While the storms of protest engulf the Middle East and North Africa could be portents of good things for the populations of countries such as Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain, they may signal difficult times ahead for the U.S. military. Starting in the late 1970s with the U.S.-brokered Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and the creation of the Rapid Deployment Force, the U.S. military has become deeply committed to and present in the Middle East. Since that time, the U.S. has gone from virtually no presence in the region to conducting two major conflicts plus deploying an array of forces for other missions from peacekeeping to humanitarian assistance to counter-piracy. The presence of the U.S. military in the region could be completely unhinged by the current wave of uprisings.
Today, the U.S. military is all over the region. There are, most obviously, the deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Even as it watches events unfold in Egypt, the Department of Defense has to worry about the security of the rump battalion stationed in the Sinai to protect the peace there. American military assistance transformed the Egyptian military and the relationship continues to this day. The American presence in the Persian Gulf grew from a single command ship to major deployments of naval, air and land forces. The U.S. Fifth Fleet has its headquarters in Bahrain; supplies and even military mail are flown out of that country daily to Afghanistan. Kuwait has become a major anchor for U.S. forces dealing with Iraq. U.S. forces also operate in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and, to a limited extent, Saudi Arabia.
In addition, Middle East nations have become major acquirers of U.S. advanced military hardware. The sale of M-1s to Egypt in the 1980s basically saved that line from an early termination. Saudi Arabia has been a major purchaser of U.S. aircraft, with a new agreement in the works to acquire some 84 F-15s plus Apache and Blackhawk helicopters. Similarly, the UAE is acquiring 60 advanced F-16 Block 60 fighters as well as THAAD ballistic missile interceptors. Future U.S. export opportunities include the F-35 fighter to Israel and the Littoral Combat Ship to Saudi Arabia.
The current wave of popular uprisings may be profoundly positive in terms of bringing better governance and increased personal freedom to tens of millions of people. But this same wave of proto-democratization also could be extremely disruptive to the U.S. military situation in the region. The loss of Bahrain as a major air and sea hub could dislocate U.S. operations in the region. Equally distressing would be any challenge to the political stability of Kuwait or the UAE. Operations in Afghanistan would be severely affected, possibly fatally compromised. Finally, there is the broader problem for regional peace and stability if political unrest were to spread to Jordan or Saudi Arabia.
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