This will end badly: US troops are back in Saudi Arabia
It was big news. U.S. military forces streamed into Saudi Arabia in response to a supposedly serious threat to the kingdom’s eastern region. The American troops were invited by nervous Saudi royals; it wasn’t an American invasion per se. Everything unfolded smoothly at first; still, the consequences would be severe for the United States. Pick up the latest Military Times, or any other news source, and the story will seem recent, if not worthy of any special attention or alarm. Indeed, U.S. troops are headed into Saudi Arabia right now, but that’s not the situation described above.
No, that happened in August 1990, in response to the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq—a nation, few remembered, that the U.S. had previously backed in its aggressive war with Iran (1980-88). The kingdom then served as a launch point for the U.S.-led Persian Gulf War (1991) which drove the Iraqis from tiny Kuwait. American soldiers pulled out of Saudi Arabia just over a decade later, in 2003. Now they’re rolling back in. History, as it’s said to do, seems to be repeating itself.
This time, however, the ostensible threat to Saudi Arabia comes from naughty Iran, the American national security state’s current favorite exaggerated villain. And, of course, Iran—unlike our onetime “partners” in Iraq—hasn’t invaded anybody. Thus, the U.S. troop infusion is more preemptive than reactive. It’s no matter; few Americans (or even most media/political elites) seem to notice.
Besides, what could go wrong? After all, the U.S. stations its military personnel all over the Middle East, so why not in “friendly” Saudi Arabia too? After all, Jared Kushner, the son-in-law in chief, maintains a well-known bromance with his pen pal, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), and President Trump revels in the profits from massive arms sales to the kingdom. Still, the answer to the question is a stark one: Quite a lot can go wrong, actually. It has before.
Sadly, given the apathy, short memory span and ignorance of much of the American populace, a brief (if dark) recent history lesson is in order. The year was, again, 1990. The Cold War was winding down; the U.S. confidently glowed in its new, powerful status as a unipolar hegemonic power. Except, Washington had set a few time bombs for itself—and boy would they explode.
First, the U.S. government backed a megalomaniacal dictator in Iraq during his eight-year invasion of Iran. After that war ended in a draw, Saddam Hussein thought perhaps he’d test his American support and gobble up small, but oil-rich, Kuwait. When Riyadh panicked, feared for its own bordering oil fields and invited in the U.S. military, the Saudi royals angered and alienated the other significant American time bomb: Osama bin Laden—the wealthy Islamist Saudi jihadi that Washington had backed (during the 1980s) in his fight with the Soviets in Afghanistan.
See, bin Laden believed his own legend: That his fellow foreign volunteers, known as “Afghan Arabs,” had turned the tide and driven the Soviets from Afghanistan. In reality, it was mostly native Afghan rebels, buoyed by generous American and Gulf States military aid, that had won the war—but that mattered little to bin Laden, the dogmatic, privileged son of a Saudi construction magnate. When Iraq swallowed Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia in 1990, the prodigal son offered to return, raise a new army of jihadis and defend the kingdom against Hussein’s forces. Rebuked by the Saudi king and overshadowed by the massive U.S. military, bin Laden developed a lifelong animus toward both the kingdom and America. The vendetta would prove extremely pivotal, a history-altering event.
After their swift victory in the Persian Gulf War, U.S. service members stuck around in Saudi Arabia for quite some time. It’s what the American empire does. Trouble was that not only Bin Laden, but an entire generation of Arab regional jihadis resented the U.S. military presence in the kingdom—especially in the vicinity of the Islamic holy sites of Mecca and Medina.
Nineteen American troops were killed in the 1996 terrorist bombing of the Air Force’s Khobar towers barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Not long after, in February 1998, America’s former “freedom fighter” bin Laden went so far as to declare war on the United States. The first of three justifications he listed involved the American military presence in Saudi Arabia. Specifically, he wrote:
For over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples.
Bin Laden was a veritable monster, but, well, he had a point.
The rest, as they say, was history. The bombing of two American embassies in Africa (1998), the bombing of the USS Cole at the port of Aden, in Yemen (2000), and, most tragically, the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Thousands of Americans died in the combined attacks; President Bush the Younger started a war that’s yet to end and can’t be won. It’s been going for nearly 18 years. The total cost (so far): 7,000 American troops dead, at least 244,000 foreign civilians killed and a cool $5.9 trillion in U.S. tax dollars wasted.
Perhaps American policymakers, pundits and the people at large ought to remember this tragic course of events, what the great author Chalmers Johnson referred to as “blowback.” If they did, it’d be clear that today’s fresh infusion of U.S. troops back into the vicinity of the Islamic holy places is a major event with potentially devastating consequences for the U.S. military—and perhaps even the American homeland.
It seems this latest move into Saudi Arabia is all risk and no reward. What can the U.S. possibly achieve in the kingdom: protecting a venal Saudi theocracy that can defend itself quite easily from the inflated threat of sanctions-laden Iran? The risks, on the other hand, are many, and bear striking resemblance to what did unfold the last time Washington thought it prudent to garrison Saudi Arabia.
Maybe the U.S. will get lucky and suffer only a few terror attacks on its troops in the kingdom. Then again, Washington might just blunder into an unnecessary, unwinnable, unethical war with the Islamic Republic of Iran, a nation of 80 million, and further destabilize an already precarious region. The nightmare, but totally possible, scenario would be the radicalization of new Saudi and transnational jihadis who then take the fight to New York or Los Angeles.
It’s happened before, back when America was far less unpopular in the Mideast and the Muslim world than it is today. Don’t count it out.
Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army major and regular contributor to Truthdig. His work has also appeared in Harper’s, The L.A. Times, The Nation, Tom Dispatch, The Huffington Post, and The Hill. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, “Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.” He co-hosts the progressive veterans’ podcast “Fortress on a Hill.” Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.