Henry John Temple—more popularly remembered as Lord Palmerston—famously observed that nations such as Great Britain “have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual.” Perhaps nowhere is the legendary statesman’s aphorism better embodied than in U.S. security policy toward the Persian Gulf. Since 1948, when George Kennan included the Middle East “as far east as, and including, Iran” amongst “those areas of the world which … we cannot permit … to fall into hands hostile to us,” U.S. policymakers have understood that ensuring the flow of oil through the region is a vital national interest. Yet even as the stability and security of the Persian Gulf remains critical to U.S. national security, the apparent threat to this “eternal and perpetual” interest has evolved over time. These transformations have subsequently produced significant—and often unexpected—evolutions in the U.S. force posture in the Persian Gulf from 1990-2015.
Prior to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, few policymakers or commanders could have conceived the degree to which Iraq would determine the U.S. force posture in the Persian Gulf over the next two decades. When Ronald Reagan elevated the “Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force” into a full-fledged unified command—U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM)—in 1983, its primary mission was perceived to be halting a Soviet attempt to seize Iran’s oil fields. During his initial tour of the region as CENTCOM commander, General H. Norman Schwarzkopf found that most Gulf countries were leery of Iran, not Iraq. In fact, a national security directive issued in 1990 declared, “Normal relations between the United States and Iraq … promote stability in both the Gulf and the Middle East.”
Not only was the degree to which Iraq would influence U.S. force posture in the Gulf unforeseen, prior to August 1990 the sheer number of U.S. troops that would eventually be deployed and/or permanently stationed in the region was unfathomable. In 1988, General Schwarzkopf was instructed to scale back U.S. forces in the Gulf to their pre-Tanker War level of only four warships, a token force whose primary purpose was to show the flag. When he later briefed President George H.W. Bush at Camp David, two days after the Iraqi invasion, on the additional forces—six divisions—necessary for any potential offensive operations, Schwarzkopf recalled hearing gasps around the table in response to “a much larger commitment of forces than they had ever imagined making in the Middle East.”
The Gulf War did not necessarily foreshadow either a deepened commitment to the Persian Gulf or Iraq’s emergence as the primary threat to U.S. interests. The historically lopsided victory over Iraq left America in a hegemonic position in the Middle East, and U.S. policymakers initially hoped to return to their pre-war force posture in the Gulf. Although President Bush (41) declared to Congress on March 6, 1991, “Our vital national interests depend on a stable and secure Gulf,” he specifically stated the United States would continue to maintain a permanent naval presence in the Gulf but would not seek to station ground forces in the region. The Bush administration purposely allowed some Iraqi forces to escape Kuwait, Colin Powell recalled, because, “For the previous ten years, Iran, not Iraq, had been our Persian Gulf nemesis. We wanted Iraq to continue as a threat and a counterweight to Iran.” The President’s address was followed four days later by the commencement of Operation Desert Farewell, the rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from the region.
More Forces for the Region
Yet just as the enemy gets a vote in wartime, potential adversaries can also spoil the best-laid plans for U.S. force posture in peacetime. Despite being pummeled in Operation Desert Storm, Iraq’s army was still the region’s largest. The establishment of Operation Southern Watch in 1992—the military effort to enforce the no-fly zone protecting the Shi’a population below Iraq’s 33rd parallel —required a full-time aircraft carrier battle group presence in the northern Gulf. Moreover, Saddam Hussein’s persistent efforts to thwart UN-supervised inspections and removal of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs became the flashpoint for a decade of confrontation between Iraq and the international community. In January and June 1993, U.S. forces conducted missile and air strikes against Iraq in retaliation for violations of the southern no-fly zone and a failed plot to assassinate the recently retired President Bush. These confrontations signaled the beginning of nearly a decade of cat-and-mouse between Saddam and the United States that unfolded in a predictable rhythm: the defiant dictator would provoke a diplomatic crisis; U.S. policymakers would respond by moving forces to the region and threaten military action; Saddam would back down, often having weakened the inspections regime at the margins; U.S. forces would stand down and redeploy.
With each subsequent confrontation, however, more U.S. forces would remain in the region, incrementally reshaping the U.S. force posture in the region over the course of the decade. In the fall of 1994, for example, Saddam Hussein demanded the UN lift all sanctions against Iraq, and, to force the issue, deployed 80,000 Iraqi troops near the Kuwaiti border. The Clinton administration responded by launching Operation Vigilant Warrior, deploying approximately 50,000 troops—including the 24th Infantry Division, an aircraft carrier battle group, and a few hundred extra combat aircraft—to Kuwait. Although Saddam backed down and Iraqi forces withdrew, America kept 5,000 troops in Kuwait to sustain deterrence.
Later in the decade, CENTCOM established Joint Task Force Kuwait as the forward element for its Joint Force Land Component Command and a separate forward command element in Qatar for its Special Operations Command. Whereas U.S. troops deployed to Saudi Arabia had fallen from roughly 500,000 in 1991 to fewer than 1,000 before Vigilant Warrior, this time the numbers did not decline after the crisis subsided, and U.S. personnel in the Kingdom steadily rose to 7,000 by the end of the decade. CENTCOM was also required to maintain a more robust naval presence in the region than previously anticipated, as it provided naval forces and various special operations units for the multinational Maritime Interception Force enforcing UN Security Council Resolutions restricting imports to Iraq and Iraqi oil exports. By July 1995, a new numbered fleet was deemed necessary, and the U.S. Fifth Fleet was reactivated and headquartered in Bahrain with roughly 15,000 personnel afloat and 1,000 ashore.
This dance culminated in Saddam’s eviction of the UN weapons inspectors in December 1998. Using forces built up during previous crises, on December 16th U.S. (and British) forces launched Operation Desert Fox consisting of more than 400 cruise missile strikes and 650 air sorties over seventy hours. President Clinton told Americans that the policy of containing Iraq required “a strong military presence in the area” in case “Saddam tries to rebuild his weapons of mass destruction, strikes out at his neighbors, challenges allied aircraft, or moves against the Kurds.” Yet after Desert Fox, Iraq became even more aggressive toward the planes enforcing the no-fly zone, firing on coalition aircraft nearly every other day. Consequently, during the first eight months of 1999, U.S. jet fighters fired more than 1,000 missiles against some 300 Iraqi targets—three times as many as were attacked during Desert Fox. This attack-counterattack routine lasted until the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) in March 2003 and forced the Pentagon to abandon plans to reduce the full-time aircraft carrier battle group presence in the region to only nine months a year.
Iran’s New Understanding
Although Iraqi intransigence necessitated a major shift in U.S. force posture in the Gulf, it was not its sole determinant. With its population of over 65 million, Iran was larger than the other Gulf nations combined. Whereas the United States had traditionally balanced Iran and Iraq against each other, in May 1993 the Clinton administration articulated a policy of “dual containment” in which America would use its newfound strength to contain both regional threats in order to maintain local stability and to protect Gulf energy resources.
Iran was not capable of directly challenging American hegemony in the Gulf, however. The combined effects of its war with Iraq and international sanctions decimated the Islamic Republic’s conventional military capabilities, and its leaders had seen the devastating effectiveness of U.S. arms in Desert Storm. Consequently, Tehran chose an asymmetric strategy utilizing proxy forces and terrorism, including the June 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 Americans and wounded another 372. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) accelerated its harassment of American warships transiting the Gulf, approaching U.S. ships at high speeds with smaller speedboats and conducting mock attacks on an almost daily basis. (Years later, in the “Millennium Challenge 2002” war game, such swarming tactics were determined to be capable of sinking a major portion of the exercise’s U.S. fleet.)
Yet other than transferring U.S. military personnel in Saudi Arabia to remote locations like Prince Sultan Air Base in the desert south of Riyadh, these provocations had little effect on U.S. force posture in the region. The Clinton administration did not obtain incontrovertible evidence of Iranian complicity in the Khobar Towers attack from the Saudis until 1998—by which time Mohammad Khatami had been elected Iran’s president on a reformist platform—and questioned the value of retaliating two years later for Khatami’s predecessor’s crime. Instead, the United States settled for denying Iranian efforts to rebuild its military capabilities, and attempted to forge a coalition against Iran with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) starting with a Gulf-wide air defense system and exercises designed to respond to an Iranian attack.
By 2001, some 25,000 U.S. personnel were stationed in the Gulf region at any given time. This forward-leaning posture came with an unforeseen cost, however. Whereas U.S. forces were welcomed in the immediate aftermath of Desert Storm, their presence in Saudi Arabia began to breed resentment amongst the population. In 1996, Osama bin Laden issued his first fatwa, calling on Muslims to join a jihad to evict the Americans from Saudi Arabia. Thus, although Iraq and Iran were both contained, the U.S. military presence in the Gulf inadvertently helped fuel radical groups who would soon become a threat in their own right.
The Iraq War & Iran
From 2003-2008, the U.S. force posture in the Gulf was overwhelmingly determined by the course of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). Nearly 200,000 U.S. troops took part in the liberation of Iraq, but once again U.S. policymakers envisioned neither a large nor lengthy deployment of U.S. forces. Following the fall of Saddam’s regime, General Franks ordered his subordinate army commander to “take as much risk getting out as you did getting in.” Yet as the war transformed into a protracted counterinsurgency campaign, U.S. troop levels never fell below 140,000. Finally, in January 2007, President George W. Bush authorized deploying five additional brigades—30,000 troops—to Iraq, and the subsequent “Surge” successfully brought Iraq back from the abyss of civil war by reinforcing the progress begun with the turning of previously hostile Sunni tribes and the special operations campaign targeting al-Qaeda and Shi’a militant networks.
Iran, although relieved to see Saddam deposed, was concerned by the demonstration of U.S. military prowess and mass deployment of U.S. forces to the Gulf. Consequently, Tehran infiltrated intelligence and Quds Force officers into Iraq almost on the heels of U.S. tanks driving north to Baghdad. In the conflict’s opening months, Iranian forces fired upon Navy SEALs patrolling the Iraqi side of the Shatt al Arab waterway, made cross-border incursions into Iraq, and even moved their own military checkpoints several kilometers inside Iraq. With U.S. forces struggling to quell the Sunni insurgency within Iraq, there was little spare capacity or political will to respond to these aggressions and risk opening another front against Iran.
Finally, in the face of overwhelming evidence that Tehran was training Shi’a militias and supplying them with Explosively Formed Projectiles (EFP) estimated to have killed between 500-1,500 U.S. personnel, the Bush administration was forced to act. In the same January 10, 2007 speech outlining the Surge, the President also announced a second carrier battle group and Patriot missile defense batteries would be deployed to the region. This complemented operations by Joint Special Operations Command forces to arrest Iranian agents in Iraq and disrupt the EFP smuggling networks. This partial, renewed focus on Iran was reinforced in May 2007 when Vice President Cheney stood on one of the U.S. aircraft carriers patrolling the Gulf and declared to “friends and adversaries” alike: “We’ll keep the sea lanes open. We’ll stand with our friends in opposing extremism and strategic threats. We’ll disrupt attacks on our own forces… And we’ll stand with others to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating this region.”
Out of Iraq and Into the Unknown
During his tenure as CENTCOM Commander from 2010-2013, General James Mattis frequently told Congressmen and Senators that despite overseeing the American efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, each morning he awoke with three concerns foremost on his mind: “Iran, Iran, and Iran.” On the surface, the Obama administration appears to be reorienting America’s force posture in the Persian Gulf back toward Iran after its nearly two decade focus on Iraq. In 2011, President Obama ignored the almost unanimous advice of U.S. military commanders regarding the need to maintain 10,000 troops in a training and advisory role in Iraq and withdrew all U.S. forces after failing to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement. Although the Administration has since been forced to redeploy more than 3,000 troops to Iraq, it has made clear this is a discrete intervention to contain the Islamic State’s advances rather than a significant reorientation of U.S. force posture in the region. The United States currently has about 35,000 forces in the Gulf region stationed at various Gulf state facilities in accordance with Defense Cooperation Agreements between the United States and these countries. Building upon the Bush administration’s efforts to establish a “Gulf Security Dialogue” in 2006, and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s inauguration of the “U.S.-GCC Strategic Dialogue” in March 2012, the joint statement issued after this May’s Camp David summit announced a new U.S.-GCC strategic partnership. The statement reiterated that it is U.S. policy to use all elements of U.S. national power to secure core U.S. interests in the Gulf and to deter and confront external aggression “against our allies and partners.”
Yet beneath this veneer of realism, the U.S. force posture in the region is clouded by uncertainty. Despite the Administration’s promises to facilitate U.S. arms transfers to and increase the number of large-scale joint military exercises with GCC states, it has given the GCC ample reason for skepticism regarding such commitments. President Obama retreated from his stated red lines regarding Bashar al-Asad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria—which is still ongoing—and his administration held up arms shipments to Israel for further review during the 2014 war with Hamas, thereby calling into question U.S. resolve and commitment to its allies. This distrust was exacerbated by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which itself was preceded by the President’s statements expressing his desire for a new “equilibrium developing between [the] Gulf states and Iran” and his belief that Iran could be “a very successful regional power.”
Although President Obama reportedly went out of his way at Camp David to stress his understanding of the threat Iran poses to the region, his signature diplomatic initiative releases between $100-150 billion in frozen assets to Iran despite knowing that in President Hasan Rouhani’s most recent budget defense expenditures rose 33 percent, including a 48 percent increase for the IRGC. The JCPOA also removes all restrictions on the sales of conventional weapons and ballistic missile systems to Iran within eight years, a concession alarmingly at odds with the President’s assurances to the GCC states. Moreover, the American ability and willingness to maintain a large forward troop presence in the Persian Gulf region may be in doubt. When the USS Theodore Roosevelt leaves the region sometime in October, its replacement will not arrive until later in the winter, marking the first time in seven years the Navy has not maintained at least one aircraft carrier in the Gulf. This scheduled gap—which the Navy anticipates will be the first of many—reflects both the prioritization of the Administration’s “Asian Pivot” and the effects of sequestration. Some U.S. analysts further argue that America is over-invested in the Persian Gulf given our increasing energy independence, while others suggest we only need to maintain a force in the low tens of thousands to maintain deterrence against Iran.
Thus, it is as yet unclear whether the Obama administration’s adjustments to the U.S. force posture in the Persian Gulf represent a retrenchment to America’s strategic position prior to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, or a broader retreat from the region. Clarifying this strategic muddle will have to be a priority for the next administration, whether Democrat or Republican.
Benjamin Runkle, Ph.D., is a former Defense Department official, director on the National Security Council, Professional Staff Member on the House Armed Services Committee, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.