Militarization of the Middle
The Persian Gulf
excerpted from the book
U.S. Middle East Policy and
the Roots of Terrorism
by Stephen Zunes
Common Courage Press, 2003,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.