UDAIRI RANGE, KUWAIT
With a wartime gusto, American military helicopters carry their assault teams up over the desert horizon of Kuwait. Engulfed in violent swirls of sand, they disappear as they land.
US marines, disgorged from the cloud, find themselves 7,000 miles from home, rifles pointed toward Iraq. There is a giddy sense of dj vu as the 1990-1991 Gulf War rushes back.
But this time the only "enemy" is a pile of animal bones and a littering of spent shell casings. It is December, and these marines are temporarily replacing 5,000 Army troops here. Capt. Monte DeBel knocks the sand from his goggles and explains. "We're here for peace in the Middle East, sir," he says.
That media-friendly line came from his superiors, he adds. US taxpayers pay nearly $50 billion each year for Persian Gulf deployments, a price tag concerned senators call "staggering."
But are some 20,000 American troops here really ensuring "peace?"
It is this heavy US military presence, combined with a large political presence in the Arab-Israeli peace process, that makes America appear to some to be the "indispensable" nation.
But critics charge that US forces now in the Gulf "containing" Iran and Iraq are also destabilizing allies such as Saudi Arabia. And they wonder whether the US - long an ardent supporter of Israel - can be an "honest broker" between Arabs and the Jewish state.
"For many years, the Middle East made its living on world conflict," says Shimon Peres, Israel's former prime minister and architect of the Arab-Israeli peace process. "The window of opportunity [for peace] is narrowing, because the last seven or eight years we've just had one superpower," he says. "It's not going to last forever."
No one doubts that the US alone is able to project military power across the Mideast. US commanders led an unprecedented 28-nation coalition with 500,000 Americans during the Gulf War. They confirm they will fight again if American interests, oil and allies, are threatened. US reliance on imported oil has nearly doubled in the last 10 years to 54 percent, the portion from the Gulf soon expected to hit 25 percent.
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