WASHINGTON // The United States should deepen military and strategic ties with GCC countries as it seeks a sustainable and effective military force in the region to counter Iranian ambitions, according to a recent congressional report.
To this end, the US should help bolster GCC cooperation and individual countries' military capabilities while also boosting its own presence in part by scaling down forces in Europe.
The recommendations were contained in a report that carries no legislative clout, but is a good reflection of administration thinking on the Arabian Gulf region, analysts said.
The report - The Gulf Security Architecture: Partnership with the Gulf Cooperation Council - was commissioned by John Kerry, the Democratic head of the US Senate's Committee on Foreign Relations and was made public on Tuesday.
It identified seven key challenges for the US in the region as part of a global recalibration of US military power away from Europe and towards Asia and the Middle East.
In the Gulf, these challenges are military, political and economic. The study recommends that the US help GCC countries promote reforms and diversify economies, while encouraging closer ties with Iraq.
The US should also encourage GCC governments to address the grievances of their own populations and pursue governance reforms. Governments responsive to their own people's needs are "more stable over the long term". However, Washington should also be "prudent" about "interfering in other nations' domestic matters", the report adds, with Bahrain presenting Washington with a "difficult" policy challenge.
Bahrain, a key US ally and the base for the US Navy's Fifth fleet, has been rocked by anti-government protests.
The overarching aim of US strategy in the region, however, is to preserve stability in the region by creating a "counterweight" to Iran. The "centrepiece" of that strategy is deepening security cooperation with GCC countries.
To that end, the report concludes, there needs to be a security architecture based on three pillars. A "small but capable" US military presence combined with greater "burden-sharing" by GCC countries that should complement "steady US diplomatic engagement" for governance reforms.
There is little change in the strategy, one that was started in 2006 as part of the Gulf Security Dialogue, America's principal security coordination mechanism with the GCC.
But it does represent a realisation in Washington that the GCC is not just the most effective US partner in the region, it is the only one, said Wayne White, a former deputy director of the US State Department's Office of Near East and South Asia intelligence analysis.
"Once Iraq turned sour for the US," said Mr White, "it became imperative that the GCC be bolstered further as frankly right now the only US-related Gulf security alliance."
The report suggests three main areas where the GCC's military capabilities need to be bolstered: missile defence, air defence and maritime defence.
Those are the very areas where the GCC countries can play an effective role, said Mr White, and which can counter the most likely Iranian response to any "unpleasantness" in the Gulf.
"Capabilities have to be built up over time. But there is real recognition in Washington that in the Gulf theatre of operations, the GCC states are the only capabilities that are really relevant to what Iran might do to disrupt Gulf security."
The US, meanwhile, would maintain a force of about 40,000 troops in the region, in pre-positioned "lily pad" bases, where conventional forces could quickly be brought in for emergencies.
The proposal in the report to reduce the US troop presence in Kuwait to 13,500 troops from 15,000 - the first time the US has announced a precise number for its presence there - drew some Republican criticism, notably from Senator John McCain, who has argued that US troops in Kuwait should be increased.
Mr White, however, dismissed that as "craven" bi-partisanship. Many of the recommendations of the report are an affirmation of policy that Republicans are in broad agreement with, he said.