Entangling Alliances

Recent U.S. Covert and Military Policy in Mid-East

By Scott Henson
February 1991; pages 1, 6-7, 15; Volume 2, No. 4

Protestors burn George Bush effigy
Protestors burn an effigy of George Bush
Photo by Alan Pogue

U.S. mililtary intervention in the Persian Gulf did not begin on January 16, 1991, or even last August after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Preparations for the deployment of Operation Desert Shield, now Desert Storm, began with the creation of the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force, now the U.S. Central Command in the early 1980's and continued throughout the 1980's.

Some six hours into the Bush Administration's war on Iraq, CBS correspondent Bob Simon, speaking from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, reported that U.S. aircraft on early sorties apparently were returning to Saudi Arabian bases previously unknown to the on-site press. Preparations for such a war, Simon said, must have been years in the making because it seemed that the Arabian Peninsula was covered by heretofore hidden mililtary airstrips.

But if the CBS correspondent had been paying attention to U.S. military policy in the Persian Gulf before August 2, he would have known that the United States had been preparing these bases for use in an offensive strike for the last decade. The unit coordinating these preparations for all four branches of the armed services was the U.S. Central Command.

The roots of the Central Command can be traced to the "Carter doctrine", established in January 1980, which pledged that the U.S. would "use any means necessary, including military force" to ensure "the free movement of Middle Eastern oil" and created the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (RDJTF) for intervention in the Third World. But when Ronald Reagan took office one year later, the American military presence in the Middle East was still relatively undeveloped.

The Reagan administration in the early '80s dramatically expanded the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force, focusing it on the Middle East and, specifically, the Persian Gulf. Martha Wenger (Middle East Reports, November-December 1984) reported that the "U.S. Central Command [was] created January 1, 1983 as the heir of the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force. Central Command controls a territory that had long been divided between the European and Pacific Commands: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, North and South Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea/northern Indian Ocean."

In his Annual Report to Congress for Fiscal Year 1983, DoD Secretary Caspar Weinberger described the structure of the RDJTF, later to become the Central Command: "Although no new combat forces were created for the RDJTF, its commander has been given operational control over several army units and Air Force tactical fighter squadrons. In addition he has access to a reservoir of forces from which he could draw additional units in time of crisis." "In principle, most of our general purpose forces are in some sense available for RDJTF missions," Weinberger declared. Wenger estimated in 1984 that "300,000 troops could be requisitioned in a full deployment, [although] all of them would be 'on loan' from U.S.-based Army, Navy, Marine Corps or Air Force units."

Without subtantial planning already in place, moving 300,000 troops halfway around the globe would be a logistical nightmare. The military had to prepare an infrastructure to support such a large number of solders well in advance of their deployment. The most difficult aspect of that planning was the fact that Central Command headquarters were 7,000 miles away from the Persian Gulf. The Christian Science Monitor (8-1-84) reported that "Lt. General Robert C. Kingston, [then] commander-in-chief of the U.S. Ceutral Command would love to have a base of operations somewhere in the 19 countries of the Mideast, Horn of Africa, and South Asia that he oversees. But, for now, he must content himself with a home base in Florida [at the old Strategic Air Command bunkers at McDill Air Force Base] and a 'forward headquarters element' afloat in the Persian Gulf" near the British Island Diego Garcia. Perhaps Kingston's dream of a permanent Middle Eastern base for the Central Command has finally come true - Defense Secretary Dick Cheney has said that as a result of the present conflict, large contingents of U.S. troops will remain in the region for "years."

But before the current crisis, the United States was forced to use more innovative tactics to gain a foothold in the region. Richard Halloran (New York Times Magazine, 4-1-84) wrote that "As a substitute for bases under United States control, American diplomats have pioneered a new concept for the Central Command, persuading several nations in the region to give American forces access to their military installations. In most cases the United States pays for expanding and improving these bases." Halloran goes on to report "The relationship between the Central Command and the countries of the region is furthered, General Kingston believes, by the command's role as the agency for administering American security assistance in the area. In 1983, the United States provided $7.7 billion worth of assistance in military sales, government financed arms shipments, military construction, training grants, economic support for military programs, and commercial arms exports to 14 of the 19 nations in the Central Command's operating area, plus Morocco." In other words the United States used military aid and arms sales as a prod to force other nations to give us access to miIilary installations.

In 1984 Wenger documented mililtary installations to which the Central Command had access in the following countries; Bahrain, Cyprus, Diego Garcia, Djibouti, Egypt, Kenya, Liberia, Morocco, Oman, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Turkey.

While pundits today decry the $70 million per day, $3 billion per month cost of Desert Shield - with costs sure to skyrocket now that combat has ensued - the actual costs of the deployment are much higher, and we started paying them years ago. The Christian Science Monitor (8-1-84) cited former Pentagon analyst Earl Ravenal estimating that in 1985, $59 billion of the DoD budget went to "rapidly mobile forces poised for foreign intervention," while of that $47 billion went to the Persian Gulf alone. If we divide just the $47 billion by 12 months, we find that the 1985 cost of the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf exceeded $3.9 billion per month. These figures include "everything from camouflaged flashlights and a private's paycheck to aircraft carriers." Documents with more recent figures, requested from Congressman J.J. Pickle's office, unfortunately did not arrive before presstime. But basing our calculations on Ravenal's 1985 figures, we can conservatively estimate that the true costs of the current deployment are easily double of the $3 billion per month touted by the press.

Americans shouldn't be surprised at the speed with which the U.S. forces assembled in the Operation Desert Shield. Thanks to the U.S. Central Command, the troops, infrastructure and logistical planning were being prepared for most of the last decade. If indeed Bush and the military aim to create a permanent base for the Central Command in the Persian Gulf, that would help explain reports that the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, told Saddam Hussein in July 1990 "the United States took no sides in the border dispute with Kuwait." (The Economist, 9-29-90) We will have to wait for some latter-day Daniel Ellsberg to release the Pentagon Papers II before we know the real story.


The U.S. presence in the Persian Gulf must be seen as the culmination of a decade of U.S. policy, both open and covert, in the Gulf region and abroad.

The United States spend much of the 1980's funneling military hardware, personnel and other resources into the gulf region. According to a report by Richard Grimmes of the Congressional Research Service, arms sales to the Middle East accounted for more than 80 percent of all U.S. arms deliveries to the Third World between 1978 and 1985. And according to a recent supplement to Middle East Report, at the height of the Iran-Iraq war, Saudi Arabia spent more money on arms and military expenses than both Iran and Iraq - both nominally and in per-capita spending.

The infrastructure for the current U.S. deployment within Saudi Arabia itself began with the AWACS arms deal of 1981. The Saudi AWACS deal was merely part of the larger military strategy to put a structure in place capable of handling the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force. Wenger writes that "According to Navy and Air Force sources, once fully developed, the Saudi AWACS, operated by U.S. technicians, will be capable of handling air defense radar for all the aircraft on a U.S. carrier or in a Marine Corps wing, up to two U.S. Air force fighter wings and the Saudi air defense forces."

But the implications of the AWACS deal and the subsequent U.S.-Saudi alliance extended far beyond the Middle East to Central America, Southern Africa and elsewhere.

From Peace Shield to Desert Shield

In the fall of 1981 King Fahd of Saudi Arabia received a contract to purchase $8.5 billion of AWACS aircraft from the United States. General Richard Secord, of Iran-contra fame, steered the sale through Congress against heavy opposition by the pro-Israel lobby. Fired Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, then a National Security Council aide, was the administration's point-man in the negotiations with the Saudis, for which he received the prestigious Defense Meritorious Service Medal in 1983.

The arms program, formally called Peace Shield, was officially launched in 1984 and specifies that 35 percent of the ground support systems for the AWACS will be installed and run jointly by American and Saudi state companies. The AWACS deal was part of the larger military strategy to create an infrastructure capable of handling the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force. Martha Wenger (MERIP, November-December 1984) wrote "According to Navy and Air Force sources, once fully deployed, the Saudi AWACS, operated by U.S. technicians, will be capable of handling air defense radar for all the aircraft on a U.S. carrier or in a Marine Corps wing, up to two U.S. Air force fighter wings and the Saudi air defense forces."

The deal also created a space for American arms companies to further exploit the Saudi market. Since the initial AWACS arms sale in 1981, according to Business International's Investing, Licensing and Trade Conditions in Saudi Arabia (ILT), May 1990, "Recent foreign investment projects are generally linked to the large defense contracts to US companies under the Peace Shield program." By the end of March 1990, ILT reports, five projects had been approved under the first phase of Peace Shield, and had been capitalized to the tune of $278 million. Others were being arranged. U.S. companies entering the Saudi market through the Peace Shield include General Electric, Boeing, Westinghouse, ITT, Federal Electric and Pratt and Whitney.

Thus, the AWACS deal and the Peace Shield program not only enhanced the U.S. military position in the area, but were also quite lucrative for the American companies involved. But increased military "readiness" wasn't the only benefit accrued by the Reagan administration from Operation Peace Shield.

King Fahd and the Contra Connection

The AWACS arms deal of 1981 - and, subsequently, Operation Peace Shield - has been crucial to the development of the Administration's military strategy, not only in the Middle East but throughtout the world. As a result of what one adminstrative aid called "the AWACS rule," (San Francisco Examiner, 6/27/86) the Administration was able to channel Saudi investments directly into "anti-communist movements" all over the globe. "The Saudi agreement to fund insurgencies was not mentioned in the [Congressional] debate over the $8.5 billion sale." (New York Times 2-4-87).

Baghdad bombed
A residential area in Baghdad bombed by US planes. The United States prepared for this war for the last decade.

American businessman Sam Joseph Bamieh testified before the House Subcommittee on Africa (6/1/87) that in a conversation in late 1981, King Fahd "said he was very happy about the fact that finally they got an agreement on the AWACS ... an understanding was arrived at whereby, he said, we will supply funds, meaning the Saudi funds, and raise other funds from friendly governments to Saudi Arabia and sources other than Arabia, to fight, to help you guys fight, the anti-communist movement around the world." Under questioning Bamieh stated that the agreement included no specific locations. "When I asked him where, he says, anywhere the Administration will ask us to. When I said when, he says, whenever they ask us to."

Much of the structure of Operation Peace Shield came about as a result of negotiations between the King and the Administration over the extent of Saudi support for these movement. Bamieh testified that Fahd "was trying to get as many Saudi nationals [as possible] to be part of the training to - on how to use the AWACS and its systems, and he said he managed to get a better number than he thought he could, simply because he agreed to fund anti-communist movements."

Although the recipients of Saudi funds were originally left open, the President, apparently, did eventually ask for funding for the contras as well as other anti-Communist groups. "President Reagan's diary indicates that he discussed Saudi Arabian to the Nicaraguan contras during a private meeting with Saudi King Fahd in February 1985," says the Wall Street Journal (5-13-87).

The Journal also reported (5-12-87) that former National Security Director Robert McFarlane testified before Congress that "within a few days [after the 1985 Reagan-Fahd meeting], the Saudis agreed to contribute an additional $25 million to the Contras. He said that when he told Mr. Reagan of the Saudi pledge, the president's reaction was one of "gratitude, satisfaction, not of surprise." In addition, the same article notes that "McFarlane said he separately informed Vice President George Bush of the contributions."

The New York Times (2-4-87) corroborated the story that Saudi contra funding was an explicit quid-pro-quo for the AWACS deal: King Fahd and other top Saudi Arabian officials agreed in 1981 to aid anti-Communist resistance groups as part of the arrangement allowing them to buy sophisticated American AWACS radar planes according to United States officials and others familiar with the deal."

The Times reported that "The Senate Intelligence Committee also heard testimony about approximately $30 million the Saudis donated for the contras." In addition, the same article said "Congressional investigations of the Iran-contra affair have uncovered a Central Intelligence Agency bank account in Switzerland holding $250 million the Saudis donated for the Afghan [mujahedeen] guerrillas."

The Southern Africa Connections

But at least as important as the aid to the contras, the "AWACS rule" also benefited the UNITA forces in Angola under Joseph Savimbi during the period when U.S. aid to UNITA was banned under the Clark amendment (1976-85). In particular, Sam Joseph Bamieh testified before Congress that he had been approached by Saudi businessman Ali Bin Mussallam in 1983 about a $100 million dollar contract with the Moroccan government for vehicles, which would be paid for by Saudi Arabia.

Of that $100 million, Mussallam indicated that the Saudis wanted $10-15 million "to go help the Angolan rebels." That's in addition to a $50 million Saudi support package received by Savimbi the year before.

Also, CIA Director William Casey had been crucial in lining up Saudi oil for the South African apartheid regime at a time when South Africa faced an international oil embargo.

In 1984, the year the Peace Shield program was officially launched, King Fahd began to hold private meetings with CIA director William Casey according to documentation and testimony revealed in the Congressional investigation. General Richard Secord, in a meeting with Bamieh, asked the businesman to set up an offshore company which would assist in the incremental sale of oil to South Africa.

According to Bamieh, "this company would buy the oil from the Saudis and then make about 75 cents, a dollar, a barrel by turning around and selling it to South Africa." Secord suggested that Bamieh's company could make $50-100 million dollars a year in profits from this one arrangement alone. In an effort to convince the businessman to accept the arrangement, Secord pointed toward the Mediterranean Sea and said "Bill Casey is out there, Mr. Casey is out there, with His Majesty, King Fahd, talking about those same issues."

South Africa, despite the embargo, has developed huge reserves by stockpiling from these illegal purchases. Recent issues of The Oil Daily outline South Africa's plan to offer some of its reserves on the open market. South African Finance Minister DuPlessis said in an interview, "When the oil boycott against us is lifted we will begin to reduce these reserves."

South Africa is highly vulnerable to effective oil sanctions, as 20 percent of its energy is oil-based and its military/police sector is dependent on fuels refined from imported crudes. South Africa produces no crude oil domestically, yet the government maintains oil surpluses. This indicates that the country has easily circumvented the embargo. Additionally, higher prices have led more producers recently to break the sanctions.

In the Winter 1989/90 issue of Middle East Review, Arthur Klinghoffer writes that Saudi Arabia and other Arab oil producers took over supplying South Africa with oil after the Iranian revolution in 1979. After the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini immediately imposed an embargo. South Africa "was dependent on Iran for 96 percent of its [oil] supply at that time."

Although "since 1979 all individual members of OPEC have declared themselves in support of the embargo against South Africa," Klinghoffer writes, "Gulf oil now [represents] about 80 percent of all oil purchases by South Africa. Of that, "Saudi Arabia is clearly the largest supplier, responsible for some roughly one-quarter of Pretoria's imports."

Today, while Saudi Arabia arranges for permanent air support units from the United States, its trading partner, South Africa, takes advantage of the frenzy in the international oil market to attempt a general end to oil embargo, with the help of the Bush administration. According to Petroleum Intelliegence Weekly (10-29-90), "The anticipated end to the embargo on oil sales to South Africa could pave the way for the country to become an oil hub of international importance ... The lifting of trade sanctions would make it possible for the Cape of Good Hope to be developed as a major export-refining center ... South Africa's pivotal position on trade routes from the Persian Gulf to the Western Hemisphere - as well as its proximity to West African producers - gives it a unique vantage point from which to market products to other African countries, South America and southern Asia."

If South Africa does become an international oil hub after the U.S. lifts its embargo, it will have the Reagan-Bush administration and King Fahd to thank for it.

The Larger Perspective: Fahd as 'Milk Cow'

According to a landmark New York Times article (June 21, 1987), entitled "Prop for U.S. Policy: Secret Saudi Funds," the Saudi's support for the contras and UNITA "were not an isolated case. Rather, they were part of a well-established pattern of Saudi diplomacy that can be traced through the last four administrations." The Times quotes a "former diplomat with wide experience in the Middle East" as saying, "Any time we needed them to pay for something, we always turned to the Saudis. We viewed them as this great milk cow."

The Times article, which is must reading for anyone wanting to understand the U.S.-Saudi relationship, describes the U.S. use of Saudi funds as a way the Executive branch could sidestep having to submit its policies to Congress for funding approval. The article quoted William Quandt, former NSC Middle East specialist under Carter, explaining "It takes King Fahd about 10 second to sign a check. It takes Congress weeks to debate the smallest issue of this sort." Quandt told the Times that, concerning the contra funding, "We were selling them a lot of arms and felt some quid pro quo was reasonable to expect." As noted above, Congress was not informed that Saudi funding of anti-Communist military forces was a "quid pro quo" when the AWACS sale were approved.

The Saudis were also central to the secret infrastructure Reagan administration officials set up for the arms-for-hostages deals with Iran. According to the October 28, 1986 San Francisco Chronicle, "Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, who is close with several Israeli arms dealers, was a key figure in putting the deal together, which involved having arms transferred by Israel to Iran on behalf of the United States. Some sources say they believe that Khashoggi may have been acting either tacitly or explicitly on behalf of the Saudis. These sources say Saudi Arabia may have feared that Tehran would defeat Iraq in the Persian Gulf war and wanted a link with Tehran as insurance." Joe Stork in the October 1980 Middle East Reports wrote the Khashoggi is particularly close to Crown Prince Fahd ... [and] this connection has made him worth billions to Northtrop and Raytheon, to name just two of his clients." While Khashoggi may have performed this service for the U.S. without King Fahd's knowledge, we must at least question whether he would have engaged in such a sensitive endeavor without the permission of the man with whom his connections had earned him billions.

The Times reported (6-21-87) that "it is not unusual for the United States to seek the help of other countries to pursue foreign policy objectives. The intelligence committees on Capitol Hill were told of many of the Saudi operations and gave their consent. But in several cases, such as the aid to the contras [and to UNITA and the South African oil deals], Congress was apparently not informed." The Times reported that "In the last two decades, Saudi money has assisted pro-Western movements or governments in such countries as Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, the Sudan, Pakistan, Zaire, and Nicaragua," among others.

President Bush, then, is not simply protecting "the American way of life" with Operation Desert Shield. He's protecting a "milk cow" that has been a key source of funds for U.S. public and covert military policy for two decades, including some of the most sensitive covert actions in the Reagan-Bush era. He's also protecting a key customer of the U.S. arms industry - one of the largerst weapons purchasers in the world.

Kathy Mitchell provided research assistance for this article.