines and loading facilities, and the fact that about two-thirds of the oil is exported through only three ports, controlled by eight pump stations that can be easily destroyed. Even conservative states such as Saudi Arabia have declared that they will blow up the oil fields rather than allow them to fall into foreign hands.

III

The inherent limitations on the use of force in the Gulf do not negate the value of American military power as a deterrent against developments inimical to U.S. interests. They do require a subtle orchestration of U.S. military and political-diplomatic policies. And, as the Carter Administration learned the hard way, and the Reagan Administration is beginning to learn, a successful political-military strategy requires a more sensitive understanding of the new regional realities.

When Secretary of State Cyrus Vance traveled to Saudi Arabia after Camp David, when Defense Secretary Harold Brown visited the Saudis after the Iranian Revolution, and when National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski flew to Pakistan after the Afghanistan invasion-each was rebuffed in his efforts, respectively, to persuade the Saudis to endorse the Camp David Accords, to induce the Saudis into closer security ties, and to encourage the Pakistanis to accept U.S. arms. These rebuffs to senior Carter officials, and the Reagan Administration's early experiences, underscore the far-reaching but imperfectly understood political and psychological currents that have swept the Gulf and Southwest Asia during the past four years. The geopolitical transformation is attributable in varying degrees to the repercussions from Camp David, the Iranian Revolution, and the Afghanistan invasion-reinforced by the rise of oil power and Islamic fundamentalism, and the surge of nationalistic and nonaligned sentiments. Concerned about the Soviet threat, the local states nonetheless do not want to become pawns of the superpowers or overly beholden either to Washington or Moscow. Yet they continue to hold the United States responsible for the ultimate resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Secretary of State Alexander Haig's direct exposure to Gulf realities came in early April when he visited Saudi Arabia as part of a Middle East trip designed to demonstrate that the United States is a "credible, reliable, long-term security partner." Saudi Crown Prince Fahd and his colleagues expressed appreciation for this stronger American resolve, as they voiced their customary concern over the Soviet Union's intentions in the area. But, dispensing with their typically obscurantist diplomatic style, the Saudi leaders also made it clear that the Arab-Israeli conflict was the centerpiece of their concerns. In effect, they rejected the new Administration's thesis that the Arab-Israeli dispute should be handled "in a strategic framework that recognizes and is responsive to the larger threat of Soviet expansion."

Two weeks later, this thesis was dealt another embarrassing public blow. Citing the "Soviet threat" as the primary reason for the decision, the White House on April 21 announced the President's intention to include five Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft with the F-15 enhancement equipment already promised Saudi Arabia. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin protested bitterly, arguing that the AWACS were a direct threat to the security of Israel. The next day, the Saudi Minister of Petroleum, Ahmed Zaki Yamani, told a New York audience that Israel, not the Soviet Union, posed the primary threat to Saudi Arabia. "Israel," Yamani said, "is the opening through which the Russians creep into the Arab world."

In the aftermath of the educative events of April, there is evidence that the Reagan Administration is tempering its earlier "Russians first" rhetoric. Some officials, for example, now suggest that the efforts to counter Soviet expansion and the Middle East peace process are "mutually reinforcing"; the Lebanese crisis over Syrian missiles has highlighted the complex, multifaceted nature of Middle East problems. But senior policymakers in the Administration still need to develop a more sophisticated appreciation of the political environment in the Middle East and Persian Gulf, rather than to push ahead doggedly in an attempt to construct an anti-Soviet security framework. They should also face up realistically to the weak political infrastructure upon which any "strategic entity" to protect the Gulf might be built.

IV

Those who talk glibly about projecting U.S. military power into the Gulf area convey the impression that there are strong and stable local regimes receptive to U.S. security overtures. In fact, the United States lacks diplomatic relations with the only two littoral states with significant military forces-Iran and Iraq, whose armies are still locked in indecisive combat. Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan are of strategic importance, but they are far distant from the Gulf-as are Somalia and Kenya. Thus, in the immediate Gulf area, U.S. on-shore security ties hinge essentially on relations with Saudi Arabia, on the facilities agreement with Oman, and arrangements with Bahrain for calls by the small naval Middle East Force.

Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil reservoir, is an extraordinarily weak state. With a native-born population of only about five million, and a small 35,000-man army which has never been tested, the Kingdom must rely on outside manpower to run its economy and on outside help for its security. Concerned about the Soviet threat, and about dangers from Iran and South Yemen, the Saudis view the United States as their ultimate protector. But they are schizophrenic. The dominant faction within the House of Saud wants to retain a "special relationship" with Washington despite post-Camp David discords. Yet the Kingdom's leaders fear the effect of highly visible U.S. ties on their role in the Muslim world, on the one million Palestinians who inhabit the Gulf, and on leftist political groups inside and outside the region. Moreover, with still recent memories of the November 1979 Grand Mosque occupation, Saudi leaders also worry about internal dissidence from those who believe the regime is sacrificing Wahabi orthodoxy for forced-draft Western modernization.

U.S. policies must take careful account of this Saudi ambivalence. Washington needs to adopt a lower public profile in its relations with the Kingdom, to limit the number of high-level officials visiting Riyadh, and to desist from pressing the Saudis excessively on issues clearly inconsistent with their perceived interests-such as on military access and bases, oil production and pricing, and sensitive Arab-Israeli questions. We also need to try to monitor the size of the American community in this most Muslim of Muslim countries, where there are now about 45,000 Americans, including 1,000 military advisory and support personnel. This is a small number when compared with more than a million Yemenis and other foreigners but, relative to the size of the Saudi population, it is about seven times as large as the American presence in Iran during the heyday of the Shah.

With the Iranian example also in mind, we ought to keep a closer eye on the level and type of U.S. arms supplied to Saudi Arabia-a country with much less absorptive capacity than the Shah's Iran. Assuming delivery of the equipment now proposed, Washington will have provided since 1975 over $10 billion in military hardware to the small Saudi military establishment, which is also buying military equipment from the British, French and Austrians and wants to buy from the West Germans. The AWACS imbroglio highlights the problems inherent in a symbiotic relationship between U.S. professional military personnel and their counterparts in an oil-rich country with almost unlimited financial resources. The U.S. Air Force apparently encouraged the Saudi military leadership to purchase the highly sophisticated airborne radar system despite the Saudis' lack of technical competence to operate it. Senior U.S. civilian officials saw the requirement for long-term U.S. technical support for the AWACS as a way of expanding and extending American military involvement in Saudi Arabia. But the coordinating mechanisms of the National Security Council failed to weigh the importance of advance consultation with the Congress and the Israelis. The result: a potentially "no-win" situation for the Administration.

If we plan primarily against the Soviet threat, when the real threat is internal or regional, our actions may themselves prove destabilizing. By pressing such countries as Saudi Arabia or Oman to accept a large American military involvement, we may unwittingly contribute to our own insecurity. For example, the June 1980 facilities agreement with the Sultanate of Oman is a military asset, at least in the short term. But, on the liability side, Sultan Qaboos bin Said's open association with the United States has already made him more vulnerable to domestic opponents and such enemies as the South Yemenis and Libyans, and the People's Front for the Liberation of Oman. This vulnerability may increase if Washington urges the Omani ruler to expand the American military presence to meet a perceived geostrategic threat from the Soviet Union. If radical local forces overthrow Qaboos, they will be well positioned to seize the strategic Musandam headland, directly adjacent to the Strait of Hormuz chokepoint.

In the case of Pakistan, Reagan Administration officials are negotiating an estimated (but still undefined) $2.5 billion arms and economic assistance package over five years. Pakistan deserves substantially more U.S. support in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan than President Carter's $400-million two-year "peanuts" offer. But any new U.S. relationship needs to take account of President Zia ul-Haq's lack of popular support, Pakistan's nuclear program, and important American interests in India. It should also recognize Zia's domestic and international political concerns.

The Pakistani President is anxious to protect his country's recently acquired nonaligned status and its role in the Islamic world; he does not want excessively to provoke India or the Soviet Union or stir up anti-American domestic opponents. Accordingly, Zia refuses to accept U.S. troops in Pakistan or permit its territory to be used overtly as a conduit for weapons for the Afghan nationalists. Having withdrawn Pakistan from the Central Treaty Organization in 1979, he is unwilling to reestablish security ties with the United States. Therefore, Washington should treat the relationship as essentially a credit arms sales arrangement, while confining the hardware to defensive-type equipment designed primarily to protect Pakistan's frontiers from Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. It would be unwise to press the Pakistanis to enter into formal security arrangements as a quid pro quo for U.S. arms.

Instead of an overly close American identification with Pakistan and the ruling Gulf regimes, we ought to fashion more detached and flexible state-to-state relationships in keeping with local political predilections, and as a hedge against uncertain political futures. A looser posture will make it easier for the United States to weather inevitable regime changes; it will also reduce the temptation to intervene on behalf of incumbent political leaders who are challenged in local power plays where there is no evidence of Soviet manipulation. This somewhat less structured style will not appeal to those with a formalistic approach to foreign affairs. It is a far cry from the days of the Baghdad Pact or CENTO or even the Iran-Saudi Arabia "twin pillar" arrangement. Yet it will be the most practical and durable way to advance American interests in the fluid circumstances of the 1980s.

Similarly, it will be more productive to support local security initiatives than to attempt to shape regionwide strategic arrangements in the face of countervailing political trends. If the current Iraq-Jordan tactical alliance continues, with ties to other Arab Gulf states, there may be a tendency to convert it into a more formal security system after the Gulf war ends. The new Saudi-sponsored Gulf Cooperation Council, consisting of all Arab Gulf states except Iraq, may assume increasing security responsibilities. And talks between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan may result in a substantial increase in Pakistani military personnel in the Kingdom. Those regional initiatives which serve U.S. interests should be tacitly supported and underwritten by appropriate levels of military supply. Instead of fruitlessly trying to create a "strategic entity" stretching from Pakistan to Turkey, the Reagan Administration will achieve greater success by quietly encouraging indigenous security ventures.

V

U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia are integrally linked to developments outside the region. In particular, they are interconnected with U.S. relations with Egypt, Israel and Turkey; with the West European and Japanese allies; with progress toward Middle East peace; and with U.S. energy security policies and those of the 21-nation International Energy Agency.

President Anwar Sadat, who shares most of the Reagan Administration's strategic views, has offered to permit the use of Egyptian territory in time of need for defense of the Gulf. Sadat, however, has refused to allow U.S. troops in the Sinai after that territory is transferred from Israel to Egypt in April 1982-except as part of a multilateral force to monitor the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. He is understandably sensitive to possible charges that he recovered the Sinai from Israel only to turn part of it over to the United States for "bases." Sadat has also resisted signing a formal agreement with the United States for military facilities at Ras Banas on the Red Sea. He believes that his countrymen would consider such an agreement an encroachment on their sovereignty, perhaps comparable in their eyes to the Egyptian-Soviet agreement that Sadat scrapped in 1972 when he expelled the Soviet advisers. Because U.S. ties with both Egypt and Israel are critically important, Washington needs to find a formula which will advance the security interests of the three countries without pushing Sadat toward political self-destruction.

Different sensitivities arise in dealing with Turkey, the strategically located NATO country which shares borders with Iran, Iraq and Syria as well as the Soviet Union. Unlike Sadat, General Kenan Evren and other Turkish leaders are unwilling publicly to offer Turkish territory to facilitate the defense of the Persian Gulf, or even to provide explicit private assurances. They are reluctant to have Turkey be seen as a surrogate for U.S. interests in an area from which Turkey derives more than half of its oil. But Turkey could be a major asset for Gulf security, particularly if trouble arises in northern Iran. Without expecting formal advance commitments, we ought to try to develop a dialogue with Ankara on contingencies in the Gulf region, with the hope that the Turks will provide support in time of crisis.

In the case of our West European and Japanese allies, we need to take greater advantage of their better access to Iran and Iraq, while also encouraging additional allied economic and military assistance to the neighboring countries-such as Turkey and Pakistan. Any improvement in U.S. relations with the Khomeini regime will be slow and tedious in the aftermath of the 14-month hostage ordeal. Commercial links with Iran should be gradually reestablished, but it is not in Washington's interest to force the pace of political normalization or depart from the essentially neutral stance it has adopted toward the Iraq-Iran war. Our objective ought to be to work through our allies, particularly the Germans and Japanese, to ensure that this strategically most important Gulf state does not tilt toward the Soviet Union through a sense of isolation from the West. Similarly, although the United States has not had diplomatic relations with Iraq for 14 years, the network of French ties with President Saddam Hussein's regime, as well as American, Italian and Japanese commercial connections, can be used to encourage the Baghdad government to keep its distance from Moscow.

But U.S. cooperation with its allies, and particularly with the regional states, can be jeopardized unless Washington is prepared to address the Arab-Israeli problem. The Reagan Administration's early decision to shelve the Palestinian autonomy talks made sense if it was a tactic to buy time until after the Israeli election. A decision to downgrade the peace process for the longer term is fraught with danger-as attested by the crisis over the Syrian missiles in Lebanon.

Peace between Israel and the Arab states will not be a panacea, ensuring an uninterrupted flow of oil and replacing conflict with tranquillity. The Iranian Revolution and the Iraq-Iran war had nothing to do with the Arab-Israeli dispute; permanent regional stability will remain a chimerical hope. Nonetheless, the Arab-Israeli dispute imposes an enormous burden on U.S. policies.

Specifically, failure of the United States to reengage in the peace process will increasingly strain U.S.-allied relations, limit U.S. political and military access in the Gulf region, enhance the chances of use of the "oil weapon," and play into Moscow's hands. Gulf leaders believe that the Arab-Israeli dispute is a primary source of Soviet influence in the region and is a major contributor to radical political currents throughout the Middle East. By early fall, after the new Israeli government has settled in, Reagan officials must actively resume the quest for a settlement which fully protects the security and integrity of Israel; satisfies the legitimate aspirations of Palestinians; and, ultimately, accommodates Jewish and Muslim interests in Jerusalem.

It is also important to continue to give priority to energy security policies. Although U.S. oil imports have declined 20 percent over the past 18 months, it is essential, indeed vital, to avoid the complacency of the 1975-78 period. Europe and Japan remain extraordinarily vulnerable to Gulf oil disruptions, and their impact not only on the economies of key nations but on allied solidarity has been all too vividly demonstrated both in 1973-74 and 1978-79.

The new Administration's complete decontrol of gasoline and crude oil prices was a positive step, but Reagan Administration officials have retrogressed by dismantling many of the Carter conservation programs-and they have failed to press the Congress for funds to fill the Strategic Petroleum Reserve more rapidly. No one has the answer to what would happen if Saudi Arabia, through a change of regime or sharp policy shift, were suddenly to cut its oil production in half. It does not make sense to spend up to $75 billion over the next decade on Persian Gulf defense, and to exhort our allies to do more, unless we concurrently demonstrate a strong national will to reduce dependency on Gulf oil and to reduce the alliance's vulnerability to supply cutoffs.

VI

Oil may eventually prove to be the catalyst for discussions with the Soviet Union on the Gulf region, but prospects for dialogue are remote in the short term. The Reagan Administration's priorities are to enhance American military strength and to try to develop a consensus with the regional states and U.S. allies. On their part, the Soviets-despite recurrent propaganda gestures-have not shown a serious interest in discussions since they invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. They have limited themselves to unrealistic political proposals for Afghanistan and equally unrealistic proposals for the Persian Gulf area.

Afghan Prime Minister Babrak Karmal's initiative of May 14, 1980 remains the centerpiece of the Moscow-Kabul diplomacy. In effect, it rules out the withdrawal of Soviet troops until after the cessation of the insurgent uprising and after international recognition of Babrak Karmal's puppet regime. Leonid Brezhnev's doctrine of "peace and security," put forward by the Soviet President in New Delhi last December, bypassed Afghanistan entirely in calling for the removal of foreign military bases from the Persian Gulf and "adjacent islands." Brezhnev said in essence that the Soviets would remain in Afghanistan, but the United States should get out of the Gulf and Diego Garcia. At the 26th Soviet Communist Party Congress in February, he acknowledged that Afghanistan's "international aspects" might be discussed in conjunction with Gulf security, but he rejected any consideration of "internal Afghan affairs."

Although early U.S.-Soviet discussions are unlikely, policy planners in Washington should look ahead to possible future exchanges with Moscow, including practicable international security arrangements. The Soviet Union already has substantial interests in the region, based upon its superpower status, geographic proximity and security concerns. These interests may increase if the U.S.S.R., although now the world's largest oil producer and second largest exporter, faces declining oil production levels by the middle of the decade. Revised CIA estimates now indicate that the U.S.S.R. itself will not become a net oil importer by 1985; nonetheless, the Kremlin's imperative need to supply Eastern Europe might cause it to develop an increasing involvement in Persian Gulf affairs. Moscow might also seek to drive a wedge between Western Europe and the United States by reviving an earlier Soviet proposal for an all-European energy conference to include the question of access to Gulf oil.

In these circumstances, planners in the Administration might want to explore whether American interests would be served in the future through international agreements involving the United States and the Soviet Union, the regional oil-producing states, and major oil-consuming countries, notably Western Europe and Japan. Consisting of both bilateral and multilateral agreements, such arrangements might include guarantees of free passage, equal access to Persian Gulf oil for all nations, and possibly international endorsement of regional nonalignment. If such proposals demonstrated positive U.S. advantages, they could be put forward on a more formal basis after appropriate soundings among the allies and within the region. They would be linked to Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan but would not envisage any reduction of U.S. naval forces in the Indian Ocean.

Some might contend that such proposals would "invite" the Soviets into the Gulf and legitimize their presence there through unenforceable international agreements. This argument should be examined on its merits. We are deluding ourselves, however, if we assume that the Soviets are now excluded from the Gulf and lack the capability to expand their activities there. The U.S.S.R. has diplomatic relations with Iran, Iraq and Kuwait, as well as treaties with Iraq and Syria, and one should not rule out the possible resumption of formal diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia. In the recent past, there have been substantial Soviet arms sales and other trade activities with Iran and Iraq and, on a lesser scale, with Kuwait. Soviet naval ships have visited Umm Qasr in Iraq and Soviet hydrographic vessels have called at Kuwait, whose foreign minister visited Moscow in April 1981. Internationally guaranteed arrangements are worth exploring if they can help counteract the Soviet Union's geopolitical and military advantages, while protecting the interests of the United States, the allies, and the regional states.

VII

Some of the foregoing suggestions may have little initial appeal to an Administration that came to power with a Soviet-centered view of the world and the conviction that more American military power would set things aright. But pragmatism and the realities of the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia should prove better guides to future policies than campaign rhetoric and early public pronouncements, or traditional theorems of international politics.

When the Shah of Iran was overthrown, conventional wisdom held that a dangerous "power vacuum" had been created in the Gulf which the Soviet Union would quickly fill unless the United States created a military "balance of power" in the region. Similar themes are still being echoed by writers who contend that the power vacuum will eventually be filled by one or the other superpower or by both. Members of this school believe that the imbalance of military power in favor of the Soviet Union can be overcome only by stationing enough American troops in the area to offset the Soviet advantage. Otherwise, they warn apocalyptically, the situation is "hopeless." It is only a matter of time before the Soviets seize control of the Gulf as an essential step toward their objective of global predominance.2

Such mechanistic and simplistic concepts of "power vacuum" and "balance of power" have only limited relevance today as applied to the United States and the Soviet Union in the Persian Gulf. The Iraq-Iran war has not yet determined what new regional balance of power will prevail, but one thing is clear: the Soviets are as much on the sidelines as the Americans and neither is likely to fill the power vacuum or "pick up the pieces" after the war. The strategic power vacuum thesis tends to overlook the 60 million people living in the eight Gulf states, whose armed forces exceed half-a-million men, or more than double that number if the population and force levels of neighboring Pakistan are included. Motivated by a strong sense of Islamic and national identity, manifested most heroically today in Afghanistan, these peoples are determined to avoid domination by either superpower. This is not to say that certain countries, notably Saudi Arabia, do not look to the United States for their ultimate security. But they prefer that support "over the horizon," fearing that a closer military embrace will increase their political vulnerability.

We tend seriously to downgrade our potential strength in the Persian Gulf, and substantially inflate that of our opponents, when we measure our security solely in terms of the comparative military forces in the region and our relative power projection capabilities. In geographic and military terms, the Soviet Union's local advantages are overwhelming. Moscow's 24 divisions in the Transcaucasus region cannot be offset by U.S. ground forces even in the unlikely event that some of the countries from Egypt to Pakistan allow Gulf-earmarked troops on their territories.

Despite these handicaps, the United States' position is by no means "hopeless" in a region where Marxist-Leninist doctrines have little appeal. The U.S. naval presence in the Indian Ocean is a valuable element in the American security posture, supplemented by British and French naval units and the French military contingent in Djibouti. These forces provide political and military reassurances to the countries in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia, and are flexible deterrents to Soviet adventures. But the ultimate military balance will not be determined exclusively in regional terms. It depends upon our overall conventional and nuclear military power, the fundamental strength of the American economy, and the alliance's collective ability to maximize its political and military assets in conjunction with those of the regional states.

As we build up our global military strength, if we can reduce our reliance on Persian Gulf oil, restore NATO's confidence in American leadership, and develop subtle regional bilateral relationships, we will be able to strengthen our security in Southwest Asia despite our local military inferiority. Instead of attempting to obtrude external security arrangements, we need to develop more nuanced ways to capitalize on the local forces of independence and national assertiveness-recognizing that our success will be constrained as long as the Arab-Israeli issue remains unresolved. And because the Soviet Union will continue to have substantial interests in the Gulf area, which may grow with its oil needs, we ought to examine privately the possibility of developing longer term international arrangements to meet the interests of the two superpowers, the regional states and our allies.

A short- and long-term strategy along these lines should have more chance of success than the Reagan Administration's one-dimensional military approach. Remembering the Soviet Union's experiences in Egypt, Somalia and Sudan, and the United States' experience in Iran, we should not try to engulf the Gulf with troops or advisers, bases or facilities, or excessive military hardware. A "laid-back" rather than a forward military posture will better serve the interests of the United States.

1 Jeffrey Record, The Rapid Deployment Force and U.S. Military Intervention in the Persian Gulf, Cambridge, Ma. and Washington D.C.: Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, Inc., February 1981, p. 2.

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  • Christopher van Hollen is a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, specializing in U.S. policy toward the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia. He was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs from 1969 to 1972 and Ambassador to Sri Lanka from 1972 to 1976.
  • More By Christopher van Hollen