In the run up to Thursday's summit at Camp David, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had predicted that “we are fleshing out a series of new commitments that will create… a new security understanding” to “take us beyond anything that we have had before.”
Yet President Obama had outlined a much more limited objective, explaining that America was already committed to the Gulf’s defense and that he hoped to use the summit “to see how we can formalize that a little bit more.”
Ultimately, the conference’s extensive but rather vague concluding statement and annex may suggest that a more robust answer may fall somewhere in between. Observers such as former U.S. ambassador to Riyadh, Robert Jordan, have suggested that the Gulf states may have some reason to be disappointed.
No new arsenal
This applies to the topic of arms sales as well as other issues covered at the summit. Constrained by political concern in Congress to ensure Israel’s superiority in terms of military hardware, the U.S. administration reportedly shied away from fulfilling the desire of Gulf militaries for certain big-ticket items. Evidently, weapons not on offer included the F-35 joint strike fighter, GBU-28 bunker buster bombs, or much in the way of cruise missiles.
This seemed to challenge predictions by former presidential candidate John McCain, who chairs the Senate Committee on Armed Services. Senator McCain warned in an interview with Alhurra that the Obama administration was so accommodating on arms sales for the summit that it “can basically be described as bribery.” Instead, the summit’s outcome suggests that the greater concern may be the Gulf states’ exacerbated fears of U.S. abandonment.
The pan-Arab paper Al-Hayat predicted a new “arsenal” of equipment for the GCC states. But much that was agreed to on Thursday seems to have been the sort of items that already would have been in the U.S. pipeline of arms sales to the Gulf. Perhaps the most significant change was in the realm of institutional innovations to speed new weapons sales in the future.
Indeed, the Pentagon’s spokesperson Steve Warren suggested on Tuesday that there might not be any major immediate weapons sales emerging from the summit because in his view Gulf states “frankly they have the weapons they need.” However, statements indicating plans for follow-on meetings after Camp David did suggest that negotiations could extend into the coming months rather than being a one-off. Further, the conference’s annex declaration stated that Washington would “set up a dedicated Foreign Military Sales procurement office to process GCC-wide sales.”
Instead, Deutsche Welle concluded that many of the new steps on defense were relatively “modest,” working-level measures that displayed a seriousness about partnering for the future but not the kinds of issues to grab headlines on their own.
The U.S. and GCC agreed to launch a recurring large exercise on asymmetric threats such as cyber warfare or terrorist attacks, as well as to explore more special operations training and cooperation. Gulf states pledged to increase their participation in multinational maritime operations versus piracy and to interdict naval shipments to terrorists - presumably with Iran in mind, - and Washington committed to providing training and advice on so doing.
Yet many of the military items that were reportedly cleared for purchase, according to such outlets as Foreign Policy and Reuters, seemed like something the Gulf states would have eventually received anyway without coming to Camp David: an increased supply of precision-guided JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition) bombs to replenish the ones used for airstrikes in Yemen, upgraded radar systems, newer avionics already order for F-15 and F-16 fighters that Gulf states already possess, F/A-18 fighter jets for Kuwait, and THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) ballistic missile defense systems that the UAE is already buying and Saudi Arabia and Qatar had already begun to pursue.
Maritime sales to the kingdom also appeared to be moving forward, but as Defense News reported in February, a massive $16 billion purchase in this area had already been in the works.
Security guarantees in an unpredictable region
During the summit’s mid-day U.S. press conference, President Obama’s Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes publicly confirmed that a legally-binding defense treaty would be off the table. Straining to explain Washington’s reasoning, he called such a prospect “a very complicated piece of business” because “this is a very unpredictable region in which threats emanate from very many different places.”
Instead, President Obama indicated that, in the event of an external threat to the security of allied states, America would “work with our GCC partners to determine what actions may be appropriate,” up to the level of military force. However, some analysts had already concluded that such an approach would be unlikely to address the Gulf’s core concerns about U.S. resolve in their defense.
For example, Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy suggests that in recent years the U.S. has developed a “credibility deficit” with its Arabian allies, particularly since the use of chemical weapons in Syria. In order to convince them Washington would not abandon them against Iranian incursions after a nuclear agreement, he argues that rather than focusing on arms sales or general statements of support, the administration should have offered its allies concrete new measures to undermine violent Iranian proxies in Syria and beyond.
While the summit’s concluding annex technically committed the U.S. “to increasing support to the moderate opposition” in Syria, it was short on details and for many recalled past instances of such American pledges going unfulfilled. The Brookings Doha Center’s director, Salman Shaikh, commented on Twitter: “so the U.S. still has no #Syria policy.” Elaborating further on the summit’s Syria language, he added that “this reads like a [Mideast] Quartet statement to me. Where are the specifics on Syria? [Chemical weapons], Safe Zones?”
Perhaps the most significant new language on Syria actually came from the Gulf states. Another innovative announcement on regional affairs in the annex was a call for the states to “press all parties” in Libya to “urgently establish a national unity government before Ramadan.”
The Gulf states have received a broad array of new U.S. commitments to reinvest in bilateral and multilateral security cooperation, but most of those commitments were relatively shallow. As the Saudi and Bahraini kings’ absences foreshadowed - and Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies explicitly predicted - this summit probably left “everybody feeling a little bit unsatisfied.”
Patrick Megahan is a research associate for military affairs at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where David Andrew Weinberg is a senior fellow.