by Robert E. Hunter
It is too early to judge whether the results of last week’s summit between President Barack Obama and leaders of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries will become “footprints on the sands of time.” The summit did achieve what Obama most needed—the Arabs’ formal endorsement of the P5+1 talks with Iran on the latter’s nuclear program. It also reaffirmed a key goal of the GCC states: US commitment to continue taking seriously their security concerns, focusing on Iran. This included President Obama’s reaffirming America’s “ironclad commitment to the security of our Gulf partners.”
The significance of the summit will depend in large measure on whether it helps to ease tensions and conflict in the Middle East or serves to keep the region locked in confrontation between Iran and its neighbors for the foreseeable future, increasing the military component of at least the Gulf Arab part of that confrontation and condemning the United States to an even deeper engagement in the fate of regional security than it has already assumed.
President Obama invited the GCC leaders to the White House and, for even more dramatic purpose, to Camp David, as part of his minuet to pick off, one by one, critics of his diplomacy with Iran. But in the process, he may have dug the United States even deeper into the Middle East morass than he intended and pushed further off the time when the US could begin to shift regional security burdens onto others. If such consequences do ensue, they surely will be unintended.
The summit clearly demonstrated that the Persian Gulf Arab states need the United States far more than the reverse and that their power is limited in shaping US foreign policy, both directly and through friendly American lobbyists, on matters of true importance to the US president. It also offered further evidence, if any were needed, that Obama is going for broke in the P5+1 talks, which are scheduled to conclude by June 30, unless, of course, they are scotched by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Israel and its supporters in the United States should also take heed: the US president will not be cowed by the fulminations of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against just about any plausible agreement with Iran.
As for the US Congress, it has accorded itself a period for reviewing whatever formal agreement will be concluded with Iran. But it is rare in US history for Congress to flaunt the will of a president in the realm of national security, especially when American public opinion is so strongly on his side in saying, among other things, “no more stupid wars in the Middle East.”
Continued US Involvement
Whether or not the Gulf Arab leaders had trooped to Washington—with the Saudi king staying home because of ill health not pique—something else has become clear in the march to conclude the Iranian nuclear talks. The United States will remain pinned to the Middle East for the foreseeable future, the so-called “pivot” or “rebalancing” to Asia be damned. As Secretary of State John Kerry said in a different context last week, the US can do more than one thing at a time—indeed, it has to.
One problem for the US is bearing the undue burden of meeting the most immediate regional problems. It is managing the effort to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), as promised by President Obama, but with almost no support, even moral, from the European allies (once bitten in Afghanistan, twice bitten in Libya, and thus certainly thrice shy). Worse, some Arab states in the region that are supposed to be helping, notably Saudi Arabia, continue to throw gasoline on the fire, and they have a superabundance of gasoline!
The most eye-rolling part of the communiqué issued after last week’s summit was the joint commitment to prevent the spread of terrorism and factors that facilitate it:
Building on a shared commitment to address the acute threats posed by Al-Qa’ida, ISIL/DAESH and their affiliates, the United States and GCC member states will pursue initiatives to further build their capacity to track, investigate, and prosecute those engaged in terrorist activities within their borders, as well as to contain and deter transit, financing and recruitment by violent extremists.
A proper response to this, and related communiqué passages, is: “Physician, heal thyself.” This advice applies principally to Saudi Arabia, or at least to many of its rich and/or religious citizens who have been indispensable to the successes of the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and IS. But the US is still unwilling to call out the Gulf Arabs directly. The GCC countries’ pledge to combat terrorism is good public relations, but so far it has had little substance. The odds are that Saudi Arabia will not act now against its domestic sources of regional terror any more than it has in the past.
A further irony was Obama’s once again signing on to the Sunni Arab narrative that most of the region’s problems derive from an Iranian threat. This narrative is less related to the possibility that Iran might acquire nuclear weapons—an issue always pushed out front to garner international support and not reflective of Sunni Arabs’ deepest fears about Iran—than to the existential challenge Iran poses: namely, its existence as a highly educated, entrepreneurial culture moving, unlike almost all of its Gulf Arab neighbors, both toward modernity and against theocracy. The latter change in Iran is not yet done, but the trend is in that direction.
Pay attention, Arab Sunni states: Iran may have ambitions in the region, but it is not the Soviet Union with all its might. Thus trying to solidify a Cold War between the United States and Iran goes against US interests, especially given that the two countries have some compatible concerns, notably in Afghanistan, in the free flow of commerce through the Straits of Hormuz, in opposing IS, and maybe also in preferring a stable rather than chaotic Iraq. Another irony: the most active opponents of IS on the ground, doing America’s work as well as their own, are not Gulf Arab militaries but Shia militias that supposedly have strong ties to Iran.
Addressing Syria and Palestine
In the Camp David communiqué, President Obama gave away two more points of significance to the Gulf Arabs, though in the realm of rhetoric rather than reality. One was to repeat the need to get rid of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria: “All affirmed that Assad had lost all legitimacy and had no role in Syria’s future.” But, as for years now, other than pie in the sky, there was nothing said about what would realistically be put in his place and how to do so without making matters even worse. “A genuine, sustainable political solution as soon as possible, including a government that is independent, inclusive, and protects the rights of minority groups”—how is that to be done, pray tell?
There was also the usual nod to pressing on with Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and for “the parties to demonstrate—through policies and actions—genuine advancement of a two-state solution,” as an “urgent need,” and based on the Arab League formula of 2002. That formula’s requirement of “Israeli withdrawal from all the territories occupied since 1967,” is a sure way to drive Israel up the wall. But in case anyone needed to drive the point home, Obama immediately undercut the urgency expressed in his own communiqué by saying, honestly and accurately, “that prospect [of a peace deal] seems distant now.”
Last week’s talks, at least in the public presentation, did include GCC recognition of the US interest and desire of avoiding a permanent state of confrontation and hostility with Iran, provided that Teheran reciprocates:
…the United States and GCC member states reaffirmed their willingness to develop normalized relations with Iran should it cease its destabilizing activities and their belief that such relations would contribute to regional security.
But the communiqué made no mention of any effort to help bring that about. Notably, while reasserting US support for the Arabs’ military aspirations, it did not broach the idea that a key goal should be development of an inclusive regional security system, with a place for every country that is prepared to play by a common set of rules—including, for now, an empty chair reserved for Iran. By contrast, the US will be providing the regional Arab states with even more military wherewithal, especially advanced weapons, for which there is now no plausible need. If Iran does begin to pose a military threat in the future, such provision of advanced weapons and a deeper, one-sided security relationship between the US and the Arabs could be worked on then.
Reassurances on Iran
Here is where President Obama’s efforts to buy off critics of the impending nuclear deal with Iran poses dangers for the United States: the identification of Iran, through US actions rather than the communiqué’s words, as likely a permanent enemy and a country to be confronted, whatever may happen within Iran and its relations with other countries after a nuclear deal is signed and sanctions begin to be lifted.
The US effort to reassure Arab states about Iran did not include a formal security commitment or the creation of a NATO-like organization. But the reassurance was made largely in military terms that the Arabs denominated, even though these terms do not go to the heart of what really ails them.
“What really ails them” is not the prospect of a sizeable Iranian military threat. After all, Saudi Arabia on its own already spends more than five times as much on defense as does Iran. The real threat to the local governments comes from their own failures to address domestic problems—political, social, cultural, religious, and economic. As President Obama has said on other occasions:
…our Sunni Arab allies, like Saudi Arabia, the president said, have some very real external threats, but they also have some internal threats — “populations that, in some cases, are alienated, youth that are underemployed, an ideology that is destructive and nihilistic, and in some cases, just a belief that there are no legitimate political outlets for grievances…I think the biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries.”
Indeed, if anything in the Middle East should keep people in the White House up nights, it is not that Iran will somehow pull a fast one with its nuclear program, but that the House of Saud will collapse, with little prospect of “stability” emerging from the wreckage. The aftermath of the Arab Spring, everywhere but Tunisia, should demonstrate this point. Is there even worse news for the Obama administration? Yes, that it may already be too late for Saudi Arabia, and one or two of the other Gulf Arab countries, to work for a “soft landing” in the face of internal challenges to antiquarian, authoritarian rule.
The old adage, “be careful what you wish for,” also applies to international politics. In this case, countries that have wanted the US to confront Iran over its nuclear program and have done all they can to obstruct progress in that direction—here Israel and many Arab states are in league with one another—now see that Obama’s likely success on that front is bringing to the fore developments that they perceive as more immediately threatening. Had they not so vigorously opposed a US-Iranian opening a decade ago and ever since—before the Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war, the Yemeni civil war, and the rise of IS and its affiliates—perhaps Iran could have been ushered into the outside world in a way that the Arabs (and Israel) would not now see to be so threatening. The opportunity was lost, time after time, and the Sunni Arabs and Israel must deal with what they find, now. The US, full of hubris after overthrowing Saddam Hussein, also missed the moment and continued to do so for many years.
The United States now has no choice but to take the lead in trying to sort things out, with even deeper engagement than was true before the president embarked on his necessary mission of reassuring regional states about the impending deal with Iran. That will take basic strategic analysis, many years of effort, and further expenditure of treasure if not of blood, all while continuing to see at risk the things that truly matter to us.