Bruce Riedel is deputy assistant secretary of defense for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs.
As the energy storehouse of the world, the Arabian Peninsula is an area of absolute vital importance for the United States and its military forces.
The Department of Defense (DOD) has a proud record of defending U.S. interests in the peninsula; indeed, nowhere in the world have U.S. military forces been more actively engaged in combat in the last twenty years than in defense of our interests in the peninsula. From Operation Earnest Will (the series of encounters in 1987-88 between U.S. and Iranian forces as the United States protected maritime traffic in the gulf during the Iran-Iraq War) to Desert Storm (the military operation to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation in 1991) to Southern Watch (the no-fly zone over southern Iraq under way since 1992), the DOD has recognized the importance of defending the peninsula from the two hostile powers on the northern shore of the Persian Gulf. While Iraq and Iran continue to threaten the peninsula, our ability to defend U.S. allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)1 is better today than ever before. In part, this is because Iraq and Iran are under severe economic pressure, diplomatically isolated, and militarily falling behind. It also has to do with our solid defense partnerships with all six of the GCC members. We have a well-established ability to react decisively to deter aggression, as proven in Vigilant Warrior in 1994 (the deployment of U.S. forces to the Gulf region in late 1994, which successfully deterred Iraq from threatening Kuwait) and Vigilant Sentinel in 1995 (the deployment of U.S. forces to the Gulf and Jordan in mid-1995 following the defection of Husayn Kamil to Amman and Iraqi threats against Jordan).
But the ability to deter and defeat external aggressors is not enough; threats to U.S. interests can also come from within allied states. Too heavy a U.S. presence, especially military, can spark a reaction not only against our presence but also against the host country's leadership. An Islamist reaction can take several forms, including political criticism of ourselves and our hosts, assassination of local leaders, and terrorism against U.S. forces.
That said, the Pentagon rejects the argument that a clash of civilizations is imminent between Islam and the West. There is no Green Menace to replace the Reds. This is a superficial and a historical theory. In fact, relations between Islam and the West are deeper, stronger, and closer today than ever before. Our economies are more intertwined than ever. Our peoples interact more than ever.
Moreover, we in the Pentagon have only respect for Islam and its contributions to world civilization. We recognize and understand the vital energy it has given to centuries of human creativity in the region, from Morocco to Indonesia. Today, it is also giving great stimulus in our own country, where Islam is now the religion of millions of Americans. The U.S. military, for example, appointed its first Muslim chaplain in December 1993.
At the same time, we recognize that there are those who, in the name of Islam, preach violence, extremism, and a hatred of America and American values. The criminals who bombed the U.S. facility in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on November 13, 1995, preached a doctrine of violent anti-Americanism, calling for a jihad to expel the so-called Crusaders from the peninsula. While it is too soon to be certian, the same ideology may have been behind the more deadly bomb attack in June 1996 at Dharan airbase.
But the U.S. military presence in the Arabian peninsula is not a Crusader army of occupation. We do not seek to impose our way of life, let alone our religion, on its inhabitants. We were invited in by the legitimate, internationally recognized governments of the peninsula, several of which have deep historical roots. We came to defend the peninsula's people from outside aggression, we were welcomed by the vast majority of them, and we stay at their request because of real and present external dangers.
We cannot abandon our interests or our friends in the peninsula to Islamic extremists, even as we are sensitive to our hosts' history, traditions, culture, and political trends. We must balance legitimate operational military requirements with maintaining the lowest possible political profile. In short, we need to show political acumen even as we seek the optimal military efficiency.
The good news is that the DOD and our hosts in the region have achieved this balance, even in difficult times. The tragic events of last November and this June should not make us panic.
There is nothing inevitable or unstoppable about extremist Islam. Quite the contrary, a look at the Muslim world over the last decade shows extremists to be very much a minority. Election results and credible polling studies in places as diverse as Yemen, Kuwait, Jordan, Pakistan, Turkey, and among the Palestinians show that parties that identify themselves as Islamists consistently fail to win majorities or even to gain the support of more than a quarter to a third of Muslims. And even in these cases, much of their support is derived from pious Muslims who reject and abhor the use of violence.
We should see extremist Islam in the peninsula as much like religion-based extremism in other societies. IRA bombings in London do not speak for all Irishmen or Catholics, nor did Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir speak for all Israelis or Jews. Those who destroy mosques in India do not represent Hinduism. We in the DOD understand that extremism in the name of God is not new or unique to Islam. As Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, put it in 1993: "Keep in perspective that the extremists are a very small fraction of the overall Islamic community. They are not at all in the historical or present Muslim mainstream." We must combat extremism everywhere even as we maintain a balanced approach toward Islam.
Our past success in maintaining this balance results in part from our building on the victory against Iraq in 1991 to advance the Arab-Israeli peace process. When Muslims in Gaza, Tulkarem, Ramallah, and Nablus gain their freedom in ceremonies hosted on the White House lawn, we deny extremists credibility as defenders of Muslim rights. (The same can also be said about Bosnia and Dayton.)
I would like to conclude with a few thoughts on the implications of a full successful Arab-Israeli peace process for the U.S. military in the Arabian Peninsula. During the past quarter century, we have had to compartment carefully our security relationships with Israel and with the Arab states, including the GCC states. This was a prudent policy that meant placing Israel in the European Command, not in the Central Command. Our tremendous effort to persuade Israel not to respond to Iraqi aggression in 1991 -- which would have been entirely within its legitimate rights -- symbolized the dilemma U.S. policymakers faced in working with both Israeli and Arab military friends.
Once Israel has achieved a comprehensive peace, it will increasingly be integrated into the Arab world, and this will mean a transformation of the security and military dynamics of the region; already, Israel and Jordan are cooperating in some defense matters. That will pose new challenges for us in the Pentagon and how we manage our affairs in the Middle East.
It is premature to prescribe specifically how we will move forward but one key consideration will be to avoid backlashes by extremist Muslims. We will need to coordinate carefully our military activities with our diplomacy and work closely with all our allies in the region -- Arabs, Israelis, and Turks -- to build harmonious regional partnerships. The day may not be too far off when the defense ministers of all those states can meet together to coordinate plans and exchange assessments, much like the Summit of Peacemakers that met in Egypt in March.
1 Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.