What if they gave a summit and no one came? That was the reaction of some to the news that Saudi Arabia’s King Salman was not attending today’s Mideast conference at Camp David. In fact, several of his fellow monarchs also skipped the meeting, suggesting that the event’s outcome will be modest at most. Which might be best, since America should be doing less, not more, for its dubious “allies.”
Washington’s determination to defend much of the globe has made the U.S. an international sucker, especially vulnerable to manipulation by supposed friends. Even America’s closest and oldest allies are never satisfied, always demanding greater “reassurance” from their protector, whether formal security agreements, new arms transfers, additional troop deployments, or other “concrete” measures.
At least many of Washington’s Asian and European allies are liberal democracies which share values, histories, and traditions. In contrast, most U.S. Middle Eastern allies are embarrassments, including the assorted Persian Gulf monarchies ranging from quasi-liberal to totalitarian. Yet all want constant aid and affirmation.
Which is the basis of the Mideast summit. The Gulf States are upset. King Salman’s absence may or may not be a diplomatic snub, but it matters not. The basic “problem” in their view is that Washington is pursuing the interests of America, not Saudi Arabia & Co., which is seeking hegemony over the Gulf. The visiting monarchs believe the U.S. should sacrifice its interests for their benefit. Their complaints are many.
First, Washington negotiated to prevent Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon rather than demanded Tehran's surrender and bombed Iran when that country said no, as it almost certainly would have. An American war against Iran actually is Riyadh's preferred policy, since that would take out the latter's most important rival.
Second, even though forestalling development of an Iranian nuke would dramatically improve the region's security environment, especially for Tehran's antagonistic neighbors, they complain that eliminating sanctions would increase Iranian revenues, allowing Tehran to meddle more. In short, the Gulf States are anti-Iran, not anti-nuclear Iran. They would prefer permanent sanctions unrelated to nuclear weapons.
Third, Syria's Bashar Assad must be overthrown, even though he has not threatened the U.S. The monarchical gaggle believes that he must be defenestrated even if what replaces him is worse, much worse—a mix of the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front and ostentatiously murderous Islamic State. Indeed, America's nominal allies, including Turkey, have been variously aiding Syrian radicals with funds, sanctuary, transit, and weapons.
Fourth, the U.S. has proved insufficiently enthusiastic in battling the Gulf States' other enemies. Washington should follow the monarchies' lead in deciding when to buttress established regimes (Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen), overthrow established governments (Iran, Libya, Syria), and respect the Gulf States' conflicted feelings (Islamic State).
Fifth, Washington should issue security guarantees backed by appropriate force deployments, weapons sales, and military training to guarantee the survival of corrupt, licentious, incompetent, and unstable gerontocracies and monarchies. There should be not even a whisper of the need for reform no matter how culturally restrictive, politically repressive, and theologically totalitarian. Kuwait has demonstrated that Gulf States can accommodate a relatively liberal society, free media, and parliamentary elections, but most of its neighbors prefer autocracy. The U.S. should act as a simple foreign contractor whose defense services are available for purchase.
Washington should challenge all of these assumptions, starting today at the summit.
American foreign policy should be about promoting America's security. As a global superpower which stands supreme militarily, the U.S. actually does not much need alliances to protect itself, especially in the Middle East.
Washington's interests in the region are far more limited than commonly assumed. The energy market is global and expanding. The Gulf States would sell their oil even if Washington did not act as monarchical bodyguard on call. After all, the regimes would cease to exist without cash to pay off allies and buy off adversaries. Any successor governments also would keep the wells pumping.
Democratic and humanitarian concerns have been hopelessly compromised by decades of support for the worst dictatorships: Iran's Shah, Egypt's Mubarak and now al-Sisi, Turkey under assorted military generals, aid to Iraq's Hussein against Iran, and backing for the gaggle of hereditary and mostly authoritarian monarchs. Invading Iraq and attacking Libya caused untold death and destruction. First do no harm would be the best humanitarian prescription.
Israel's safety is of concern to many Americans for reasons irrelevant to America's security. However, Israel is a regional superpower well able to defend itself. Indeed, that is why it developed nuclear weapons. The U.S. could backstop Israel's existence without underwriting its policies and intervening in other nation's conflicts.
Instability is endemic to the region and beyond America's control. Indeed, in recent years Washington has demonstrated that intervention is the great ally of instability. Overthrowing Iran's elected government in 1953 set the stage for that nation's Islamic revolution. Being complicit in Israeli occupation over Palestinians turned Americans into enemies in the view of many Muslims and Arabs. Supporting oppressive regimes in Egypt and the Gulf created another grievance against the U.S. Starting wars in Iraq and Libya loosed untold demons.
America’s most important interest is terrorism. Yet U.S. support for authoritarian monarchies angered the likes of Osama bin Laden, making America a target of violence, including 9/11. At the same time the Gulf States, especially Saudi Arabia, were underwriting Islamic fundamentalism and violent extremism. Years ago King Salman represented the royals in aiding jihadists going to fight in Afghanistan and Bosnia. A 2009 Wikileaks document quoted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.” The Riyadh-led attacks on Yemen have empowered al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the most active terrorist franchise against the U.S. So far some 1400 Yemenis, many civilians, have been killed by Saudi Arabia with Washington’s support, making new enemies for America.
A “new equilibrium” is desperately required, as President Barack Obama suggested. But not the one he favors.
Before the summit the Gulf States pushed for a formal defense treaty, but likely congressional opposition killed that option. The countries indicated little interest in being designated as “major non-NATO” allies (like Bahrain and Kuwait), an honorific with a few practical benefits. So, explained Secretary of State John Kerry last week: “we are fleshing out a series of new commitments that will create, between the United States and the [Gulf Cooperation Council], a new security understanding, a new set of security initiatives that will take us beyond anything that we have had before.” A related proposal is to enhance America’s nearly 40,000-man force presence in the Gulf.
It is hard to imagine a worse idea than committing America to directly intervene in conflicts irrelevant to American security on behalf of nations which share none of America’s most cherished values and which are able to defend themselves. Why is America protecting the Gulf States? The Wall Street Journal complained: “What’s the sense of [them] fielding brand new air squadrons if they are confident in traditional U.S. defense guarantees?” But if they are capable of fielding brand new air squadrons, why do they need traditional U.S. defense guarantees? Similarly, David Schenker and Gilad Wenig of the Washington Institute worried that the Arabs’ new willingness to act militarily “represents a growing desperation in the shadow of Washington’s shrinking security role in the Middle East.” But why shouldn’t that role shrink if the countries are able to act militarily?
The conference attendees already have an institutional framework for common defense, the GCC. Moreover, in March the 22-member League of Arab States agreed to create a transnational military force to confront perceived extremist threats. The Gulf States, unlike some of America’s Asian and European allies, spend real money on the military. Saudi Arabia ranks fourth in the world in military outlays. The $80 billion it spent last year is several times as much as Iran devoted to its military. The United Arab Emirates put $23 billion into defense.
Thus, even with more oil revenues Tehran isn't going to overturn the regional order. Despite important differences among GCC members, they all agree on the importance of survival. Friendly states such as Egypt, Pakistan, and Turkey also might be willing to lend a hand if one of the monarchies was truly threatened (despite their lack of enthusiasm for jumping into Yemen, a geopolitical sideshow).
An even worse idea is turning the Gulf States into nuclear dependents. After Washington inked the nuclear deal with Tehran, the Los Angeles Times reported that “Obama administration officials are promising a major strengthening of U.S. defense commitments to Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf allies, possibly including a nuclear commitment to their security.” Washington has enough nuclear dependents in Asia and Europe. It should not add more from the least stable region of all.
The U.S. probably is best served if no single state dominates the Mideast. Certainly not Riyadh. In criticizing the Gulf summit Iran’s Ali Akbar Velayati, adviser to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, rightly characterized Saudi Arabia as an “undemocratic, tribal government” supporting extremists throughout the region.
The Kingdom tolerates no religious or political liberty at home; Riyadh has radicalized Islamic children around the world through construction of fundamentalist madrassahs. As noted earlier, Saudi Arabia may have done more than any other country to directly promote terrorism. Finally, Riyadh constantly meddles throughout the Mideast, harming American interests. For instance, the Saudis used troops to bolster oppression in Bahrain, bankrolled the al-Sisi dictatorship, and have attempted to destroy the Assad government by supporting the most radical opponents of the regime.
In contrast, there seems less reason to fear what the neoconservative Foreign Policy Initiative termed “Iran’s drive to dominate the region.” In fact, in facing the U.S., Europe, Israel, and Gulf States Iranian policy looks largely defensive, as in Syria. Moreover, Tehran’s few “victories” yielded only dubious, costly and frustrating entanglements.
Iran plays a major role in Iraq as the latter disintegrates amid corrupt misgovernment and sectarian conflict. Tehran's clout is limited to Shiite areas, with Kurdish and Sunni lands unlikely to ever come back under Baghdad's control. Moreover, Iran's influence derives from George W. Bush's decision to oust Saddam Hussein. The Shia politicians who took power share culture, experience, and faith with Iran's Shia leaders. Tehran also is helping Baghdad—at the latter's request—resist the Islamic State, just as America is doing.
Iran may have replaced Syria as the most important outside influence in Lebanon, but again it's a dubious success. Lebanon lost its idyllic status in its bitter civil war three decades ago and is a geopolitical nullity with no impact on America. Iran influences but does not control Hezbollah, which more operates a parallel state rather than controls the official Lebanese government.
Aid from Tehran helps keep Syria's Assad regime afloat, but Iran thereby influences little outside of Damascus. No one seriously believes that if Assad survives he will again rule the entire country. In a geopolitical sense Tehran has as much right to meddle there as do the Gulf States. Ironically, Saudi Arabia is supporting forces in Syria far more threatening to America.
Yemen was fractured and unstable even before Saudi intervention. The Houthis are fighting for themselves, not Iran. Tehran's connection to the rebels is loose at best. Yemen conceivable could offer Iran a better location to try to interdict Gulf shipping, but that would ensure conflict with the U.S., Gulf States, and Europe. Riyadh, not Tehran, has elevated a long-standing domestic conflict to sectarian proxy war.
In the midst of this miasma the Obama administration organized an elaborate hand-holding exercise for the monarchies. “Allies” around the world have learned that the more they whine and complain about being neglected, depressed, unappreciated, fearful, unhappy, and worried, the more expensive “reassurances” they will receive. Rather than allies demonstrating that they are worth defending, America repeatedly attempts to demonstrate that is it worthy to defend them.
U.S. officials are especially prone to slavish obsequiousness when dealing with the Kingdom. Obama administration officials exulted in the “close, warm, personal friendship” between the president and the late King Abdullah. Now Washington is helping Saudi Arabia kill Houthis in Yemen who have done nothing to Americans. For what purpose? Gen. Lloyd Austin, in charge of Central Command, told Congress that “I don’t currently know the specific goals and objectives of the Saudi campaign.” So why is the administration supporting it? Apparently to provide moral support. Said Secretary of State John Kerry: “we’re not going to step away from our alliances and our friendships.”
It probably is best if little substantive comes out of today’s meeting. No promises made by Washington would satisfy its Gulf dependents. At the same time, there’s nothing they can do if the U.S. offers little more than rhetoric and a photo op. Even if the monarchies diversify military suppliers—Qatar made a $7 billion deal for French fighters last week—no one else is going to provide free bodyguards. The status quo will continue.
However, this unsatisfactory result should spark a rethink of U.S. policy. Instead of offering long-term dependents enhanced protection, Washington should indicate that it is turning regional affairs over to those in the region. This would mean continuing to seek better relations with Iran—nearly four decades of violent hostility is enough—without anointing Tehran the new regional leader.
Washington would continue working with the Gulf States on issues of mutual interest. But no longer would the U.S. reflexively support the Gulf States, especially when they are undercutting American security, as in Syria and Yemen. Washington would arm, at market prices, its nominal “allies” against external enemies, but not bolster them against their own populations. President Obama was right to observe that their greatest threats come from within: “populations that, in some cases, are alienated, youth that are underemployed, an ideology that is destructive and nihilistic, and in some cases, just a belief that there are no legitimate political outlets for grievances.” The royals complained that the remarks were “poorly timed,” reported the New York Times, but for them any time would be “poorly timed.”
With this policy the Middle East likely would be an unstable, chaotic mess, rather like today. The idea that if only Washington did more—intervened more often, killed more locals, dropped more bombs, fought more wars, supported more dictators, deposed more dictators, occupied more nations—eternal peace would descend upon the Mideast is a hawkish fantasy. Conflict will continue, and it would be better for Americans to be out, not in, the unending bloodletting.
Whatever the summit’s value, it was not needed for the administration to better explain its Mideast policy to the Gulf States. Observed Jean-Francois Seznec of Johns Hopkins, “they would prefer for the U.S. to be the godfather and protector.” Washington should just say no. It doesn’t need to reassure already pampered clients. It doesn’t need to start or enter additional wars. It needs to changes its policy. Today’s meeting should act as the starting point for some of the “change” that the president once promised Americans.