The U.S. and the Gulf: A Failure to Communicate

by Thomas W. Lippman

It was like a movie in which different characters see the same events in completely different ways.

At one of those Washington think-tank panel discussions the other day, senior U.S. national security and military officials insisted that the American commitment to security and stability in the Persian Gulf is iron-clad and will not change. The U.S Navy’s Fifth Fleet and the 35,000 soldiers and sailors in the region are staying, they said, and Iran will not acquire or develop nuclear weapons. They reminded the audience that President Barack Obama, his secretaries of state and defense, and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have told all this to Gulf Arab leaders over and over, most recently during the president’s visit to Saudi Arabia in March.

“We are present in a major and significant way,” one senior Pentagon official said at this gathering, organized by the Atlantic Council. “We are not leaving and we are not inattentive.”

The next morning, different panelists, assembled by the Middle East Policy Council, acknowledged that the message had been delivered unequivocally and often, and agreed that Obama and the others were no doubt sincere. Unfortunately, they said, Gulf Arab leaders don’t believe it.

“They think we don’t have the will to uphold our principles,” said Mark T. Kimmitt, a former senior official of both the State and Defense departments. “It’s not about our strength on the ground. It’s about our willingness to use it.” Given the record of the past few years, he said, “There’s not a lot of reason for the Gulf Arabs to be happy.”

“There are deep structural sources of anxiety” about the United States among leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, said Colin Kahl, a deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East in Obama’s first term. First among these, he said, is “the widespread perception that the United States is simply politically exhausted” after more than a decade of war and has no appetite for further involvement. Witnessing the U.S. troop drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said, “They wonder when the U.S. will begin to draw down in the Gulf.” The GCC leaders were taken aback, he said, by the strong popular opposition among Americans to military intervention in Syria, and drew their own conclusions.

Michael Gfoeller, former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Saudi Arabia, said the Saudis and others have been disconcerted by the way the United States and its partners have conducted nuclear negotiations with Iran without input from them. In their view, he said, Washington is proceeding “with almost no input from us and yet we are going to be the front line of what we think is going to be a nuclear armed Iran…They think that when we don’t consult with them it’s a sign that we don’t take their national security seriously.”

These panelists said it was useful that President Obama went to see King Abdullah and other senior princes in Riyadh, but not sufficient to overcome the doubts that have been built up about U.S. staying power. Ford Fraker, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said that a week ago he asked Prince Muqrin, now second in line to the Saudi throne, how he assessed the Obama-Abdullah meeting. Muqrin, who speaks fluent English, “looked at me and said, ‘We did have the opportunity to clarify a number of important issues,’ and that’s all he said,” Fraker reported.

The two forums amounted to a fascinating but also baffling conversation about a topic that has been a focus of analysis in Washington and the Gulf states for months. The United States and its allies in the region have compelling interests in common — combating al-Qaeda and its affiliates, seeking a solution in Syria, ensuring the free flow of oil through the Gulf, stabilizing Yemen and Iraq, and countering what they see as the malign activities of Iran in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Bahrain. The Gulf states buy American weapons, depend on the United States for military training and assistance with cyber-security issues, and share intelligence about terrorist financing. And these relationships have been in place for many years. Why, then, have the Gulf leaders, and particularly the Saudis, been so vocally unhappy about U.S. policy?

The first answer participants gave was the nuclear negotiations with Iran, from which they are excluded. In the view especially of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, panelists said, these negotiations are dangerous either way: if they fail, nothing will prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, but if they succeed, sanctions will be lifted, Iranian oil exports will surge, and Iran will be free to pursue its quest for regional hegemony. Moreover, in the Gulf view, if the negotiations succeed, the United States will have another incentive to reduce its military commitments in the Gulf.

Gulf Arab leaders, panelists said, are well aware of the constraints that are curtailing Pentagon spending. Cuts will have to be made somewhere, and they see their region as a target, especially if the United States reaches some accommodation with Iran.

The Gulf leaders were shocked by the alacrity with which Washington turned its back on Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak after demonstrations against him broke out in 2011. They think “Maybe the United States won’t be a reliable ally for them,” Kahl said. These doubts have been stoked, he and other panelists said, by all the talk about growing U.S. oil output in the fracking boom, and the possibility that the United States will feel itself safely insulated from developments in the Gulf.

Despite assurances from Washington to the contrary, panelists said, the Saudis and Emiratis believe that the United States is focused exclusively on the nuclear issue in its negotiations with Iran, ignoring other troubling aspects of Iranian policy. Kahl said it’s actually a good idea to confine the current negotiations to the nuclear issue because Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani does not control the other Iranian activities that so trouble its neighbors. Those matters are under the jurisdiction of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Kahl said, and it would be counterproductive to bring the IRGC into the nuclear discussions.

In a separate commentary published during the same week as the panel discussions, Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote that, “One Saudi businessman complained to me recently that there was no discernible U.S. global strategy, and that its absence makes it impossible for Saudi Arabia to construct any strategy at all. The quandary is common among many U.S. allies, and it raises fundamental questions about U.S. commitments abroad. Is there anything for which U.S. allies can rely on the United States, and under what circumstances might it change? Equally confounding, how can America’s friends make themselves vital to the United States if the United States has no clear understanding and ordering of its own interests?”

In some ways, however, as several of the panelists noted, it is not just the United States that seems to be groping for an effective regional strategy. The six monarchies that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council have deep policy differences among themselves, about Iran, about Syria, and about the dangers of religious extremism. Oman, for example, hosted the secret diplomacy that led to the nuclear negotiations with Iran, and is reportedly planning a $1 billion natural gas pipeline link to the Islamic Republic. And on Saturday, the Washington Post reported that the United States has identified Kuwait as the major source of funding for jihadist groups fighting in Syria — groups that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are trying to defeat. If Alterman’s Saudi friend is having difficulty discerning a comprehensive U.S. strategy in the region, perhaps it’s not surprising.

Several of the panelists said that the key to assuaging the anxiety among GCC leaders is more and closer consultation, more often. It’s well and good for the president and cabinet members and officers from the U.S. Central Command to go to the region from time to time, they said, but the Gulf leaders want to see the deputy assistant secretaries and other policy worker bees out there more often. To some extent they made the Gulf leaders sound like spoiled children demanding mommy’s full attention right this minute.

Photo: President Barack Obama meets with King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia during a bilateral meeting at Rawdat Khuraim in Saudi Arabia, March 28, 2014. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Thomas Lippman

Thomas W. Lippman is a Washington-based author and journalist who has written about Middle Eastern affairs and American foreign policy for more than four decades, specializing in Saudi Arabian affairs, U.S.- Saudi relations, and relations between the West and Islam. He is a former Middle East bureau chief of the Washington Post, and also served as that newspaper's oil and energy reporter. Throughout the 1990s, he covered foreign policy and national security for the Post, traveling frequently to Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East. In 2003 he was the principal writer on the war in Iraq for Prior to his work in the Middle East, he covered the Vietnam war as the Washington Post's bureau chief in Saigon. Lippman has authored seven books about the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy. He is also an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, where he serves as the principal media contact on Saudi Arabia and U.S. – Saudi relations.



  1. Oh yes, Kuwait. Isn’t that the place we all sent in troops to chase out the Iraqis and restore democracy?
    Has Kuwaiti democracy happened yet? I don’t think so. When will it happen – who on Earth knows?
    It’s not much of one but the fact is that Iran is the closest they have to any kind of fledgling democracy.
    Why is the USA opposing Iran so vigorously and supporting gangster Gulf regimes like the Sauds?
    Most of the jihadists and takfiris are being funded by the Sauds, Turks and others inside Syria.
    Why is anyone fighting inside Syria now? Abbas is winning the military battle there – so forget about it.
    The potential blowback from the failed conspiracy against Syria could end up being truly truly massive.
    The US is having to cut its military and diplomatic role in the world. Boycott Israel – not Iran.

  2. The problem that Persian Gulf sheikhs and monarchs face is not so much that the United States does not pay enough attention to them. The real reason for their deep anxiety and uncertainty is the earthquake that has shaken the Middle East during the past few years, and they know that the aftershocks of that massive earthquake will engulf them too. The problem with those conservative monarchies is that they wish to perpetuate a medieval system of government and society, no public representation, all the power and wealth being concentrated in the hands of a few members of various tribal families, women having little or no role in the society, and exporting a very violent and fundamentalist version of Islam. This is at a time that their own young people are rejecting that medieval worldview. No amount of military spending and no number of visits by US officials can make up for that fundamental weakness.

    Instead of trying to look for real or imaginary enemies, those monarchies would do well to look at their own societies and to bring about real social and political change before it is too late. That mighty flood of “Arab Spring” or whatever one wants to call it is unlikely to be pushed back up the hill again. The only thing they can do is to learn to deal with it, which requires representative government, distribution of wealth, a more open society, equal rights for women and for religious and ethnic minorities, a reformed interpretation of Islam that can be compatible with the modern world, and learning to live in peace with their neighbors in a pluralistic world. Any attempt to stem the tide of history is futile.

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