By Bilal Y. Saab – The Obama administration’s 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance and U.S. Central Command’s 2013 Posture Statement call, among other things, for shifting the focus of U.S. military planning to the Asia-Pacific. To give itself a chance to successfully implement its global reposturing strategy, the United States must reshape its military presence and recalibrate its level of engagement in the Middle East. Doing so will require the support of willing and capable regional allies that can share the burden of regional security.
Given their wealth, modern armed forces, increasing regional clout and close relations with the United States, the support of Gulf allies will be counted on the most by Washington. The United States understands that bolstering the defense and security capabilities of its Gulf allies, a vital mission emphasized in the 2006 and 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review reports, will allow it to execute its strategic pivot to the Asia-Pacific. But current uncertainty in U.S. relations with its Gulf allies is making increased security cooperation difficult to achieve.
While it is not uncommon for allies to argue, disagree, or express concerns about policy (just look at U.S.-European relations during the Cold War), it is worrying when trust issues start creeping into the relationship. Contrary to what has been reported in the West and some quarters in the Gulf, relations between America and the Arab Gulf states are not at a crossroads. The alliance is whole, and American and Arab Gulf officials understand that there is too much at stake to preserve its strength and endurance. For more than four decades, the United States has had a robust web of alliances with the states comprising the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). This system has achieved common strategic goals, including securing the free and constant flow of oil from the region to the world at large; preventing the rise of a hostile regional power that could threaten Middle East stability; and countering Islamist extremists that seek to violently transform politics and society.
But since the start of the Arab uprisings in late 2010, a sense of uneasiness and anxiety has tainted the U.S.-GCC relationship, and it is having real-world implications for effective security cooperation and joint policy planning. Such discomfort and lack of clarity have been caused in part by negative perceptions on the respective sides. But it has also been exacerbated by the fact that the depth and scope of the region’s current security problems—caused by destabilizing political transitions and civil conflict—have overwhelmed the U.S. structure for cooperation with GCC allies, rendering it vulnerable to new internal and external threats.
On the Gulf side, there is a perception, acknowledged by CENTCOM’s 2013 posture statement, that the United States lacks commitment to the collective interests and security of its Gulf allies. For example, some Gulf officials have privately communicated to their American counterparts their growing concern about U.S. policy toward Iran. The fear in the Gulf is that the United States will either fail to stop Iran from getting the bomb or seek a grand bargain with the Islamic Republic, either of which will vastly undermine the security interests and well-being of the Gulf States. More specifically, some GCC capitals are more concerned than others over the fact that America is holding its cards very close to its chest with regard to military strategy and contingency plans for Iran, should the Islamic Republic cross any red lines. As one former Gulf commander recently told me, “I need some kind of assurance from the Americans should things in the Middle East fall apart. We need to know how we will protect ourselves. Joint exercises are great, but we need to be clear during moments of real crisis.”
Of course, Washington has repeatedly reassured its Gulf allies that their security is a top priority, made concrete steps to upgrade their defensive capabilities (through joint exercises, advanced training and sales of modern weapons), and clarified that its pivot to the Asia Pacific will not cause America to withdraw or disengage from the Middle East (the Obama administration has specifically said that emphasis will remain on the Middle East and the effort to decrease defense spending will focus on U.S. deployments in Europe, benefit and retirement costs, old weapons systems and the U.S. nuclear arsenal). Yet the Gulf states remain unhappy about U.S. defense-export controls. The process is cumbersome and can be confusing—“We often feel like strangers when we buy from America, despite our alliance” one frustrated senior official told me. Some Gulf governments now buy military equipment elsewhere, hindering interoperability between GCC and U.S. militaries.
And despite these encouraging words and actions, negative perceptions persist, and the record of U.S. policy in the Middle East since the start of the Arab uprisings has been less than reassuring to Gulf leaders and publics alike. Aggravating the perception is the fact that the United States withdrew its military from Iraq and, by default, allowed Iran to dominate its politics; that it could not “save” its Egyptian ally Hosni Mubarak during the country’s uprising in 2011; and that it failed to effect a positive outcome to the ongoing Syrian crisis. It also does not help that Washington is going through a tough period of fiscal restraint that could challenge U.S. defense posture and foreign-policy responsibilities, a reality that has not gone unnoticed in Gulf capitals.
On the U.S. side, it has now become conventional wisdom in Washington that the Gulf States are bitterly divided and unable to work together to face common enemies. Indeed, there is a widespread view that the Gulf States are incapable of achieving collective security due to power politics, competition for influence, and significant differences over strategic vision and policy. On the political level, Washington is also worried about the internal stability, and thus reliability, of its Gulf allies. While there is no question that countries in the Gulf must implement wide-ranging political reforms, diversify their economies, and address the roots of potential social discontent, none of these long-term challenges make them unreliable allies to the United States. Take, for example, Israel, Washington’s closest ally around the world. With a growing demographic problem (the number of Arabs in Israel and Palestine will equal the number of Jews by 2016 and surpass it by 2020), flaws in its democracy (Arab citizens are treated unequally), and an influential ultra-Orthodox community that rejects a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel faces internal threats to its stability. Still, these problems do not disqualify Israel as a reliable U.S. ally.
GCC leaders have acknowledged the need for across-the-board reform and are committed to meeting public expectations. If and when they fall short, they will have to answer to their own people first, not to Washington. All the United States can do is assist its allies in creating more representative governments, promoting human development and achieving economic growth. As for the predominant theme in Washington of disunity within the GCC, it is true that there are differences among GCC states over regional issues, including how to deal with Iran and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. But this is neither unique to the Gulf nor uncommon in regional relations, and instead of misrepresenting or exaggerating those differences Washington would do well to better understand them.
Finally, with regard to the lack of intra-GCC security cooperation, GCC states can certainly do more to build closer security relationships and integrate their defense capabilities. But much progress has been made on that front—GCC states have come a long way since the 1990-91 Gulf War. Given its senior status and central role in the alliance, the United States also has a huge responsibility in this area. The United States and its Gulf allies could use a more honest and comprehensive strategic dialogue that doesn’t just focus on developing military-to-military engagement but that also delves, in a deep and transparent fashion, into issues of policy and strategy affecting the future of the region: Iran’s conventional threat and nuclear program; Syria’s future; Iraq’s security; the threat of Al Qaeda; the role of political Islam in a new Middle East; and more broadly, democratic transitions. Such a strategic dialogue can also address negative perceptions, clarify intentions and alleviate concerns on both sides, while also managing differences. Absent such a critical dialogue, the U.S. strategic objective of global reposturing will be particularly hard to meet—and the United States will forever be stuck in the Middle East.
This article initially appeared in the pages of The National Interest.