Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. would have “a continuing robust presence in the region.” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta indicated that robust means around 40,000 troops, slightly more that we still have in Iraq, with 23,000 of them based in Kuwait.
The U.S. already has a substantial presence in Kuwait, but they are generally logistics personnel in support of the Iraq mission. Presumably, they would be phased out in favor of combat and special operations troops.
This would not be a precedent for Kuwait. Between the two Iraq wars, we had a full combat brigade and massive stockpiles of military supplies stationed there. The continuing military presence will certainly irritate those who believe we should be out of the region altogether.
Maintaining a substantial U.S. presence in the region only seems a reasonable insurance policy against a general collapse in Iraq or threats from Iran — although the better option, had not Obama and lead negotiator Joe Biden not bungled talks with Iraqis so badly, would have been to keep a strong residual force in Iraq itself.
As part of our staying on, the Pentagon plans to develop close ties with the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council — Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Two of those nations took part in the NATO-led coalition in Libya, a willingness to fight being a desirable quality in a prospective ally.
None of this pleases Iran. On a visit to Iraq, Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi, whose country has been notably meddlesome in Iraqi politics, said, “Iraq does not need anyone to meddle in its internal affairs.” That’s for Iraq’s officials to say, not Iran’s.
And Salehi said, “Iraqis know better than anyone else how to govern their country.” That rather glibly overlooks the 23-year rule of Saddam Hussein and the eight-year war he launched against Iran.
Salehi had a verdict on the U.S. keeping troops in the region: “The Americans always have a deficit, unfortunately, in rationality and prudence.”
From time to time, that’s been true, but it’s for us to say, not the top envoy of a corrupt theocracy. And Iran talking big, as if we’ve already left the region, is reason enough to stay on.