The United States has begun to draw down the U.S. troop presence in Iraq and plans to have all U.S. combat troops out of the country by August 2010. The drawdown in Iraq, plus the President’s determination to begin a withdrawal from Afghanistan in July 2011, presents an opportunity to re-evaluate American strategy in what is now often called the Greater Middle East. We argue here that the United States can more readily achieve its strategic goals, while paying lower costs and taking fewer risks, by returning to the over-the-horizon strategy that served America well during the Cold War.
Current U.S. national security strategy toward the Persian Gulf and environs rests on two pillars: a substantial land- and sea-based military presence throughout the region and close ties with the Gulf state monarchies. Under Presidents Carter and Reagan, the United States fulfilled its defense commitments with an over-the-horizon strategy, creating first a Rapid Deployment Force and then U.S. Central Command to prepare to flow forces into the region in the event of a crisis. The U.S. military pre-positioned equipment and built base infrastructure, but it did not station American troops in the region during peacetime. After the Gulf War in 1991, however, the U.S. changed its policy, defending its interests with forward-deployed forces. Because of that troop presence and the active American foreign policy in the region, the U.S. Central Command’s Combatant Commander is probably the second-most-important figure in Persian Gulf politics, ranking behind only local heads of government.
Most analysts recognize that the current American strategy is costly. The deployment of U.S. forces throughout the region has helped foment terrorism by al-Qaeda and other violent organizations. Furthermore, Washington’s close ties to the Gulf’s authoritarian governments sully America’s image. And U.S. facilities present attractive targets for terrorists. Nevertheless, the consensus view holds that the United States must bear the costs of the current strategy because the countries surrounding the Gulf account for roughly 25 percent of global oil production.
The consensus is wrong. Using an “over-the-horizon” strategy, the United States can protect its oil interests while reducing America’s strategic exposure in the Gulf region. The new “old” approach would counter the traditional military threats to Persian Gulf oil as effectively as the current strategy, and it would do a better job mitigating the more serious future dangers: terrorism against oil infrastructure and domestic instability within oil-producing countries. As an added benefit, an over-the-horizon approach would bring U.S. policy more in line with American values.
The military element of an over-the-horizon strategy calls for maintaining forces in the Indian Ocean and (as needed) in the waters of the Persian Gulf, but it would eliminate peacetime U.S. deployments to bases throughout the...