Camp David: A summit and its discontents
One would assume that President Obama will reassure his Arab visitors, that the U.S. will not abandon the region any time soon
The choice of Camp David as the site for the first ever summit meeting between President Obama and the Leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was meant to send a symbolic signal to the Arab leaders present – that the American president wants to spend some quality time with them at that bucolic retreat, which he has only used once before for a summit meeting such as this, for the 38th G8 summit in May 2012. But it’s not symbolism that the GCC leaders are concerned with, rather it’s the nightmarish reality of the unraveling of a century-old political order and the fraying of a large swath of Arab lands around them, as well as an ascendant (and in most of their minds belligerent) Iran, trying to ensure its regional hegemony by projecting its power, sometimes directly but mostly by proxy, to build an alternative, if still vague, political scaffolding on the rubble of the dying order.
The purpose of the conclave is to reassure the Gulf allies that the United States will remain committed to the security of the region. Any nuclear deal with Iran will not be at the expense of the safety of the Arab nations present, and the U.S. remains determined to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The Gulf Arabs are seeking a new, more explicit, and institutionalized ‘security architecture’ in the region, to be erected by the U.S., and which helps guard against Iran – containing its regional ambitions, challenging its meddling in the internal affairs of Arab countries, and protecting against violent Islamists like the Islamic State (ISIS) and Al Qaeda. Because there is no overarching strategy underpinning this security architecture, it remains vague and is given various names; “security guarantees, given the behavior of Iran in the region, given the rise of the extremist threat,” as the UAE envoy to Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, said recently, or, according to Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking in Paris on Friday, “a series of new commitments that will create, between the United States and the GCC, a new security understanding, a new set of security initiatives”.
Conflicting wishes and divergent visions
Publicly, both sides are stressing the need to strengthen the security cooperation, the common struggle against terrorism, and the imperative of containing Iran’s destabilizing policies. Ideally, some GCC states would like to sign binding defense treaties with the United States, but they know that this is beyond the realm of the possible, given the strong reluctance of the administration and opposition from Congress to anything that could conceivably diminish Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME). Still, some of them will push for a ‘strong, explicit and a written commitment from the President’, as one official said, that if a member of the GCC states is attacked by a foreign power, the United States will come to its defense. But, there is a strong reluctance within the Obama administration to enter into any long term and legally binding military commitment in the Gulf region, at a time when the administration is trying to ‘rebalance’ or ‘pivot’ to Asia, and after more than six years of setbacks and disillusionments in the region ranging from the collapsed Palestine-Israel peace efforts, the failed Libya intervention, the horrendous blunders in Syria, and the unraveling of the political/security structures that the U.S. had left in Iraq before its withdrawal. Publicly, U.S. officials say that there are no plans to reduce America’s high military profile in the Middle East (more than 35 thousand military personnel), but privately, they say that in 10 to 15 years the U.S. should not have more than few thousand military advisors, trainers and technicians involved in intelligence gathering and operating drones.
The qualitative and breathtaking transformation of the energy landscape in America brought about by new technology (fracking, amongst others) which allowed the U.S. to increase its oil output by four million barrels a day in the last six years, has created the much exaggerated impression in some Arab capitals that the U.S. will no longer be interested in investing in the stability of the Gulf region and patrolling the vital sea lanes. However, this is not necessarily the case – oil is an international commodity and its prices are determined by the laws of supply and demand, meaning that disruption of oil production in the Gulf region will reverberate globally.
In search of the elusive Obama doctrine
One would assume that President Obama will reassure his Arab visitors, that the U.S. will not abandon the region any time soon, and that he will reiterate America’s commitment to maintain stability in the Gulf region and his willingness to sell them more sophisticated weapons system; but it is very unlikely that he would be able to satisfy their core demand of first containing, then rolling back Iran’s strategic and tactical gains in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and recently Yemen, as well as providing them with unequivocal security guarantees including a nuclear umbrella, or providing them with meaningful assurances regarding the so-called ‘sunset clause’, when the restrictions on Iran’s enrichment activities expire after a decade or fifteen years, bringing it closer than before to developing nuclear weapons if it chooses. Containing Iran’s regional meddling should start in Syria, but as former ambassador and current vice president of Brookings Institution Martin Indyk said at a recent Atlantic Council event, “President Obama is reluctant to engage on Syria”, maybe because he has certain strong views that he is not willing to change. A former senior official who left the Obama administration recently confided to an Arab diplomat America’s abject weakness in dealing with Iran’s destabilizing activities; “we are not convinced that we can make a difference if we push hard against Iran”.
Some Gulf leaders would like to see President Obama issuing a strong declarative statement regarding Iran and security in the Gulf, amounting to something akin to the Carter Doctrine of January 1980. Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Iranian revolution – two momentous events that occurred in 1979 – and fearing Soviet encroachment into the waters of the Gulf, president Jimmy Carter, and a Democrat to boot, proclaimed in his State of the Union speech what became known as the Carter Doctrine which was directed against the Soviet Union: ‘An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force’. That doctrine led to the formation of the so-called Rapid Deployment Force for military contingencies in the Gulf region, the military antecedent of Central Command. In those ‘good old days’, most of America’s military profile was somewhere ‘behind the horizon’ because it was felt that large military footprints could backfire politically. That arrangement was succinctly and eloquently summarized by one astute Arab observer who told an American interlocutor “we want you to be like the wind; we want to feel you but we don’t want to see you”. The Times They Are a-Changin' indeed.
Persia’s fascinating pull
A similar Obama doctrine aimed at Iran is hard to see, given the President’s desire for what one of his senior aides said recently of entering into a ‘grand bargain’ with Iran. It may be too late and too difficult to enter into such a grand bargain with Iran, if only because of the opposition of the Iranian leadership, but that does not mean that the Obama administration is averse to entering into ‘pragmatic’ arrangements against common enemies. This explains firstly the tactical and implicit cooperation between the U.S. military and the Iran-led, Iran-trained Iraqi Shiite militias in the confrontation with ISIS, and secondly Washington’s aversion to seriously undermine the Assad regime in Syria, for fear of damaging the prospects of a nuclear deal with Tehran and suffering Iranian retaliations against American personnel in Iraq (a fear that was expressed repeatedly by more than one senior administration official). Obama’s view of Iran – a difficult, meddling, at times intimidating, but essentially rational actor with a degree of predictability and a clear sense of identity and purpose, important characteristics that could only be the product of an ancient civilization – is totally alien to the Gulf Arabs who don’t want to live in the shadows of a belligerent Iran, notwithstanding its civilizational heft. It is fascinating to observe Obama’s fascination with Iran, and with the possibilities of a grand opening, or grand bargain with that ancient land, something that Obama brought with him to the White House from the moment he arrived there. Obama’s fascination with Iran is reminiscent of President Richard Nixon’s fascination with the historic opening to China. You don’t have to deconstruct Obama’s references to Iran in his speeches and interviews to see and feel the fascination with Persia and its attendant possibilities.
A trust deficit
It is ironic that those Arab officials who are pushing for explicit and written security guarantees from President Obama – from a memorandum of understanding to a military doctrine – have low expectations of the Camp David summit achieving serious breakthroughs. In blunt, private conversations you hear the bitter disappointments and disillusionments of six and half years. They speak of a ‘trust deficit’ when they address President Obama’s assurances, promises and threats. Two senior Arab officials from two GCC states were discussing why they should insist on written security assurances, when, as one of them mentioned, there was a pattern of presidential dissembling; the President threatened to attack Syria, and then reneged; he repeatedly promised to equip and train the Syrian opposition, but he was not serious and kept dragging his feet and providing limited, tentative support until the beginning of the fifth year of the conflict. The official noted dryly that the Obama administration negotiated secretly with Iran regarding the nuclear program and kept its allies in the dark.
Many in the GCC subscribe to the view that President Obama’s reluctance to push hard for a residual force in Iraq, and his denial that former Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki’s sectarian policies have accelerated Iraq’s unraveling, are in part responsible for opening the door for Iran to essentially become the dominant foreign power in Iraq. Obama’s dithering on Syria, his inactions, and his disingenuous claims that he was being pushed to ‘invade’ Syria, are also responsible in part for the historic tragedy that Syria is today. Many in the region are convinced that the Obama administration will not pursue any serious initiatives to revive the Palestinian-Israeli talks, or play a leading role in preventing Libya from sliding completely into civil war, even though the U.S. played a leading role in toppling the regime of Muammar Qaddafi.
Taming the tiger
The Iranian regime has proven repeatedly its political dexterity, and its diabolical genius in mastering the art of proxy wars, when it showed from Iraq to Syria to Lebanon, and now to Yemen, that it is capable of fighting Sunni Arabs with Shiite Arabs. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have been using these Shiite militias – from the Lebanese Hezbollah and various Iraqi Shiite armed groups, to the Houthis in Yemen – as their foot soldiers. Hezbollah have been their most effective Janissaries, dispatching their highly mobile and disciplined units to fight in Syria and Iraq. An Arab diplomat wondered recently: What would happen if an Arab country began arming Sunnis in Iran or members of the Arabic speaking communities in Southern Iran?
All this was taking place during the nuclear negotiations with the U.S. and the P-5 plus one, and at a time when the Iranian economy was supposed to be in free fall. There is concern in the Middle East that sanctions relief in the wake of a final nuclear deal will add more than $120 billion in frozen assets to Iran’s coffers. Surely some of this wealth will be diverted to finance their designs in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Taming the Iranian tiger will not be easy, and there are no signs that the U.S. is planning to ease the region away from the suffocating shadow of the ayatollah. In the meantime, many in the Middle East, including America’s skeptical allies, are watching with trepidation and wondering if in the remaining 18 months of its tenure, the Obama administration will be able to stop the historic fraying of the region. 18 months is too long a time. Sometimes in America a month can stretch into an eternity of anticipation and discontent. Lord have mercy…
Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem
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