President Obama, don’t miss opportunities at Camp David
The President fundamentally underestimates the challenge Iran poses to the security of the region and the GCC
When President Obama first announced the Gulf Summit in the beginning of April, high hopes were raised that this invitation for all the GCC leaders to visit Washington at Camp David would be an opportunity to re-invest in the U.S.-GCC strategic partnership. Opting more for a photo shoot than a summit, Obama has shown no interest in meeting these expectations and will likely miss then this opportunity to seriously build trust and rapport with his Gulf partners before a nuclear agreement is reached.
The summit’s agenda and Washington’s limited offer
The Summit’s agenda is far ranging in terms of critical issues to be discussed including Yemen, ISIS, Syria’s deepening civil war, Iraq’s future, Iran’s wider aggressive behavior in the region, and the pending nuclear agreement, but deeply lacking in terms of U.S. commitments to address these inter-related crises.
The President though fundamentally underestimates the challenge Iran poses to the security of the region and the GCCAndrew Bowen
On the central issue of Syria, the White House will not offer a new fly zone nor is willing to fully endorse Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia’s coalition on the ground. On the intervention to stabilize Yemen, Obama, who has expressed doubts about the intervention from the beginning, will push for a political settlement and a continued de-escalation of the GCC response. On Iran’s wider behavior, the administration shares these states’ sympathies, but will push back on any criticism that Washington has become too dependent on Iran in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Not surprisingly, a large focus of the President’s remarks to his GCC counterparts will likely be on selling the Iran deal with the hope of grudgingly obtaining buy-in for the U.S.’s nuclear entente.
This message will reinforce their doubts about the U.S.’s commitment to their states’ future and the President’s own personal disinterest in a deep partnership with the Gulf as he moves closer to Iran. U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry informed the GCC foreign ministers last week that the White House wasn’t prepared to offer a formal defense treaty. It’s not surprising then that Gulf leaders have been reluctant to attend.
Collective defense over American leadership in the Gulf
I believe President Obama will instead use these meetings as an opportunity to push his counterparts in the Gulf to take more independent, collective action to address their challenges (ie. a NATO in essence without the U.S.’s direct participation). He will stress that Washington supports the Gulf’s collective defense initiatives even though he ironically hasn’t fully embraced their operations currently in Yemen and Syria.
Obama will make the case that creating their own missile defense shield (which the U.S. will offer a degree of assistance to) is a better solution to addressing their concerns about Iran and its nuclear program than any formal U.S. defense commitment or the option of obtaining their own nuclear deterrent.
Leaving them a vague “presidential statement” of U.S. support and the offer for more arms sales, President Obama will hope that this assuages Gulf leaders’ concerns about engaging Iran. The President though fundamentally underestimates the challenge Iran poses to the security of the region and the GCC. Empowering Iran, through engagement and sanction relief without enhancing cooperation with the Gulf States, is unlikely to achieve the “equilibrium” in the region he seeks or secure the long-term interests of the U.S. or his allies in the region.
A way forward
While this Camp David summit is largely a photo shoot, President Obama, optimistically, could use this summit as a tenuous starting point to seriously engage these states in the future. President Obama could invite King Salman for a state visit to Washington where he could use it as an opportunity to improve this strained bilateral relationship. Obama could importantly propose a substantive defense agreement with the GCC and enhanced support for these states’ operations in Yemen and Syria. These initiatives require time, leadership, and political capital, which the President has been reluctant in expending in his engagement with the GCC.
Andrew Bowen, Ph.D. is a Senior Fellow and the Director of Middle East Studies at the Center for the National Interest in Washington, DC.
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