For the first time since the 1991 victory over Iraq, senior lawmakers are questioning the massive U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf region - more than a dozen ships and 18,000 troops.
Republicans long have criticized President Clinton for putting U.S. troops into too many low-priority trouble spots.
But now, according to an unreleased report by GOP members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, they are scrutinizing the depth and cost of the U.S. military commitment to the world’s richest oil-producing region - especially since there are no formal commitments from the host governments to allow a long-term U.S. presence.
This time, the criticism is directed not at Clinton but at military commanders for maintaining warlike operations in a time of peace.
“I was just aghast when I saw what was going on, in terms of planning, by the expansion of Aviano (Air Base in Italy), expansion of the Kuwait deployment, expansion of the deployment in Saudi Arabia, without any consultation with us,” said Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
The report is the product of a January tour Stevens and his colleagues took of U.S. military operations in the Persian Gulf region and in Bosnia.
In Saudi Arabia, 222 aircraft are flying about 200 sorties a day to enforce a no-fly zone over southern Iraq and to watch for threatening Iraqi troop movements. In Kuwait, the Army is operating almost constant training exercises.
And over Bosnia, warplanes out of Aviano fly sorties daily even though there is no fighting and there are no hostile aircraft.
Sens. Conrad Burns, R-Mont.; Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.; Thad Cochran, R-Miss.; and Robert Bennett, R-Utah, as well as Stevens, said such major commitments would have involved intense congressional debate in decades past.
But Army Gen. Binford Peay III, head of the U.S. Central Command that is responsible for the Persian Gulf, defended the deployment, which includes 18,550 Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine personnel.
“The forces that are in the region are absolutely required,” Peay said. “To cut those forces would increase the operational risk to the region.”
While Peay is worried about a resumption of Iraqi aggression, the immediate concern confronting lawmakers is a $2 billion supplemental defense budget request to pay for unanticipated costs in Bosnia and the Persian Gulf region this year.
When this amount is added to what had been budgeted earlier, the Pentagon is spending $2.5 billion in Bosnia and $714 million in “Southwest Asia,” the Pentagon’s term for the Persian Gulf.