Militarization of the Middle East,
The Persian Gulf

excerpted from the book


U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism

by Stephen Zunes

Common Courage Press, 2003, paper

The Militarization of the Middle East

The principal targets of American antipathy in recent years have been Middle Eastern: Libya's Muammar Qaddafi and Iran's Ruhollah Khomeini in the 1980s and Iraq's Saddam Hussein and the international terrorist Osama bin Laden subsequently. In many respects they have been ideal enemies: they are presented as the personification of evil, the prototype of the irrational Third World megalomaniac needing to be vanquished by the civilized forces of world order. Typical of this perspective was the speech that President George W. Bush gave before the United Nations General Assembly two months after the September 11 terrorist attacks. He declared that the U.S.-led war against terrorism was nothing less than a choice between "the dignity of life over a culture of death," of "lawful change and civil disagreement over coercion, subversion and chaos," and he predicted ultimate success with "courage defeating cruelty and light overcoming darkness."

This world view has been put forward by successive generations of American intellectuals who have built upon the theme of seventeenth century Puritan leader John Winthrop that the United States is the "city on the hill," bringing enlightenment, civilization and the rule of law to the world, serving as a beacon of progress. This self-perception closely parallels themes from the old Westerns of the man in the white hat riding into town to vanquish the bad guys, using violence in an appropriate manner in order to bring stability, order and justice.

During the Cold War, the United States' targets were often popular national liberation struggles with which at least some progressive segments of the American population could express qualified support. These new enemies of the post-Cold War era, by contrast, have tended to be tyrants and thugs, despised by the left as much as by the right. In this context, it is easy for many Americans to fall into a smug self-righteousness, often bordering on racism, towards these dark-skinned foes. When the enemy is undeniably a terrorist or a despot, the American self-perception is not that of imperialists but as liberators of oppressed peoples. The killing of thousands of innocent civilians and unwilling conscripts in the process of battling such foes is neatly camouflaged by talk of "smart bombs" and valiant efforts to avoid such "collateral damage."

The demonization of these Middle Eastern figures has been utilized in large part to deflect attention away from the enormous harm done to a country's population resulting from war and economic sanctions. The suffering of 22 million Iraqis from the destruction of the country's civilian infrastructure during the Gulf War and the subsequent sanctions is given far less attention by U.S. policy makers or the news media than the oppressive and violent actions of a vicious dictator. The deaths of thousands of Afghan civilians from American bombs and the resulting refugee flow in the onset of winter was given far less attention than the hunt for a single Saudi exile hiding in the mountains. The nefarious nature of such leaders makes them tempting targets for self-righteous anger, thereby making it easy to ignore the fact that wars and sanctions allegedly targeted against these individuals are in fact directed against entire nations.

Pursuing such policies requires the support or acquiescence of the American public, who has historically been skeptical of foreign military entanglements and has expressed a strong preference for peace. For countless years, militarists have justified going to war and spending their countries' resources on armaments in the name of peace. World War I was defended as "the war to end all wars." The Vietnam War was rationalized as a means to bring the country "a generation of peace." The MX missile, a dangerous first-strike weapon now banned by international treaty, was labeled "the Peacekeeper." The Reagan Administration's massive nuclear arms buildup was justified as providing "peace through strength." Today, the U.S. government continues to send billions of dollars worth of military aid every year to the Middle East-already the most heavily militarized region in the world-"in support of regional stability and a comprehensive peace between Israel and its neighbors." These rationalizations are not that far off from the maxim in George Orwell's famous novel, 1984, that "war is peace."

Such militarization in the name of defending freedom ignores a crucial historic fact: In recent decades, the vast majority of dictatorial regimes that have been overthrown came not as a result of foreign military intervention or armed revolution, but from massive nonviolent resistance by ordinary citizens demanding their freedom. Every society requires the obedience or acquiescence of its citizens to function. If that is systematically withdrawn and challenged through protests and the establishment of parallel institutions, the regimes will either be forced into significant reforms or they will fall. This is how Communism fell in Eastern Europe and how dictatorships were toppled in such diverse countries as the Philippines, Bolivia, Malawi, and Serbia. Virtually all of these democratic revolutions have resulted in demilitarization and a decline in regional tensions. The Islamic world has seen a disproportionate number of successful unarmed insurrections in recent decades, including Bangladesh, Indonesia and Mali. Despite the return of authoritarian rule, massive nonviolent resistance also toppled such dictatorships as the Shah of Iran (1979), the Nimieri regime in Sudan (1985), and Zia al-Huq's regime in Pakistan ( 1988.) As far back as the 1920s, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan led the tribesmen of colonial India's Northwest Frontier in a nonviolent resistance campaign against British colonialism through a group called Khudai Khidmatgar, or "Servants of God." Their successes led Mahatma Gandhi to recognize them as his most effective and disciplined "nonviolent soldiers." Khan and his followers were Pushtuns, who are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan...

Not only are Americans quick to believe violent stereotypes of Muslims and others in the Third World, there is also a propensity to ignore the many ways the United States has made the nonviolent resolution of conflicts more difficult. What many Americans seem to forget, but most people in the Middle East and elsewhere know all too well, is this: the United States and its allies in the "war on terrorism" manufacture and sell the vast majority of the world's weapons and possess virtually all of the world's weapons of mass destruction. Either directly or through allied regimes to which they provide weaponry and financial support, these "civilized" Western powers are responsible for most of the major human rights violations and war crimes of recent decades. As a result, the idea that America's anti-terrorism campaign is a simple struggle between good and evil is very difficult for many Muslims and others in the Third World to appreciate.

The significance of U.S. arms transfers to the region becomes apparent in looking at the figures: For Fiscal Year 2003, 72% of U.S. foreign aid allotted to the Middle East was military as opposed to just 28% for economic development. The $3.8 billion in military aid is well over 90% of what the United States gives the entire world. Even more startling is that, on top of this aid, there is the far larger sum of arms purchases, totaling $6.1 billion in 2001, over half of the world's total. The United States gave or sold more arms to the Middle East than all other arms exporters combined, totaling more than $90 billion since the Gulf War. Weapons and their delivery systems are America's number one export to the Middle East, totaling nearly one-third of all exports to the region.

The scenarios of what is needed to maintain U.S. security interests for the current administration and its two predecessors were developed by Pentagon planners who had a vested interest in maintaining a large military establishment despite the end of the Cold War. According to strategic analyst Michael Klare, in his review of the military budget in the mid-l990s,

To justify this vast expense, the Clinton Administration must be able to demonstrate that the United States is indeed threatened by potent foreign enemies. Hence the periodic alarms in Washington over the military power and aggressive designs of Iraq, Iran, Libya and North Korea. Only when Congress and the American people can be shown an authentic-and sufficiently menacing-threat on the horizon will they be prepared to subsidize indefinitely a cold-war-level military establishment.

It is to control these "rogue states" of the Middle East, along with North Korea, that the United States justifies a military budget of close to $400 billion. This figure is higher, even adjusted for inflation, than the level of military spending during most of the Cold War, including the final military budgets of such Republican presidents as Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. This is the basis of why, when faced with unprecedented needs for domestic spending, Americans are warned of an imminent threat from an "axis of evil" emanating from what in reality are isolated Third World countries struggling to meet the most basic needs of their own populations.

There is a tendency to define security in terms of a given country's strengths and interests. With the United States as the world's dominant political, economic and military power, it is not surprising that security has been defined in ways that promote America's perceived interests. This comes in spite of evidence that such an assessment may be at odds with the interests of the countries of the region itself, including the United States' ostensible allies. There is also a broader general phenomenon-certainly not unique to the United States-to define security principally in terms of military hardware. From the American perspective, if it is U.S. military hardware, all the better. While the economic imperatives promoting the arms trade are probably not the primary motivator of U.S. policy in the Middle East, the political and economic power of American arms exporters c, does make it difficult to challenge these assumptions. Indeed, it is rather striking how arms transfers to the Middle East have taken place without any consistent strategy or basic mission priorities and with little regard for coalition warfare.

Yet, the current situation may be untenable. For example, regarding the Persian Gulf, the stronger the U.S. military presence and the stronger the American strategic ties are with the six Arab monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the more likely Iran and Iraq will feel threatened. Hard-line elements in Iraq and Iran will point to these ties to depict GCC countries as puppets of American imperialism. Ongoing close strategic cooperation between the United States and the GCC provokes both a genuine fear and a convenient excuse by Iran and Iraq to continue their own quests for further militarization and discourages these potentially hostile regimes from pursuing mutual security agreements and a de-escalation of tensions.

The blame does not rest exclusively with the United States. Great Britain and France, among others, are very much involved in promoting the regional arms race through major arms sales to Arab states, particularly those of the GCC. More importantly, there are elites within these countries who support such large-scale arms transfers for their own reasons, including career-enhancement, ideological precepts and/or personal financial gain. A U.S. policy that colludes with and encourages such tendencies does not enhance the genuine security interests of any nation. Meanwhile, there are also political leaders within such countries as Iraq, Iran, Syria and Libya who are quite willing to draw upon their regimes' revolutionary heritage to promote militarism, nationalism and hostility to foreign powers in response to a perceived American military threat.

The more weapons and the more sophisticated weaponry the United States has sent to the region, the more threatened the United States and its interests have become. History has shown, most clearly in the case of the Shah's Iran, that unrestricted military and diplomatic support of unpopular and corrupt governments creates a situation where the opposition links the abuses of the regime with its chief foreign supporter, such as the United States. Such resentment is likely to remain if and when such opposition groups come to power. These hostile successor regimes would also find themselves in possession of vast quantities of American arms sent to the previous allied government that could eventually be used against American soldiers or civilians. Such a scenario may now be unfolding in Saudi Arabia, in the other Gulf monarchies, in Tunisia, in Egypt and in Morocco, where unconditional U.S. support for autocratic rulers is creating enormous resentment amidst increasingly radicalized opposition forces. For example, a secret CIA memo circulated at the National Security Council and State Department that was leaked to the press in the spring of 2002 noted how the "culture of royal excess" in Saudi Arabia "has ruled over the kingdom with documented human rights abuses.... Democracy has never been part of the equation." The study also reportedly describes the House of Saud as an "anachronism" that is "inherently fragile" and that there were "serious concerns about long-term stability."

Al-Qaeda believes that the Saudi regime is corrupt and evil in large part because the royal family has squandered its wealth for personal consumption and exotic weaponry while most Arabs suffer in poverty. They are further angered by the regime's tendency to persecute those who advocate for more ethical priorities. They are angry with the United States, therefore, for propping up such a regime. The U.S.-Saudi alliance, in Al-Qaeda's view, further illustrates the depravity of the Saudi rulers in their decision to allow American troops on what they see as sacred Saudi soil in order to keep the regime in power. Such a regime is anti-lslamic, from their perspective, and therefore needs to be overthrown.

Unfortunately for these Islamic radicals, the United States has dedicated itself for more than a half century to perpetuate the Saud family's hold on power. In 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with King Abel-Aziz ibn Saud, the founder of the modern Arabian kingdom that now bears his family's name, and forged the alliance that remains to this day: in return for open access to Saudi oil, the United States would protect the royal family from its enemies, both external and internal. So, the first challenge, in the eyes of Al-Qaeda, is to oust the United States from the region since it is the U.S. military that is keeping the corrupt Saudi regime in power. Given that AI-Qaeda is no match for the United States militarily, they therefore rationalize for the use of terrorism.

As a result, even putting aside moral arguments against backing such regimes as Saudi Arabia, there are serious questions as to whether the large-scale arms transfers and ongoing U.S. military presence in the Gulf really enhances American security interests. Rather than protecting the United States from its enemies, these policies appear to be creating enemies.

The Persian Gulf

The triumph by U.S. forces in the 1991 Gulf War was heralded initially as a major advance for American security interests in the Middle East. Yet there is reason to believe that the conduct of the United States before, during and subsequent to the war has contributed greatly to the rise of antiAmericanism in the region, and particularly to the establishment and growth of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network. Indeed, it has been the ongoing U.S. military presence in the Gulf that has been cited as being the primary motivation for Osama bin Laden's dramatic shift from an ally of the United States during the anti-Communist war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan to its most notorious adversary.

In the years since the Gulf War, the United States has thrown immense military, diplomatic, and economic weight behind the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf. Though they make up less than ten percent of the Arab world's total population, these governments control most of its wealth and some of the most strategically important territory on the globe. Prior to the war, it was difficult for the United States to engage in military exercises. Even arranging a port call usually required asking permission months in advance. No more. Throughout the region, while American military personnel often wear civilian clothes so not to offend the local population, they are difficult to miss in the hotels, marketplaces, and restaurants of the Gulf states. When large numbers of U.S. forces were first dispatched to the Gulf in August 1990, they were supposed to be in the area temporarily, pending the ouster of Iraqi occupation forces from Kuwait. Contrary to this expectation, however, the United States' military presence is now effectively permanent. It is based upon a desire to fill in a perceived strategic vacuum, serve as a staging ground for combat training and strengthen military ties with allied Arab states. Underlying this is an assumption that there is a real threat posed by Iraq and Iran, the two largest countries in the region. As a result, then, the United States asserts that it has an obligation to meet the security needs of the six allied Arab monarchies that comprise the Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC.

In a long-sought triumph for U.S. policy makers seeking to divide the oil-rich monarchies and their allies from the potentially radical nationalists of the poorer Arab countries, the GCC now plays an unprecedented role in Middle East security and diplomacy, backed by the United States. The GCC's power now surpasses the League of Arab States as the leading inter-Arab organization, effectively placing any pretense of pan-Arabism, the long-sought dream of Arab unity-or at least a willingness to share the wealth-to rest. While defenders of U.S. policy see this as a realistic and pragmatic result from the end of the Cold War and the resulting single superpower, many of its critics-particularly from the Middle East-see it as a return to the divide and-rule tactics of Western imperialism.

The United States maintains between 20,000 to 25,000 American troops in the Gulf, along with highly sophisticated and destructive weapons and delivery systems. This not only has raised the ire of America's primary adversaries-Iraq and Iran-but also large portions of the population within the GCC states the United States is ostensibly trying to protect. Mecca and Medina-the two holiest cities in Islam-are located in Saudi Arabia and the presence of over 5000 troops on Saudi soil from a non-Muslim country that periodically has waged war (either directly or through surrogates) against Muslim peoples is seen by many Muslims as offensive.

The Carter Doctrine was announced in 1980. The United States would no longer rely on potentially unstable allies and their armed forces, announced President Carter, but would now intervene directly through the Rapid Deployment Force, later integrated into the Central Command. An agreement was reached with the Saudi government whereby, in exchange for the sale of an integrated package of highly sophisticated weaponry, the Saudis would build and pay for an elaborate system of command, naval and air facilities large enough to sustain U.S. forces in intensive regional combat. For example, the controversial 1981 sale of the sophisticated AWACS airborne radar system to Saudi Arabia was to be a linchpin of an elaborate communications system comparable to that of NATO. According to a Washington Post report at that time (then denied by the Pentagon), this was to be part of a grand defense strategy for the Middle Eastern oil fields that included an ambitious plan to build bases in Saudi Arabia equipped and waiting for American forces to use.

In the event of war, American forces would be deployed so quickly and with such overwhelming force that the casualty ratio would be highly favorable and the length of the fighting would be short. The result would be that disruptive anti-war protests from the American public would be minimal. This was of particular concern since Congress had recently passed the War Powers Act, whereby the legislative branch could effectively veto a president's decision to send American troops into combat after sixty days. Though the exact scenario in which U.S. forces would be deployed could not have been predicted at the time, the Carter Doctrine made possible the initial American military and political successes in the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq.

During the Iran-lraq War between 1980 and 1988, the United States armed one side and then the other as a means of insuring that neither of the two countries could become dominant in the region. When the Clinton Administration came to office in 1993, the policy was shifted to that of "dual containment," seeking to isolate both countries, which the United States saw as potentially dangerous and destabilizing forces in this strategically-important region, labeling them both as "rogue states."

As defined by U.S. national security managers, rogue states are countries that possess substantial military capability, seek the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction and violate what are seen as international "norms." President Clinton's first National Security Advisor Anthony Lake put the matter clearly: "Our policy must face the reality of recalcitrant and outlaw states that not only choose to remain outside the family [of nations] but also assault its basic values...[and] exhibit a chronic inability to engage constructively with the outside world...." Lake argued further that just as the United States took the lead in "containing" the Soviet Union, it must now also bear the "special responsibility" to "neutralize" and "contain" these "outlaw states." In addition to Iraq and Iran, Libya and Sudan were also widely considered as rogue states, with Syria sometimes included on the list by certain foreign policy hawks. (The only countries outside the region given such a label were communist North Korea and Cuba.)

Despite concerns voiced by the U.S. government regarding Iran and Iraq's human rights records and violations of international norms, neither country is unique in the region in such transgressions. For example, due to its powerful armed forces, nuclear arsenal, conquests of neighboring countries, and violations of international legal standards, a case could be made that Israel-America's chief partner in the region and the world's largest recipient of U.S. economic and military support-would also fit this definition. Yet the label of "rogue state" has a clear function in U.S. foreign policy independent of any objective criteria. Iran and Iraq are the only two countries in the Middle East that combine a large population, adequate water resources and oil wealth to be major independent players that have the ability to challenge American hegemony in the region. These two countries have been labeled rogue states ultimately because of their failure to accept the post-Cold War order that requires accepting the American strategic and economic agenda. Prior to the arrival of the current regimes seen as so antithetical to American interests, these countries engaged in large-scale military procurement with the support or acquiescence of the United States as well as engaging in major human rights abuses without American objections. Once their cooperation with the United States ended and their hostility toward American interests emerged, their long ignored human rights abuses and militarization became a focal point for their vilification.

The United States and Iran: Hostages to Confrontation

Iran-with its strategic location between the Persian Gulf a~ Caspian Sea, 65 million inhabitants, and control of as much as ten percent of the world's oil reserves constitutes an important piece of the strategic prize. The United States has been largely hostile towards Iran since the Islamic Revolution ousted the Shah-a close American ally-in 1979.

From 1981 to 1986, the United States clandestinely shipped arms to Iran's Islamic government. By helping to shore up the Iranian military, these shipments were part of the U.S. policy to promote the mutual destruction of Iran and Iraq in their brutal military standoff following Iraq's 1980 invasion. In addition, part of the secret arms transfers was channeled to anti-Soviet Afghan mujahadin (resistance fighters) on Iran's eastern border. A factor in some of the later arms transfers was hope for Iranian cooperation in facilitating the release of American hostages held by radical Islamic groups in Lebanon. More significantly, it appears that the primary motivation for the clandestine arms sales was to buy access to the Iranian military in hopes of influencing it. The United States-in recognition of the Islamic authorities' strident anti-Communism-also passed on names of suspected Iranian leftists to government authorities, resulting in the execution of hundreds of dissidents.

Despite this limited cooperation, the United States generally sided with Iraq during the eight year war that resulted when Saddam Hussein's forces invaded western Iran barely a year after the triumph of the Iranian revolution. While the United States tolerated widespread attacks by Iraq against Iranian oil tankers during the war, the U.S. Navy intervened in 1987 to protect Kuwaiti oil tankers and other Persian Gulf shipping- which included Iraqi oil and other exports and imports by Saddam Hussein's government-from Iranian retaliation. In what became known as the "Tanker War," these Kuwaiti ships were re-flagged as American ships, thereby giving the United States the excuse to attack Iran should these ships be fired upon. This military intervention in support of Iraq and its allies came despite the fact that Iraq had attacked twice as many ships in the Gulf as had Iran, including the 1987 attack on the U.S. Navy frigate Stark that resulted in the deaths of 38 American sailors.

This expanded U.S. military role led to a series of armed engagements between the United States and Iran along the country's southern coast. Iraq praised the United States for its "positive efforts" in the war, but the policy was far more controversial within the United States. The consensus of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in June 1988 was that "there is mounting evidence that shipping in the gulf is less safe now than before the U.S. navy buildup began. Chances for a mishap are high." Indeed, following one military encounter with Iranian forces in July 1988, an American missile fired from a Navy cruiser shot down an Iranian passenger airliner on a regularly scheduled flight over Iranian airspace. A11 290 people aboard were killed.

An armistice between Iran and Iraq was signed later that year, ending a brutal war that had resulted in over 400,000 deaths. This human toll reached such staggering proportions in part due to the U.S. policy of arming both sides that had helped prolong the war.

Motivations for U.S. Policy in the Gulf

There are a number of domestic political forces in the United States pushing U.S. policy in the direction of hostility towards Iran and Iraq.

There is the time-honored tradition for political leaders to maintain their popularity at home by striking out at a perceived external threat from which the public needs protection. Witness President Clinton ordering a series of air strikes against Iraq just two months prior to his re-election in 1996 and again on the eve of his impeachment in 1998. Given that so very few Americans have much sympathy for these regimes, Iraq and Iran are among the few nation-states left against which a politician can build a reputation for toughness.

Another factor comes from mainstream-to-conservative Zionist groups and their supporters, long an influential lobbying force in Congress, that have used the alleged threats against Israel from these countries as a major argument for continuing large-scale military and economic aid to the Israeli government.

Ultimately, the United States may be motivated by what has motivated other great powers that have tried to exert their influence in the Gulf: the desire to control the world's greatest concentration of oil. About two-thirds of the world's oil wealth exists along the Persian Gulf, with particularly large reserves in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. About one-quarter of U.S. oil imports come from the Persian Gulf region. The imposition of higher fuel efficiency standards and other conservation measures, along with the increased use of renewable energy resources for which technologies are already available, could eliminate U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil in a relatively short period of time. This could be accomplished with far less cost than maintaining the U.S. military presence in the region. For a number of reasons, however, the United States has chosen its current far more dangerous path. It is perhaps significant that the Gulf supplies European states and Japan with an even higher percentage of those countries' energy needs, leading some to speculate that this forces these countries ultimately to rely on the United States for their energy security. Maintaining such a presence in the Gulf, therefore, does not mean controlling the source of much of the world's oil for American consumers as much as it does exercising a degree of control over other industrialized countries as well. As long as tensions remain with the Iraqi and Iranian regimes, the United States can maintain its base and prepositioning rights in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, keeping a major military presence in this strategically and economically important region.

Ultimately, it may simply be about control. Air Force Brigadier General William Looney, head of the U.S. Central Command's Airborne Expeditionary Force, bluntly stated what he saw as positive about American policy towards Iraq: "They know we own their country. We own their airspace...We dictate the way they live and talk. And that's what's great about America right now. It's a good thing, especially when there is a lot of oil out there we need." Keeping Iraq united but weak is seen as advantageous. As one RAND Corporation analyst puts it, "An impasse over [weapons] inspections is actually the best realistic outcome for the United States [The] most dangerous scenario is the possibility that Hussein will cooperate...which could...spell the end of sanctions." In short, if the United States cannot yet overthrow Saddam Hussein, the U.S. wants to keep his country as weak and impoverished as possible.

In the post-Cold War world, the United States has demonstrated little tolerance for any regime that is both antagonistic to U.S. goals and has the potential of establishing a credible deterrent against the United States and its allies by possessing or attempting to possess weapons of mass destruction. The destruction of such regimes-either slowly through sanctions or more quickly through an invasion-serves as a warning that any other state that would even consider challenging American hegemony would suffer serious consequences.


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