July 20, 2002
What Should Be Done With Our Bases In Saudi Arabia?

For months now there have been reports that U.S. military forces are moving out of Sultan Air Base and other facilities in Saudi Arabia and into bases in Qatar and other countries in the region. This is all said to be at the demand of our long-time "ally" Saudi Arabia. It seems to me that giving up our Saudi bases presents more problems than just the practical and logistical kind, severe as those may be. These are multiplied if the Saudis decide to make an open demand.

If they do, we can hardly just pack up and leave, as if Saudi Arabia were the Philippines and the year were 1991. It might not detract from our military resources, since the Saudis won't let us use them anyway. But it would please Osama (if he's still alive) and his allies (many of whom undoubtedly are). It would be a humiliation and a sign of weakness, and weakness is dangerous in the Middle East. Intangibles are a large part of warfare, perhaps never more than in this kind of war.

I haven't seen any speculation on what to do if we receive an open request to leave. None of the options is particularly attractive:

  1. We could refuse to go, but that would look bad. And our troops already have enough trouble with angry mobs in the cities and men with SAMs skulking around the runways.
  2. We could pull back to just the bases, but refuse to leave them. This would be more feasible, but would still look bad. Or would it? It's not like the Saudi armed forces are in any position to kick us out, and we might actually gain more respect for our ruthlessness than we would lose for our lack of niceness. But it's still not an entirely attractive option.
  3. We could try to foment a quick coup d' état, but that would be difficult to arrange, morally questionable, and likely to lead to worse problems in the long run. (A popular revolution leading to a peaceful democratic republic, if such a thing were possible in Saudi Arabia today, would be far more attractive.)
  4. We could refuse to leave until paid in full, with interest, for the value of our investment. This would look bad: cheap, greedy, and mercenary. There could be further complications: What to do if they refuse? If they pay? If they promise to pay and then drag their feet?
  5. We could leave, but only after thoroughly destroying the bases first. This could be the most satisfying for us psychologically, but might be inadvisable from the point of view of others' psychology. It would provide a chance to show off the power of our weaponry, e.g. what daisy cutters can do to our barracks. Don't forget to invite the press and give them good viewing-points! But that would remind the bad guys of what high explosives can do -- and have done -- to the Khobar Towers, the Marine barracks in Lebanon, the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, our East African embassies, and so on. Perhaps not the best sort of demonstration. We would once again be doing Osama's work for him.
  6. The Phillipine government didn't get nearly as much out of our departure in 1991 as they expected, since a volcano erupted and pretty much destroyed Clark Airfield. Too bad something similar can't be arranged in Saudi Arabia. Or can it? It would be satisfying to be able to say something along the lines of "Oops! There was a major NBC accident just as we were packing up the last pieces of equipment. You'll want to stay at least 5 miles away for the next 50 years to avoid contamination. No time to clean up: we've got a war with Iraq to fight."

I trust someone in the Pentagon is already thinking about this problem, even if it doesn't seem to have occurred to most of our pundits. Perhaps the current plan -- leaving quietly and gradually to avoid a direct request -- is the best. Or rather the least bad, since it's still not at all attractive.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at July 20, 2002 11:34 PM

I hear our troops are leaving Saudi Arabia because the Saudis don't want us attacking Iraq from their country. So we're moving our forces to Qatar, the Gulf, and other places from which we'll launch the war.

I don't buy that we should stay in Saudi Arabia just to spite Osama bin Laden though. He hates (or hated) the House of Saud and hates that we protect them with our military presence. I also hate the House of Saud and the fact that we protect them with our military presence, but for very different reasons than Osama does.

So if a nut like Osama wants me to stop doing something that I also want to stop doing I should keep on doing it just to piss him off? Nahh.

It won't matter in the long run anyway. Iran will soon turn of its own volition and we'll soon force Iraq to turn as well. Then we won't need the House of Saud and Osama will soon get another of his wishes. Just not in the way he had in mind.

Posted by: Brian O'Connell on July 21, 2002 03:02 AM

I believe that questions like this will be moot after we finish the job in Iraq. Which may well be harder than we think, but which can and should be done, for a host of reasons.

Quietly and slowly moving out seems like the best course of action until then. Within a short time after that, the House of Saud will start having internal and external problems that they've been able to avoid with the status quo as it has been. The status of our bases will become trivial to us and irrelevant to them.

Posted by: Dean Esmay on July 21, 2002 06:26 AM

Sublet it to the Israeli Air Force. Let them do #5.

Posted by: file13 on July 21, 2002 12:56 PM

It's really quite simple, my good Dr. :-)

We withdraw gradually (but not completely), not because Osama told us so, but for the very logical reason that the Saudis won't let us use our forces for what they're supposed to do.

Then we do Iraq, and when this causes unrest, as it most undoubtedly will, in Saudi Arabia (and Iran, unless they've already freed themselves from the thugocracy of the clerics), we move all of our troops back in to support the rebels while saying that we're only doing so to protect our own people. Instant casus belli.

Posted by: Mike L. on July 21, 2002 02:07 PM

I have been thinking that it is better to get out, so we can later invade the place. Only thing i can't figure out is if Bush and his people have figured out that the Saudis are part of the problem.

We need to find General Sherman's great great great grandson and send him from Bagdad to Mecca the way the old fellow took his army from Atlanta to Fort Sumter

Posted by: N D Smith on July 22, 2002 08:59 AM

The big issue is if it happens before or after Saddam takes his dirt nap. Once Iraq falls, the situation in the Persian Gulf will be radically different. Iran may fall into a pro-west revolution as a result of our action in Iraq. The Sauds will be in a *lousy* strategic situation, and if they demand we leave, we should start making rumblings about the right of self-determination for the Shite minority in the country(who happen to sit right on top of their oil fields). I think it is in our interests in a post Saddam world to start seriously looking at ways of eliminating Saudi Islamofascist agitation by taking away their biggest source of income, and giving it to someone a bit more grateful and a lot less crazy.

Posted by: John Bono on July 22, 2002 09:04 AM

Dear Dr. Well at least you tried to figure it out. Most conservobloggers can't even get this far.
"Get out of Saudi Arabia!"
"No then the terrorists will have won!"
"Oh right... charge! forward! back! O noble six hundred!"

The US ought to do the right thing whether Osama wants it or not, whether it's rewarding terrorists or not. Really the US was never defending Saudi Arabia, we have a base there to defend Israel. If Powell can get a peace plan betw the Arabs (including Iraq) and Israel, then there would be no need to have this base over there and no need to have the war and kill all those people. Wouldn't that be better?

Posted by: Eric M on July 22, 2002 09:33 AM

The bases there will become unimportant after we take out Iraq. However, this won't be as easy as we might like it to be.

Posted by: marcus on July 22, 2002 09:45 AM

Playing devil's advocate, but maybe we could get a better deal from Saddam for oil if we just set him loose on saudi arabia. I am sure he would be willing to cut us any deal we want.

At least starting the negotiations wont hurt, and maybe it would bring clarity of thought to the saudis. It would certainly stabilize the region, having only one government there.

Posted by: Coriolanus on July 22, 2002 09:50 AM

Eric M - what planet do you live on? Peace between the Arabs and the Israelis? We've only had 50 years of the current Arab governments demonizing Israel as the source of all evil in the world (well, and the US, of course) - they're just going to make peace? Welcome to the real world, where people hate to the point of being willing to blow themselves up, where people will kill themselves before making peace.

Posted by: Deoxy on July 22, 2002 11:16 AM

We put our troops into Saudi Arabia to further our own interests, and we should pull them out in a disciplined, phased manner for our own interests as well. The Middle East is a snake pit that probably is not likely to be cleaned up in our lifetimes -- and there are no doubt many surprises to come. Sultan Air Base is not going to be of much use to anyone who could do us real harm (are the Chinese likely to lease the base?). Why would we want to throw a tantrum and destroy the base? Let's be big boys. (On the other hand, let's bring back everything we reasonably can).

Posted by: Danny on July 22, 2002 11:26 AM

We have no right to destroy the base (Prince Sultan Air Base) as it is a Saudi base, used by the USAF and USN but belonging to the Saudis. However, most of the advanced equipment (all the nifty gee-whiz gadgets) are ours, and are more or less portable. If they ask us to leave, we take our toys and move to Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, or Oman, all of whom have demonstrated a willingness to accept more US aid in exchange for basing rights.

This issue is of particular concern to me, as the unit to which I am currently assigned deploys to Prince Sultan Air Base (four of my co-workers just returned from a three-month stay there). Uncertainty is never a good thing, and I'd hate to have to pack everything up and move because official relations have gone south. (We all know that the unofficial relations blow chunks, but the two governments are still making kissy-kissy sounds at one another.)

Posted by: timekeeper on July 22, 2002 02:29 PM

Sublet it to Israel... I like that. Do you think we could get a good price?

Posted by: Timothy Mason on July 22, 2002 02:45 PM

The problem with closing the base, in ANY of these scenarios, is this: if we pull out before the Second Iraqi War starts, Saddam can then threaten the Saudis. Who's to stop him, us? We aren't ready yet (by definition), and we just left the bases, so both our force mix and our political planning is jumbled. I have no confidence that the Saudi army could stop the Iraqi army (or the Northwestern Wildcats, for that matter) as it occupies key real estate in the Northeast corner. And then what? Now we're committed to fighting--but in Saudi Arabia, not Iraq. Not what we had in mind.

The draw-down option looks to be the best (i.e., the least-worst), but we can't afford to draw it down to nothing before the shooting starts up north. And every plane, soldier, etc. we leave there is unavailable for the Second Iraqi War.

Posted by: Steve White on July 22, 2002 04:06 PM

Eric M.:

1. Pseudonyms don't bother me, but I don't like comments from people with fake e-mail addresses. It makes you look like a troll. Please provide either a functional e-mail address or a web-page or both. Otherwise future comments are likely to be deleted.

2. If we wanted bases in the area just to defend Israel, it would be a lot easier to put them in Israel. The bases in Saudi Arabia have a lot to do with protecting Saudi Arabia, not least from Saddam Hussein. If Bush I had not fought Gulf War I, how long would it have taken for Iraqi forces to continue down the road from Kuwait into Arabia? Not very, I would guess.


I'm talking about if a direct request for withdrawal comes. This site suggests that the U.S. built most of the base, even if the Saudis paid for some of it. (Details not entirely clear.) What bugs me is the two-facedness of the Saudis, who are glad to have us construct huge bases on their territory, but then don't allow us to use them. Sort of like waiting for the boyfriend/girlfriend to finish painting and reshingling your house and then kicking him/her out.

Other comments:

I agree with Dean Esmay, Mike L., and Steve White that gradual quiet withdrawal is probably the least of evils, but it's still a bad thing, which is why I thought it worth brainstorming other options. If Saudi Arabia evicts us like deadbeat tenants just when we need the bases most, and we go quietly, it doesn't exactly help deter the (other) bad guys in the area.

Posted by: Dr. Weevil on July 22, 2002 06:42 PM

I would add an option:
#7 - Use the bases to take out Iraq. Claim that was what they were built for in the first place. Further claim thats what the Saud family signed on to when they allowed them to be built. Scratch the Saud family and clean up the political mess from there. For those that say your making a bad situation worse, I agree. But, the Saud money has successfully bought inaction on the U.S. part for a decade. It would at least change a static situation into a dynamic one.

Posted by: Tom on July 22, 2002 10:36 PM

PSAB was built at he request of the US, and the Saudis paid the majority of the construction costs. They pay some 75% of all operating costs as assistance-in-kind to the coalition forces. Basically, we run all the hi-tech, and the Saudis provide fuel, food , etc.
We could actually do a lot of what we need to do from outside the Kingdom, and we should leave after we take care of Saddam, because as much as I enjoyed my time there , and like individual Saudis, the regime and lifestyle are anathema to a lot of American ideals.

Posted by: rob on July 23, 2002 10:44 AM

Here in NC at Cherry Point The marines were just shipped out to Prince Sultan base in Saudi. A couple of hundred

Posted by: Monica Bounds on March 3, 2003 10:03 AM