America's Past, Present and Future in the Gulf

Michele Norris talks with Robert Scales, a retired Army major general, about the past, present and future of American military deployments to the Persian Gulf.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

With President Bush's visit to the Persian Gulf, we turn our focus next to the overall U.S. military presence in the region. Questions remain about the long-term needs and goals of the American military there.

Joining now to discuss this is retired Army Major General Robert Scales. I want to begin with Kuwait, since this is where the President actually happens to be today. When you talk about this region, you so often — we so often are focused on Iran or Iraq, but it sounds like this is a country that we don't hear as much about right now, but a country that is of great strategic importance to the U.S. military.

Major General ROBERT SCALES (Retired, U.S. Army): Kuwait is extremely important to U.S. interests in the area for a couple of reasons. First of all, it's America's aircraft carrier in the region. The Kuwaitis have been very open to the stationing of troops, logistical facilities and, of course, air power. Secondly, is its geostrategic position. The fact that it's juxtaposed between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It's centrally located, and therefore, geographically, very, very important to our interests.

So in terms of long term prospective, the United States needs to have basing rights in Kuwait. It needs to have good relationship with the Kuwaitis. Because at the end of the day, this is where most of America's combat power is going to be centralized in the region.

NORRIS: So most of the combat power is there. There was a time when we had a very large presence in Saudi Arabia. Much less so now.

Maj. Gen. SCALES: The Saudi Arabian story is a cautionary tale. There is good reason to have a presence in the Middle East, and there are bad reasons to have a presence in the Middle East. And one of the lessons that we've learned is the extreme sensitivity, particularly among Muslim states of any foreign presence in their region, whether it's American or coalition or anyone else for that matter. You could make an argument that a great deal of foment in the region really was generated by this prolonged presence of American forces, particularly American air power in Saudi Arabia.

And the temperature went down considerably when the last American soldier left the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But what's oftentimes missed is the naval presence and the air presence in places like Bahrain and the Gulf States. And clearly, the policy is two-fold. First of all, to prevent the spread of radical Islam. And secondly, to hold Iran and the leadership of Iran in check.

NORRIS: I want to turn back to Iraq, if I could. And, you know, there's a debate about the eventual withdrawal of troops.

Maj. Gen. SCALES: Right.

NORRIS: it's not clear when that will happen, certainly, how that will happen -depending on who's elected come November of 2008. As we look to the long term, though, should we be thinking of Germany or Japan as models here, what kind of long term presence in Iraq are we likely to see? And are we likely to see bases in Iraq or elsewhere in the region?

Maj. Gen. SCALES: Iraq is different than Germany and Japan. There will be a long-term presence of American forces in Iraq, but it won't form the same function that our forces formed in Europe and Asia. Remember, the sole purpose for us being there is to make sure that the Iraqis can stand on their own. So it's an advise, train and assist function. It's not a combat function over the longer term. I believe it's in America's best interest over the long term - I'm talking now in terms of years, perhaps even a decade or more - for us to plan on a complete withdrawal from Iraq.

So as soon as the Iraq nation is able to stand on its own, particularly if it's able to defend its own borders against potential outside aggressors, then it's time to plan on a substantial withdrawal of American forces.

NORRIS: And over the long haul, whether we're talking years or perhaps decades…

Maj. Gen. SCALES: It's hard to say.

NORRIS: …will the military have a footprint within the country of Iraq or will it be just outside?

Maj. Gen. SCALES: America will have a footprint inside Iraq, I would say, probably for about a decade. It's going to take that long to build an Iraqi military that's able to stand alone. Stand alone for two reasons. First, obviously, to defeat the insurgency. But remember, our long term plan is to make Iraq a military presence in the region that's able to act as a countervailing force against the Iranians.

NORRIS: General Scales, thanks for talking to us. Always a pleasure to talk to you.

Maj. Gen. SCALES: Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: That was retired Army Major General Robert Scales. He's also a defense consultant.

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