Cohen Visits Troops in Persian Gulf
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA, Jun. 17, 1997 Defense Secretary William S. Cohen began a five-day trip to the Persian Gulf June 14 to visit U.S. troops and hold security talks with region leaders.
Cohen departed Brussels after meetings with senior American commanders and several Partnership for Peace representatives. A five-hour flight took him from the humidity and greenery of Belgium to the arid heat and barren sands of the Arabian Desert. In the days ahead, he would meet with U.S. troops at Prince Bin Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia, Camp Doha in Kuwait and with U.S. 5th Fleet sailors in Bahrain.
Cohen would also meet with Saudi Arabian King Fahd, Prince Sultan and other Saudi officials before moving to Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. The trip is Cohen's first to the region since taking office.
Getting out to the field, Cohen said, gives him a chance to gather troops' reactions and determine their needs so he can respond when deliberating future deployments and budgetary matters.
About 22,000 U.S. Central Command forces maintain security and stability in the Persian Gulf region, thereby protecting two-thirds of the world's oil reserves. Allied military forces participating in Operation Southern Watch fly hundreds of sorties daily, patrolling no-fly zones over Iraq.
Cohen said his first visit to Saudi Arabia reinforces the strong bond between the United States and the Persian Gulf nation. Close cooperation between the United States and this desert kingdom of nearly 19 million people promotes security, not only for Saudi Arabia, but for other gulf states as well, he said. He also said he intended to review security measures for U.S. forces in the region where the threat of terrorism is a constant reality.
Since 1995, two terrorist attacks killed 24 Americans -- five in Riyadh and 19 at Khobar Towers in Dhahran. The bombings sparked a vigorous, DoD-wide campaign to safeguard U.S. service members. Saudi Arabian officials arrested and executed four Saudis found guilty of the first bombing, but the Khobar Towers bombing investigation continues.
"The threat level remains high, but we're prepared to deal with it," Cohen said. "We have made enormous strides in force protection throughout the gulf region. We have taken a number of measures that we believe enhance our force protection across the full spectrum."
The United States remains committed to keeping U.S. forces in the region, Cohen said. "We maintain a fairly robust presence there and that will continue as long as the threat continues."
Regarding the threat posed by unfriendly Middle Eastern factions, Cohen said people are optimistic a newly elected, more moderate government in Iran may signal positive changes in the region.
The new regime has strong support from women and young people, but, he said, "Whether there's any change in the societal attitudes, as opposed to the clerical domination [of the previous leaders], is still an open question."
Echoing President Clinton's sentiment, Cohen said he remains "skeptical, but hopeful" the new government will bring about a change in Iran's policies.
"We need to see some signs on the part of the Iranians that this will mark a change in their behavior," Cohen said. "As long as they continue to support terrorism, as long as they continue to develop weapons of mass destruction, as long as they try to upset the Middle East peace process, our policy is not going to change."
Cohen said he believes Saudi Arabia and other coalition gulf states solidly support the U.S. containment policy toward Iran. He said any dialogue these states may develop with Iran's new government may be helpful in determining if there's going to be any change in the "heart and mind" of the Iranians.
In the meantime, Cohen said, he's taking a "show me" attitude toward the situation. "Obviously, people are hopeful this free election represents a change, but we'll have to wait and see," he said. "It will be some time before any visible changes can take place. For the time being, our policy is going to remain constant."
Iraq also remains a malevolent force in the region, Cohen said. Saddam Hussein continues his efforts to frustrate U.N. arms control inspectors, he said. "This is a continuation of a policy that's been under way for some time. There's been a pattern of tactics on the part of Saddam Hussein to prevent inspections from taking place."