Written or not, is Obama’s security promise to the GCC binding?

Obama may have been dodging the initial question on why a more solid agreement was not made

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In a recent interview with Al Arabiya News Channel, U.S. President Barack Obama said it would be “cumbersome” for the United States to draft a treaty to defend its Gulf allies – because he would have to seek Congress’ approval.

Instead of a treaty, the president opted for a written statement to defend its GCC allies in the event of aggression. But is this statement a binding agreement?


According to Professor Kevin Gray, who teaches international law at the American University of Sharjah, the statement would be binding upon the U.S. But former Republican Congressmen Michael P. Flanagan believes it would not be, adding that “the only way at this time” that such a promise would be fully kept is with “both a Republican Congress and a Republican president in office at the same time.

The joint statement reads: “In the event of such aggression or the threat of such aggression, the United States stands ready … to determine urgently what action may be appropriate, using the means at our collective disposal, including the potential use of military force, for the defense of our GCC partners.”

While the above “written agreement” is binding upon the U.S., according to Gray, Obama does not need Congress’s approval to make the pledge.

The lack of a formal treaty between the U.S. and GCC on the matter provides no framework for making sure the guarantee is “enforced.” Should the United States fail to act if there is aggression, it would be hard to say if it failed to meet its security obligations towards the GCC that have been created by the “statement.”

The agreement however is an attempt “to show is that they are committed and recommitting to the security of the Gulf States from an external threat,” Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center said.

Shaikh added: “It’s not very well defined though what that external threat is.”

Why not put it in a treaty?

Obama told Al Arabiya’s Nadia Bilbassy in the exclusive interview: “If you’re asking why not provide a formal treaty…the treaty process is very cumbersome, requires congressional approval, and it’s not necessary in this situation in order for us to be able to accomplish the goals that we wanted to meet.”

But Obama may have been dodging the initial question on why a more solid agreement was not made.

By pointing to the “cumbersome” Congressional process through which a treaty would have to go through, he effectively “obfuscated” and avoided the discussion of setting the pledge in stone as part of a treaty, Flanagan told Al Arabiya News.

Would a treaty have meant the U.S. would be obliged to fulfill duties towards the Gulf even after Obama leaves office?

“Any mere statement to bind a future President or Congress is all but meaningless,” Flanagan said.

“The formality of the agreement will have little practical difference. I believe that the reason that President Obama does not talk about this matter as a promise to intervene (largely unreported here in the United States) is that he is all but sure that it will never come up – at least not in the next 19 months.”

Flanagan also believes “the only way at this time” that such a promise would be fully kept is with “both a Republican Congress and a Republican president in office at the same time – Like the 2000s and the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns.”

Branding the enemy

Separate from the lengthy process the president would have to go through, Professor of Political Science at UAE University Abdulkhaleq Abdullah said Obama is hesitant to explicitly label Iran as an enemy, which contradicts an earlier interview Obama had with pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat.

In the interview, the president had labeled Iran as a "state sponsor of terrorism," which raises questions as to why he did not appear to label Iran as a threat at Camp David.

To produce a treaty, “there has to be an explicit threat and an enemy,” Abdullah said adding “I don’t think the president wants to go on record considering Iran by name, as a threat or a danger or an enemy.”

“From my reading of Obama, I think, his gut feeling he feels that Iran is a good country, he thinks Iran is not a destabilizing force,” he added.

While Abdullah said he believes the GCC states got what they had aimed for at the summit, “they didn’t get the maximum of what they wanted.”

The ideal product the GCC would have preferred at the end of the Camp David summit was a “very clear sharp statement by the president that Iran is a destabilizing force,” he told Al Arabiya News.

Obama’s refusal to identify Iran by name as the source of threat, prompted Shaikh to describe the statement as “work in progress.”

“So that’s why you’ve got the words work and working at least five or six times…This is very much a work in progress. Other than trying to reassure and give the right updates [on Iran nuclear talks] and perhaps slightly upgrade this, I don’t think this is a bigger commitment than that,” he added.

Watch Al Arabiya's full interview with U.S. President Barack Obama here

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