W. Andrew Terrill has just published a monograph for the US Army Strategic Studies Institute titled "Regional Fears of Western Primacy and the Future of U.S. Middle Eastern Basing Policy." Much of the text is a fairly standard, albeit useful, review of the history of US basing in the region, along with a useful overview of the current status of US bases in the Gulf. Terrill is scathing about the idea of permanent bases in Iraq. At several points in the report, he says that the US "should not seek long-term military facilities in Iraq, unless strongly implored by a wide spectrum of the Iraqi leadership to do so." Since that isn't going to happen, the US should conduct future strategic planning on the assumption that it will not be based in Iraq.
If not Iraq, then what? Most of Terrill's study concentrates on how to manage the political problems raised by enhanced 'over the horizon' basing in the small Gulf Arab states. Unlike Iraq, which he sees as unlikely to ever embrace an American presence, Terrill sees that most of the smaller Gulf states perceive a common interest with the US - particularly protection against Iran, and to a lesser extent against Saudi Arabia (whether as a regional hegemon or as a failed state, a possibility he suggest weighs on the Gulf leaders in private if never in public). While Terrill describes relations between Washington and most of the Gulf Arab states as very strong, he also points out that
"strong Gulf Arab ties with the United States also may obfuscate the fact that these links remain subject to disruption, downgrading, and serious domestic criticism within the Gulf countries... While the current leaderships of the Gulf Arab states are willing to work with the United States to overcome bilateral problems, significant portions of the populations of these countries may become more open to anti-American polemics and propaganda if the United States visibly treats their countries in disrespectful ways." (p.46)
Two points therefore become essential to thinking about American basing in the region: public diplomacy and democratization. On public diplomacy, Terrill is particularly scathing about the Dubai World Ports incident, although he praises the administration for standing firm against Congressional pressures. In general, he urges the US to pay much more careful attention to how its presence in these small Gulf states plays politically, and to work much harder to treat the Gulf states as strategic partners rather than as assets both in public and in private.
Democratization is a tougher nut. Terrill's very first recommendation is that "The United States should treat basing rights and democratization as issues that must be balanced and rationalized." (p.79) For all the complications, he is frank: "there is no way for the United States to maintain bases in the Arab world while totally insulating itself from the political dynamics of the region." That's a useful reminder, but offers little practical guidance as to what to do about democratic openings which give voice to criticism of American bases. From my perspective, I think that it is far better in the long term to have public debates - even contentious, nasty public debates - about a American military presence which the rulers see as vital to their security than to try to shut it down and keep it private. Shutting down public debate about military relations with the US is tantamount to shutting down all meaningful political debate - an attempt to impose "red lines" governing public debate which has been crippling to public discourse in many Arab countries over the years.
One other interesting bit in the report has to do with Qatar. Terrill points to the very significant military and political cooperation with the US, as well as the importance of the Al- Udeid Air Base. On al-Jazeera, he says "this highly controversial station may provide Qatar with the political cover to maintain its expanded military relationship with the United States." (p.53) He goes so far as to say that "the United States now has what amounts to a special relationship with Qatar that needs to be continuously nurtured despite differences over al-Jazeera" (recommendation #4, p.80).
Not a lot of really new stuff in the piece, overall, but still an interesting overview of where US basing currently stands and where it might go.