January 25, 2002

No U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia

It's time for the United States to get its troops out of Saudi Arabia. This statement may come as somewhat of a surprise given that one of Osama bin Laden's goals has always been the removal of American troops from the Arabian Peninsula. But it is becoming more and more clear that our presence is a political liability, that the ruling Saudi regime no longer wants it, and its benefits to American political aims in the Middle East is negligible. This became apparent to me upon reading Saudi Crown Prince Abdallah's statement suggesting that the United States remove its troops. It is clear that American objectives in the region have changed since the Gulf War, and our troop placement needs to change to reflect a new reality.

When I first read about the Crown Prince's statement, I thought, "Well that's a nice way of showing gratitude, let us help you out in the Gulf War then kick our soldiers out." The more I thought about it, however, the more I realize it represents the new post—September 11 dynamic in the region. Over the past several months the United States and Britain have destroyed one fundamental Islamic government, committed themselves to organizing the new Afghan government along democratic lines, and threatened another dictatorship (Iraq). It is important to note that the Saudi government is an absolute, fundamentalist monarchy, which is justifiably afraid of a Western power that can overthrow and replace (whether successfully or not) another such regime. Furthermore, by actually hosting troops that could carry out such an operation, Saudi Arabia loses support from many states that might otherwise be sympathetic.

We must not forget, moreover, that the Saudi government is not only under pressure from hardline Islamic states, but also from an internal Islamic fundamentalist movement. Osama bin Laden hails originally from Saudi Arabia and there seems to be considerable support for extremism there. Many Saudis are skeptical of American intentions, as is common across the Arab world. In this light we see Crown Prince Abdallah making a political statement to those who are passive sympathizer of extremism, so that they know that the government cares about their position. He knows that the fundamentalist movement has not been killed by the fall of the Taliban, and in fact its various leaders may be looking for another place to set up shop. Iran is apparently being supportive, but not too supportive, as the various religious and elected leaders have their own agendas to pursue. A completely radicalized Saudi Arabia would suit their purpose well. Obviously the Saudi royal family doesn't want to lose its power, hence the attempt to placate the extremists.

This is why it makes sense to withdraw American forces from Saudi Arabia. Firstly, it strengthens the current Saudi government against the extremists by giving it a victory, and it removes a major rallying point of the fundamental Islamic movement. Secondly, it insulates the United States from that government. It is inconsistent and hypocritical for us to promote freedom and democracy in Afghanistan while explicitly supporting an absolute regime in Saudi Arabia. If the Saudi government is overthrown some time in the future, either by a resurgent extremist movement, or by a hypothetical pro-democracy movement, American troops are shielded from danger. Finally, American troops are in danger in Saudi Arabia, as witnessed by the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing, and removing them from the country eliminates that danger.

Of course, the main point of having American troops and warplanes in Saudi Arabia in the first place is to have them in easy striking distance of Iraq and other volatile spots in the region. Of late, however, the Saudi government has put restrictions on what sort of missions can be flown from air bases on its soil, and if the U.S. does not evacuate, Saudi Arabia can continue to place restrictions. Clearly, the wiser course seems to be to appease the Saudis and find an alternate solution. My suggestion is twofold, first, more planes can be based in Turkey and treaties can be conducted with other friendly Gulf states such as Bahrain to base troops and planes there. Second, we ought to use the funds saved by shutting down operations to help in the construction of two more aircraft carriers of the Nimitz class and another amphibious assault ship. This will allow us to keep another carrier in the region most of the time, and have another two in the region in emergencies. The amphibious assault capabilities can never replace the land bases in Saudi Arabia, but given the above it seems a worthwhile tradeoff. Ultimately, continuing to base troops in Saudi Arabia against the will of its government and large portions of its citizenry is simply courting political disaster and failure of military objectives.