Thirteen years ago, U.S. forces rushed into Saudi Arabia after the United States convinced a skeptical Saudi king that his realm was about to be swallowed up by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. With U.S. military commanders now expecting to operate out of Saddam’s former realm for years to come, the debate over withdrawing the 15,000-odd U.S. troops still in Saudi Arabia, oft-cited as a primary reason for the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has been rekindled in Washington.
The presence of U.S. troops in the kingdom entrusted with stewardship of the Islamic holy places of Mecca and Medina has inflamed the Muslim world for over a decade, along with the widely held perception that U.S. troops only stayed on to ensure the despotic House of Saud would keep the oil flowing at discount prices. Now add the new U.S. occupation of Karbala and Najaf, Iraq, two of the holiest sites in the Shiite Muslim tradition.
“It would be hard to overstate how bad this looks from the perspective of public diplomacy,” a State Department official told MSNBC.com on Monday, requesting anonymity. “With the Israelis already holding Jerusalem, we need to take very seriously the feelings these places stir in the Arab world and their demands for new Mideast peace talks.”
Toward that end, the official said, at least some elements inside the Bush administration are actively pushing for a withdrawal of the estimated 15,000 U.S. forces still based in Saudi Arabia. For a variety of reasons, some Bush administration policy-makers and people close to them are arguing that the reasons for the controversial policy of basing U.S. forces in the kingdom now are moot.
“Our public position is that we’re there to protect the Saudis from Saddam’s aggression,” a senior military official said. “Well, if Saddam’s gone, why are we there now?”
Dan Goure, a senior military analyst at the Lexington Institute who has links to the Bush national security team, said the debate over a Saudi pullout began “about two days after they realized they were going to win the war.”
“There is no longer an overriding reason for us to be deployed in Saudi Arabia,” Goure said. “We no longer have the same threat, and we now have alternative air bases and command centers, and we have the potential at least of deploying forces on a more routine basis in Iraq.”
The question of whether Iraq would become a de facto replacement for the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia arose at Monday’s Pentagon briefing, prompted by a New York Times story Sunday claiming the U.S. military expected to have long-term access to four large bases in Iraq.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld clearly was uncomfortable with the impression that left: that U.S. forces, who remain in Japan, Germany, Italy and South Korea decades after conflicts there ended, were in Iraq to stay, too.
“I think any impression that is left ... that the United States plans some sort of a permanent presence in that country, I think is a signal to the people of that country that’s inaccurate and unfortunate, because we don’t plan to function as an occupier, we don’t plan to prescribe to any new government how we ought to be arranged in their country,” he told reporters. “It’s just not something we do. We’re not arranged that way.”
The idea of pulling out of Saudi Arabia has been floated before, particularly amid the outrage that followed the discovery that a majority of the Sept. 11 hijackers, not to mention Osama bin Laden, originally came from Saudi Arabia.
The two administration officials who spoke to MSNBC.com on Monday both advocate a pullout. According to these officials, support for the pullout is centered among two factions in the Bush administration: diplomats who hope that such a withdrawal would signal to Iraqis and other Muslims that the United States has no long-term territorial interests in the region, and more hawkish officials determined to send the Saudis a strong signal about their perceived laxity in the war on terrorism.
Goure, who also has been critical of the Saudi role, said there is a feeling in the administration that now would be a good time “to have a blunt set of conversations with the Saudis on the broad topic of their support for terrorism and Osama [bin Laden], and this is a conversation that needs to happen in the context of the bases.”
Efforts on Monday to reach officials at the Saudi Embassy in Washington were unsuccessful.
The fact that the U.S.-Saudi relationship weathered the storm of Sept. 11 is testament to the depth of the strategic interests involved.
Even before Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, an agreement between Washington and Riyadh was transforming their relationship. The main idea was preventing a recurrence of the 1973 and 1979 Arab oil embargoes, which wound up hurting both sides severely.
In the early 1980s, during the Reagan administration, the United States granted the Saudis access to increasingly sophisticated weapons systems (F-15s, AWACS radar planes, among others) in exchange for a $1 per barrel discount on every barrel of oil sold to the United States. That discount remains in effect to this day and partly explains why gasoline prices are lower in the United States than in most other nations.
The intervening years have only strengthened that deal. In 1991, following the Gulf War, the U.S. military won access to several Saudi air bases, most notably King Abdul Aziz Air Base in Dharan and Prince Sultan Air Base in Al Kharj. From these bases, U.S. Army and Air Force units patrolled the “southern no-fly zones” in Iraq.
U.S. military trainers also instructed the Saudi armed forces on the fine points of their most recent advanced weapon acquisition: 315 M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks, the latest version of the U.S. Army’s workhorse. Careful students of the Iraq war will note that only one unit in the U.S. military currently operates this state-of-the-art killing machine, the 4th Mechanized Infantry. It spent the war floating around in various seas and gulfs. Units that did the real fighting — the 3rd Infantry and the U.S. Marines — still have the M1A1.
“The ironies of Saudi Arabia’s refusal to help us never end,” the military official said.
Add one more irony, says Goure: the Saudis probably would not be sad to see U.S. troops leave at this juncture.
“Given the sensitivity of the issue — American troops on holy Muslim soil — it is never good to outstay your intended deadline, and this always was supposed to be temporary,” says Goure, who served as a Pentagon official during the Gulf War. “The U.S. military has been dying to get out of there, and this also would take pressure off the Saudis, since it is so unpopular there.”
“In that ways, it’s win, win, win,” he says. “Win for the Pentagon, win for the Saudis, and win for U.S. interests.”
And, in a final irony, a win, of sorts, for Osama bin Laden, too.