Over at Tapped, Matt Yglesias argues that we don’t need permanent military bases in the Middle East, and we ought to go back to the days of “offshore balancing,” as Stephen Walt or Robert Pape have suggested, and let that be that. I pretty much agree, but it’s worth exploring this a little more, starting with Matt’s recap of the Gulf War:
For a long time, up until the Persian Gulf War, the United States avoided basing troops on the Arabian peninsula, preferring to count on relationships with regional allies and our ability to move forces into the area if necessary to safeguard our interests. That worked very well, and the Gulf War showed that we were perfectly capable of moving a lot of troops to the Gulf when we had a good reason to do so.
I don’t think that’s quite right. Many military experts seem to think that, had Saddam Hussein wanted to, he could have stormed into Saudi Arabia immediately after invading Kuwait and seized the prized Hama superfields long before the United States started pouring troops into the peninsula at King Fahd’s request. (All those dollars spent arming Saudi Arabia turned out to be entirely useless.) Without bases, we were caught a bit flat-footed. Of course, even if the Iraqis had invaded, the U.S. might have just driven them out of Saudi Arabia as they did from Kuwait, but what if Saddam’s army, say, set those fields on fire? Bad news. Meanwhile, in retrospect sure, the United States slapped the Iraqi Army up and down the Tigris, causing death and destruction for them and very little for itself, but people forget that the coalition could have fared far, far worse. The Iraqis, for instance, might have decided to wage urban warfare in Kuwait, rather than foolishly going up against American tanks in the wide open desert, and American casualties would almost surely have been a good deal higher than they otherwise were.
So the lesson the first Bush administration drew from the Gulf War, it seems, was that they got lucky, dodged a serious bullet, and the United States needed permanent bases to defend the Saudi oil fields. It may have proved untenable, especially once it started angering bin Laden and his crew, but the move at least had a rationale behind it. Whether the U.S. actually did need those bases, however, seems up for debate. Some historians believe that the Bush administration could have instead just deterred Iraq from invading Kuwait in the first place, and that mixed signals from the White House led Saddam to believe that his little power grab would go unchallenged. (James Mann’s Rise of the Vulcans drives this point home—even Colin Powell, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, didn’t believe the U.S. would actually get itself involved in a Middle East conflict. Saddam probably obviously gambled on something similar.) That seems plausible to me. Deterrence probably works, even from afar.
Looking at Iraq today, I have a hard time figuring out what we need the bases for. Certainly they make it much easier for the U.S. to mount a response to some threat—say, from Iran—on Middle Eastern oil fields. Employing the Navy alone just isn’t quite the same (again, see the first Gulf War), the bases in Turkey and Afghanistan could be too far away, while a base in, say, Bahrain doesn’t have good land access. It’s difficult to move thousands of troops and material large distances, and the closer the bases physically are to 25 percent of the world’s oil supply, the better the U.S. can maintain control over the region. (Look at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia—fantastic for projecting power and whatnot.)
But even taking all of those arguments seriously, trying to dominate the entire region still seems counterproductive on balance, and the potential for backlash overwhelming. Robert Pape’s now-famous theory of suicide bombing—that it’s motivated entirely by occupation—doesn’t seem all that applicable to modern Islamic terrorism, and way too-heavily skewed by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, but his sense that enduring bases in the Middle East would cause a great deal of resentment seems quite obviously right. When it comes down to it, the “rewards” of seizing control of the oil fields in the Middle East (rewards which haven’t really made themselves apparent of late) really aren’t worth the risks. The oil supply is more likely to be disrupted, I think, by jihadists angered by the U.S. presence than it is by another state-led invasion. So maybe we should just face the fact that it’s time to play nice with Iran rather than prepare for the inevitable Gulf War III.