by Robert E. Hunter
President Barack Obama would surely not compare himself to a Biblical prophet. But by going this week to Riyadh to take part in a summit meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council, he might as well be like Daniel in the Old Testament, thrown into the lions’ den. Although his hosts will no doubt be civil and courteous, they nevertheless cast themselves in the role of lions—with the exception of the Sultan of Oman, America’s only true friend in the region.
In his interlocutors’ eyes, Obama’s sin is much greater than Daniel’s, which was to “ask a petition of any God or man” save of King Darius. Obama did worse. Recently in The Atlantic magazine, he permitted the interviewer to put words in his mouth: that some Arab allies (and others) had become “free-riders,” specifically regarding the military campaign that deposed the Libyan dictator, Muammar Qaddafi. Still worse, from the perspective of the Gulf Arabs (along with Israel), Obama concluded a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. This JCPOA keeps Iran from building nuclear weapons, should it choose to do so but, in the process, effectively takes the US military option against Iran “off the table.” And worst of all, the US president told The Atlantic that “our friends as well as…the Iranians…need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace.”
One thing that must be said about President Obama is that, concerning the deal with Iran over its nuclear program, he has not flinched, despite cannonfire coming at him from all sides like the Charge of the Light Brigade. Not since the China Lobby in the 1940s and 1950s has a president been so maligned on a key foreign policy issue from within this country by people who should instead be putting America’s interests ahead of those of any foreign country.
Obama’s Agenda in Riyadh
While he is in Riyadh, Obama should continue not to flinch when pressed to apologize, however sweetly, for his “free riders” comment or to accept the notion that “Iran is the source of all problems.” However, the president will be pressed hard to give the GCC nations most of what they want. High on their wish list is weaponry. The US arms industry (along with the French and British) is happy to oblige, and it has clout in Washington. No matter that Iran is still a pipsqueak military power and is likely to remain so, or that the real Iranian challenge comes from the fact that is a culturally coherent country that is rapidly modernizing not just economically but also socially and even politically. The Gulf Arab monarchies, meanwhile, are still mostly stuck in a previous century and are terrified of any rumblings from the interior of their kingdoms.
Unfortunately, the US has tended to be sympathetic to cries from the Gulf Arabs. In his recent trip to the region to advance the president’s visit, Secretary of State John Kerry chastised the Bahraini opposition for boycotting the 2014 elections. Yet Bahrain has a largely Shia population that is repressed by the minority Sunni government, which would resist a free and fair election at all costs. If the al-Khalifa family couldn’t enforce such an outcome on its own, troops could again pour over the causeway from Saudi Arabia as they did in 2011. Further, the United States has provided active support to the ambitious Saudi military misadventure in Yemen, which Riyadh has misrepresented as caused by Iran in a search for regional hegemony.
Hegemony, of course, is a powerful word, and there is no chance that Shia Iran could achieve it in a vastly Sunni region. Nor, on the other side, could any combination of Sunni states achieve hegemony. Only one country, the United States, has the capacity to do so and only if Washington saw some value in a dominant and permanent regional position to protect US interests and those of allies and partners. Wisely, the United States has backed off from such a high-cost, imperial ambition.
If Obama’s lavish praise of the Gulf Arab leaders and his opening wide the spigot of arms supply, including ballistic missile defenses and cyber security, provide a measure of reassurance that these countries remain important to us, so be it. Such moves are unlikely to disturb any putative regional military balance. But if the president fully buys into the Sunni narrative of Shia misdeeds or the rigidifying of confrontation in the region—despite his Atlantic advice about “sharing”—down the road there will be trouble for the United States. Certainly it will be more difficult for America to take a step back from the region and to focus increasingly on East Asia and the Western Pacific, which Obama says—and many people agree—will be the most challenging region of the world for the United States in the coming decades.
It will also certainly be more difficult to seek Iranian support in trying to stabilize Iraq and to find a way out of the ungodly mess that goes by the name “Syria.” Indeed, it was peculiar that when he was in Bahrain, Secretary Kerry called for Iran’s help in resolving the conflicts in Yemen and Syria, while simultaneously accusing it, again, of “destabilizing actions” in the region. More important than this inconsistent rhetorical flourish, nearly five years ago the United States blundered by saying that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “must go,” without the will to make it happen and even the glimmer of a plan for what should come next. Obama recently told Fox’s Chris Wallace that the worst mistake of his presidency has been not planning for the aftermath of the military intervention in Libya. He could have cited Syria, as well.
The president’s interlocutors in Riyadh will expect him to continue an approach to Syria that favors the Sunnis, isolates Iran, and leaves the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs preeminent in the regional civil war—even though the US has nothing to gain and much to lose in playing that role. Of course, a case can be made that the United States should just go along with the desires of most regional countries with which it has cordial relations. In containing Iran, the US would be backed by Israel and almost all the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. In the short term at least, there is little Iran could do about it. Even if the JCPOA collapsed, Iran has already taken enough steps toward compliance that mean it would be several years before it could get a nuclear weapon, and much could happen before then. Indeed, reports that Iran was only months away from a bomb were always just scare stories. And there are strong arguments that Iran would have to take leave of its senses to move seriously in that direction without risking a crippling military attack by Israel and possibly also the United States.
Changing the Script
But there are at least two things that the president does need to do before he arrives in Riyadh. The first is to determine which part of his administration is in charge of Middle East policy. He says he wants Iran and its Arab neighbors to be ready to “share,” though it is not clear exactly what he means or how to bring it about, given the amount of bad blood and basic differences in interests. The Pentagon, meanwhile, wants to shore up defense relationships with the GCC states and plow more weapons into the region, even if this makes relations with Iran more difficult and undercuts the president’s vision. The Treasury Department is doing all it can to demonstrate bad faith to Iran over the easing of sanctions which the JCPOA requires, thus strengthening Iran’s hardliners and making cooperation over anything else more difficult if not impossible.
The secretary of state wants Iran to stop doing some negative things but start doing some positive things, yet without showing how this circle can be squared. To his credit, Kerry has cobbled together a fragile ceasefire in Syria and started a diplomatic process in Geneva (with Iran’s help, he acknowledges). But he has done so without a roadmap for securing the safety much less the minimal interests of all parties to the conflict, while keeping the United States from becoming even more deeply enmeshed in the region’s civil war.
Kerry has also conducted deft diplomacy with Russia to begin creating some positive space. Yet in vivid contrast, the top US military leaders, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, are saying publicly that Russia poses an “existential threat” to the United States. Something doesn’t compute.
Overall, the US policy mixture for the Middle East fails the basic requirements of strategy: the making of choices according to some overarching plan. It also raises the question “Who is in charge in Washington?” Clearly, the writ of the president does not run throughout his administration, at least regarding this region. The world—friend, foe, and everyone in between—is waiting for the president to resume command and to show others that they must reckon with US power and purpose.
The second thing the president needs to do relates to his declared number-one priority, defeating the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). He has done much to reduce the threat of terrorism against the United States (and also against Europe, despite the dramatic though relatively small-scale terrorist attacks of the past year). The administration has killed a large number of terrorists, mostly with drones, with scant loss of life among American service personnel. And Obama has done what he can to keep terrorists from gaining a propaganda advantage from U.S. government overreaction, as he argued cogently in his Atlantic interview. Given the First Amendment, however, he cannot control the hyperactivity of the media— “if it bleeds, it leads”—which is the terrorists’ necessary enabler.
But if defeating IS and reducing terrorism are his priorities, he can’t just deal with the effects of terrorism through drone attacks, the active and judicious use of Special Forces, and the arming and training of indigenous fighters. He must also deal with its causes. Addressing the underlying causes through the modernization of societies will take years if not decades. But one thing the president should have done long ago—as his predecessor, George W. Bush, also failed to do—is to tell the Sunni Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, that they must stop, and stop now, the further export of Wahhabi terrorism by their citizens. The United States and others have suffered from license given to this antediluvian religious sect to promote its destructive creed in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and now also parts of sub-Saharan Africa. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia expects the United States to be the fire department to help put out relatively small bonfires created by Iran even as it pours great quantities of flammable fuel on a host of other conflicts, leading to the deaths of thousands of people, including Europeans and Americans. This has to stop.
If he achieves nothing else in Riyadh, President Obama needs to get this message across to his Arab hosts.