Authors: Andrew J. Bacevich
Tags: #General, #Military, #World, #Middle Eastern, #United States, #Middle East, #History, #Political Science
Those Pentagon initiatives sought chiefly to reduce the impact of distance, thereby removing impediments to the projection of U.S. military power. The number repeatedly cited by American officials and echoed by obliging American journalists was 7,000. That number represented the approximate distance in miles that U.S. forces stationed in the United States needed to traverse in order to reach the Persian Gulf.
In late 1979, the Carter administration had begun tackling this distance problem when it dispatched envoys to persuade “friendly” nations in and around the Gulf to allow U.S. access to ports and airfields in the event of an emergency. During the Reagan administration, such efforts continued and intensified.
Even at the time, this did not qualify as some deep secret. It occurred in the American equivalent of broad daylight, courtesy of mainstream media outlets, which kept readers and viewers abreast of the expanding U.S. military footprint in the region.
Consider, for example, the puff piece that Richard Halloran contributed to
The New York Times Magazine
in April 1984.
If Halloran’s essay had a theme, it was this: Americans could rest easy in the knowledge that CENTCOM was hard at work and becoming more capable day by day.
readers up to date on Pentagon efforts to upgrade ports and airfields to which the U.S. had been promised access in Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Oman, and Somalia. Meanwhile, he noted, Saudi Arabia was “building a complex of bases far beyond its needs or its ability to operate.” President Ronald Reagan had already vowed publicly that the United States would defend the existing Saudi political order against any threat.
In such an eventuality, it was tacitly understood that the Saudis would make their ports and airfields available to U.S. forces.
Halloran also reported on the flotilla of fifteen cargo ships, already loaded with military equipment, that the United States had positioned at Diego Garcia, an island in the Indian Ocean that had become “vital to the Central Command’s logistic, naval and air support.” He detailed efforts to improve various facilities there and to lengthen Diego Garcia’s runway, permitting it to accommodate long-range bombers. In 1983, Congress had earmarked nearly $60 million for these improvements, with another $90 million for the following fiscal year.
Back in Tampa, CENTCOM headquarters was by no means sitting on its hands. “General Kingston has begun to build a relationship with each nation in his command’s operating region,” Halloran reported. Along with building relationships, Kingston had programmed a series of training exercises to cycle U.S. forces through his AOR. The aim was both to acclimate U.S. troops to conditions in the region and to promote within the region “an increasing tolerance” for the presence of American military forces.
Just the year before, for something called Operation Bright Star, over twenty-five thousand U.S. troops had deployed to Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, and Oman. “B-52 bombers flew from bases in the United States to make bombing runs, [American] paratroopers jumped with Egyptian paratroopers, and Marine tanks churned ashore through heavy surf in Somalia.” Fostering this atmosphere of cooperation was the $7.7 billion in security assistance—mostly in the form of arms—that the United States had poured into the CENTCOM AOR in 1983. That figure had increased to $9.1 billion in 1984 and was scheduled to hit $11 billion the year following.
When the RDJTF had formed just four years earlier, critics had “scoffed that it was not rapid, had little to deploy, and was not much of a force.” Although work remained to be done, Halloran noted that such critics “have been less vocal recently, as the Central Command has started to make progress.” The title of his essay made the point explicitly: CENTCOM now stood “Poised for the Persian Gulf.”
Halloran’s upbeat interpretation was broadly representative of mainstream opinion.
To the extent that U.S. military commitments pursuant to the Carter Doctrine generated debate, that debate centered on whether or not Central Command could move sufficient combat forces fast enough and far enough to make a difference.
In effect, it was a dispute over timetables and scheduling rather than policy.
So as Halloran assessed CENTCOM’s progress and prospects, he confined himself to narrowly military considerations. History prior to the Shah’s overthrow possessed little relevance. The upheavals that had done so much to shape the region—the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the creation of Israel in 1948, the Suez Crisis of 1956, the Arab-Israeli Wars of 1967 and 1973—escaped notice. References to countries like Oman and Somalia implied that they were more or less interchangeable with Norway or the Netherlands. Religion went unmentioned. How might a very hot and very dry climate affect the operations of combat forces? Need to think about that. The cleavage between Sunni and Shia? Someone else’s problem.
Even when U.S. officials acknowledged local sensitivities, they did so in order to dismiss them. In an interview recorded subsequent to his retirement, for example, Kingston recalled that his military counterparts within the CENTCOM AOR had been “very chary of getting too close to us.” He thought he knew why: They resented powerful outsiders treating them like “second class citizens” even on their own turf, as, for example, the British had done for decades. Even so, Kingston expressed confidence that events would obviate any such reservations about welcoming a U.S. presence. “There will come a point,” he remarked, “where they’ll say, ‘we see the threat as much as you do and we invite you in.’ ”
Kingston took it for granted that “they” and “we” would share a common understanding of threats and, by extension, of actions needed to deflect those threats.
Fulfilling these expectations required de facto Soviet collaboration. U.S. military planners were counting on Kremlin leaders to play their assigned role as bogeymen. Quite unexpectedly, the Soviets refused to cooperate. In so doing they induced a radical change in CENTCOM’s orientation.
By the time General George Crist, a Marine, replaced Kingston to become CENTCOM’s second commander on November 27, 1985, a considerably more important succession in leadership had already occurred in Moscow. Earlier that year, Mikhail Gorbachev had become general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and soon thereafter embarked upon a doomed effort to reform and thereby save the USSR. Doing so, he believed, required first calling off the Cold War.
Initially, the United States military responded to this disconcerting news by attempting to downplay or deny it. Abetted by the more militant members of the Reagan administration and of the American political elite, the Pentagon strove mightily to ignore or discredit Gorbachev’s attempt to ease Soviet-American tensions. As late as 1987, in releasing the Pentagon’s annual assessment of Soviet military power, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger was still warning about what he called “a dynamic, and an expanding, Soviet threat.” Weinberger refused to be taken in by stunts and promises. “No matter who is general secretary, no matter what proposals are made, no matter what public relations activities are undertaken,” he insisted, the Soviet danger persisted and, if anything, was growing worse.
Concrete steps taken at Gorbachev’s initiative made it difficult to sustain that view. In 1987, he accepted U.S. terms for a treaty eliminating intermediate-range nuclear missiles from Europe. He also announced plans to end the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, a tacit admission of defeat. The following year brought a commitment to withdraw five hundred thousand Soviet troops from Eastern Europe, no Western quid pro quo required. In February 1989, as promised, the final contingent of Soviet forces left Afghanistan for good. In the meantime, summit meetings between Gorbachev and his U.S. counterpart, first Reagan and then George H. W. Bush, took on an atmosphere of cheerful conviviality and good fellowship.
By November 1988, when General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr., of the U.S. Army succeeded Crist, the jig was up, with Schwarzkopf astute enough to notice. In the things-got-better-on-my-watch perspective to which virtually all U.S. military commanders are prone, Crist boasted of guiding CENTCOM from “adolescence to young adulthood.” Even so, Crist had remained gripped by the prospect of massive Soviet intervention—several dozen divisions with thousands of tanks—aimed at seizing “some sort of hegemony over the oil.”
Schwarzkopf knew better. The likelihood of Soviet armored formations making a mad dash across Iran to seize the Straits of Hormuz was nil.
So once installed in Tampa, Schwarzkopf took one look at OPLAN 1002 and recognized it for the dubious proposition it had always been. “We’d used the operating plan for years,” he later wrote, “but most generals knew it made no sense and would eventually be junked.” Schwarzkopf spelled out the plan’s deficiencies. “For one thing, it was suicidal. It called for Central Command to rush forces to the Zagros Mountains…[where] we would be seriously outnumbered, seven thousand miles from home, and destined to run out of supplies and troops in a matter of weeks.” Even so, the plan had not been without redeeming value, Schwarzkopf noting that “Central Command [had] used it for years to justify spending millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money.”
The disappearance of the (largely fictive) Russian threat to the Persian Gulf removed that justification, leaving CENTCOM without a compelling argument for spending more taxpayer money. An operationally defective war plan that had at least offered some budgetary leverage now became something worse: an operationally defective war plan devoid of bureaucratic utility.
The solution to this problem was obvious: To stay in business, U.S. Central Command needed to identify a new threat. Conveniently, such a threat was even then presenting itself. With impeccable timing, Iraq, the adversary that Paul Wolfowitz had identified a decade earlier as a looming concern, was now finally coming into its own.
In the bitter conflict between Iran and Iraq, Washington had feigned neutrality while actually playing a nontrivial role. As we will see in a subsequent chapter, that role combined incoherence with self-deception, both to become abiding hallmarks of America’s evolving War for the Greater Middle East. Suffice it to say here that as the Cold War was winding down, so too was the Iran-Iraq War—good news, in a way, for CENTCOM.
The conflict that began with a naked act of Iraqi aggression reached its conclusion in August 1988 with that country on the ropes. Believing that the Islamic Revolution had left Iran militarily vulnerable, Saddam Hussein had expected an easy win. Not for the last time, he miscalculated. While sustaining huge losses, his army had not distinguished itself in battle. Even with the benefit of extensive outside financial and material support, Iraq had managed only with difficulty to avoid outright defeat.
Saddam insisted otherwise, of course. Yet his claim of victory involved considerable misdirection. Much as a series of U.S. presidents would do when their forays into the Islamic world met with less than the promised success, he quietly modified his originally declared objectives.
Even so, in a nearly seamless transition, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq now replaced the once-mighty USSR as the chief threat to CENTCOM’s AOR. Making the case that Iraq posed an imminent danger required placing greater weight on Saddam’s record of brutality and reckless adventurism than on his army’s record of demonstrated performance. U.S. estimates of Iraqi military power glossed over Iraq’s manifest failure to defeat Iran, emphasizing instead its substantial array of relatively modern tanks, missiles, and fighter planes. Quantity ostensibly implied quality. At Senate committee hearings in January 1990, Schwarzkopf himself pronounced judgment, reviving the view first articulated by Paul Wolfowitz a decade earlier. “Iraq is now the preeminent military power in the Gulf,” he testified, possessing the wherewithal “to militarily coerce its neighboring states.”
By that time, down at CENTCOM headquarters in Tampa, Schwarzkopf’s staff was already hard at work hammering out a revision of OPLAN 1002. In one sense, the result narrowed the scope of CENTCOM’s primary mission. Rather than purporting to defend the entire Persian Gulf from an outside attack, the updated plan focused on countering “an intraregional threat” to “critical ports and oil facilities on the ARABIAN PENINSULA.”
What this meant, in plain language, was that defending the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia from a prospective Iraqi invasion had become priority number one.
Unlike the largely fanciful Zagros Mountains contingency, here was a scenario that possessed a semblance of plausibility. It was, furthermore, the sort of problem with which the American officers were intellectually comfortable—suiting up against a sort of junior varsity version of the Red Army that U.S. forces in Europe had energetically been preparing to fight. Better still, for an officer corps perplexed by the implications of Hiroshima while still haunted by Vietnam, the outcome of any actual conflict with Iraq would be decided by the clash of arms on a conventional battlefield—no nuclear weapons and no guerrillas.
CENTCOM planners had no difficulty incorporating into their new scenario the various preparations made for war against the Russians. The “overbuilt” Saudi facilities, the ongoing work at Diego Garcia, the stockpiles of military stores, the agreements providing access to ports and airfield: All of these retained their utility for staff officers formulating ways of dealing with the newly discovered Iraqi threat.