Obama Meets with GCC – Politics or Policy?
Obama’s latest foreign policy embarrassment came to this week as word emerged that four of six invited heads of state from GCC nations would skip a summit with Obama at Camp David on Thursday. In addition, Saudi King Salman decided to stay home rather than meet privately with Obama at the White House Wednesday. While the emirs of Qatar and Kuwait will meet with Obama, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said, and the United Arab Emirates’ Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan will join the Saudi monarch in missing the Obama’s summit.
The View From the GCC
Most believe that the public slap at Obama is due to his Iranian policy. “I don’t think they have a deep respect, a deep trust for Obama and his promises,” Emirates University political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdullah told The Associated Press, referring to the Gulf State leaders who are keeping away. “There is a fundamental difference between his vision of post-nuclear-deal Iran and their vision,” the professor added. “They think Iran is a destabilizing force and will remain so, probably even more, if the sanctions are lifted. . . . They’re just not seeing things eye to eye.”
“I think we are looking for some form of security guarantee, given the behavior of Iran in the region, given the rise of the extremist threat,” Yousef Al Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the United States, told the AP. “In the past, we have survived with a gentleman’s agreement with the United States about security. I think today, we need something in writing. We need something institutionalized.”
GCC officials worry that the Iranian agreement will trigger further regional instability, even though the Obama Administration has offered closer coordination with the GCC on regional issues. At a meeting last weekend in Paris with foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council Secretary of State John Kerry offered these countries “non-NATO-major-ally status.”
The proposal met with little enthusiasm. The GCC representative displayed “very, very tepid interest” in Kerry’s plan, one U.S. official told the Wall Street Journal. “They seemed to think it was not that critical or even important a step.”
The message is clear. While Obama pursues rapprochement with Iran, Saudi Arabia will take the lead in fighting what it perceived expansion, specifically in supporting the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Some critics of Obama’s approach are claiming “Coordination with Washington will be kept to a polite and diplomatic minimum – partially in fear that Obama may pass GCC military intelligence to Iran”. According to Senator John McCain (R., Ariz.), before the Saudis began aerial bombardments against the Houthis, they gave U.S. Central Command chief General Lloyd Austin just “an hour’s notice they were going to strike Yemen.”
Saudi Arabia has made it clear where it stands in terms of Iran. On April 29, former Saudi ambassador to the United States Adel Al-Jubeir was appointed foreign minister. This is highly unusual, as he is not a member of the royal family.
What’s interesting however, is his history. Al-Jubeir was alledged to be the target of an Iranian-led assassination conspiracy the FBI unraveled in 2011. Iranian-American Manssor Arbabsiar pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison for his collaboration with members of the Iranian military.They alledged that conspirators planned to kill then-Ambassador Al-Jubeir by bombing him at Café Milano, a Georgetown restaurant.
By appointing an Iranian assassination target as Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, the kingdom has made a strong, but subtle message to Washington and Tehran. It was reinforced by this week’s “no shows” by the majority of GCC leaders.
The GCC messages haven’t been heeded by Obama – or (more likely) been ignored. Kerry called an atomic deal with Iran “closer than ever” at a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference in New York on April 27.
The GCC’s goal and Saudis in particular is to try to project regional influence with or without Obama’s assistance. As they see it, Iran and its allies already are showing increasing power in the region in the Gaza Strip, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen.
Obama’s View – Political
The GCC nations are afraid that Obama’s concern is less with regional stability, but building a legacy by reducing tensions with Iran. And, in order to create that legacy, he sees the meeting as a political ploy.
Obama is facing considerable resistance to the proposed deal with Iran. Although he would prefer to make a deal that circumvents Congress, he is forced to accede to Congressional review if he has any hopes of this deal lasting beyond his administration.
As a result, Obama is eager to use this GCC summit for political purposes – as a way to show skeptics in Congress that he has international support for his negotiations with Iran. A show of unity with the GCC on the negotiations would help break the congressional opposition and allow Obama to finalize an agreement with Tehran.
However, with clear GCC opposition to the Iranian deal, Obama needed to “sweeten the pot,” by publically or secretly offering something to the GCC that they want. The final summit statement noted this by stating that the leaders “discussed a new U.S.-GCC strategic partnership to enhance their work to improve security cooperation, especially on fast-tracking arms transfers, as well as on counter-terrorism, maritime security, cybersecurity, and ballistic missile defense.”
The Obama Administration hope is that offering more weapons systems to the GCC in return for some show of unity may solve the domestic political problem he faces with both Republican and Democratic legislators.
It seems little of substance was accomplished.
This was confirmed in the final statement that made vague comments about a variety of issues ranging from the Palestinian/Israeli conflict to the fighting in Yemen. The use of phrases like “affirmed their commitment,” only indicated that many issues were discussed, but little significant movement was made.
Some actions were decided upon like forming, “a senior working group to pursue the development of rapid response capabilities, taking into account the Arab League’s concept of a “unified Arab force.” In addition, “The United States will help conduct a study of GCC ballistic missile defense architecture and offered technical assistance in the development of a GCC-wide Ballistic Missile Early Warning System.” There will be more large scale GCC/US military exercises.
But little of importance was done in regards to Iran. Speaking at a press conference afterwards, Obama said that he’d “welcome an Iran that plays a responsible role in the region. “One that takes concrete practical steps to build trust and resolve its differences with its neighbors by peaceful means and abides by international rules and norms.” Aside from that, they affirmed that they would only, “oppose and will cooperate in countering Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region.”
It is obvious the differences between the GCC and Obama are much larger than a few meetings or upbeat press conferences can solve. Mustafa Alani, an Iraqi security analyst with close ties to the Saudi crown prince’s Interior Ministry noted, “Their experience of six years from Obama is assurances, promises, nice words. But at the end of the day they got nothing in their hands.”
Preparing for the Approaching Syrian Endgame
By James Phillips
May 14, 2015
Issue Brief #4407
Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship has been rocked by a string of military defeats and by internal tensions within the minority Alawite-dominated regime that is battling for its life against a rising tide of predominantly Sunni rebel groups. Casualties, defections, and loss of territory have severely undermined the Syrian Army and Syria’s security services, forcing the Assad regime to increase its dependence on Iran and its client Shiite militias. The Obama Administration should use today’s Camp David summit to increase cooperation with Arab allies to bolster the strength and unity of Syria’s fractured rebel coalition against the Assad regime, Iran, and al-Qaeda groups inside Syria. Washington should also push for greater Arab support in defeating the Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS) inside Iraq and Syria and for greater security cooperation against Iran, including an integrated missile defense system to defend Arab allies against Iran’s ballistic missiles.
Saudi King Skips Summit
By Jon B. Alterman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
May 11, 2015
It’s hard not to read a strong message in the Saudi king’s last-minute decisions this past weekend. He declined a private meeting with President Obama at the White House, and also to join a summit at the president’s private retreat at Camp David. A consensus has been emerging that this is a snub, and it is hard to see it otherwise. After all, the whole idea of taking a group of Gulf leaders to Camp David was to personalize the experience more and to allow the president to deepen his relationships with an important group who feel a certain distance from him. But in all the discussion of the snub, two things have been overlooked. The first is that there seems to have been a problem of interpretation on the U.S. side. After all, the White House announced late last week that the king would have a private meeting with the president before the larger meeting got underway, only to learn later that the king wouldn’t be coming after all. While it’s possible that the king changed his mind, what’s more likely is that the Saudi side felt it never fully committed, while the U.S. side felt it had.
Iran’s strategic thinking: Origins and evolution
By J. Matthew McInnis
American Enterprise Institute
May 12, 2015
Iran is not an unpredictable, irrational, rogue nation. It is simply inadequately understood. By analyzing Iran’s strategic culture, we can assess the regime’s threat
perceptions and strategic calculus. Iran’s national consciousness is defined by its longevity and resilience as a nation and a civilization, along with modern Iran’s inability to regain the relative power it possessed during the early centuries of the Persian Empire. Iran’s geographic and strategic position in the Middle East provides a natural defense against invasion but also a sense of isolation and a historical lack of natural allies. Iran’s foreign policies are also complicated by the multiple and, at times, contradictory identities the nation has acquired throughout its history: Persian, Islamic, Shiite, and revolutionary. Tehran’s revolutionary principles provide the basis of the regime’s legitimacy and most of its foreign policies while demarking key parameters for the leadership decisions.
It’s Time to Stop Holding Saudi Arabia’s Hand
By Richard Sokolsky and Jeremy Shapiro
May 12, 2015
The picture of President George W. Bush leading an aged Saudi King Abdullah by the hand through the gardens of his Texas ranch in 2005 has become both iconic and symbolic of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. For over 40 years, the United States has walked hand-in-hand with Saudi Arabia through the thicket of Middle Eastern crises. On May 14, at Camp David, another bucolic presidential setting, President Barack Obama is convening a special summit with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partners to begin a new phase in their relationship. But, for the first time, it appears there will be less hand-holding and more tough talk. The United States will use the summit to hear the GCC’s concerns about Iran, but will likely explain frankly to the Arab monarchies that there will be no new U.S.-GCC defense pact or blanket security assurances from the United States. If the president delivers the right messages to whomever shows up at the summit, the U.S.-GCC relationship has the potential to become more productive than ever before.
Taming the Militias: Building National Guards in Fractured Arab States
By Frederic Wehrey and Ariel I. Ahram
May 7, 2015
Since the eruption of the Arab Spring in 2011, centralized military power has broken down in North Africa, the Levant, and Yemen, and several weak Arab states have turned to local militias to help defend regimes. While these pro-government militias can play important security roles, they have limited military capacity and reliability. Transitioning militia fighters into national guard forces with formal ties to the national command structure can overcome some of these limitations, but the shift must be accompanied by a wider commitment to security sector reform and political power sharing. Some militias are tied to ruling parties and draw fighters directly from regime supporters. Others are made up of former rebel factions or defectors from terrorist and insurgent groups, and they often seek to retain their autonomy even as they avow loyalty and service to the state. In many Arab countries, including Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, militias play an important role in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations. Militias are often cheaper and more flexible than regular security forces, and they have greater local knowledge, allowing them to operate effectively in areas where regular security forces cannot.
Reforming the Israeli Electoral System: What’s Needed? What’s Possible?
By Tamar Friedman
Foreign Policy Research Institue
Over a month and a half has passed since the March 17th Israeli parliamentary elections decisively granted Netanyahu’s Likud party more seats in the Knesset than the opposing Zionist Union. Yet Netanyahu was unable to form a working government until May 6th, only two hours before the deadline, and even then he scraped by with a coalition that gave him a narrow – and precarious – majority of one vote in the Knesset. Something is wrong with this picture. Since the birth of the country, Israel’s electoral system has been criticized for favoring small parties over large ones and for granting a disproportionate amount of power to fringe ideological groups. The polarizing effect of this electoral system has led to a rapidly changing political landscape with parties popping up and disbanding with great frequency. It has led to stagnant governments that are more and more often dissolving themselves before the end of their term. It has led to a wild political scramble to form a coalition that continues for weeks after the results of an election come in.
Will Tunisia’s Democracy Survive? A View from Political Demography
By Richard Cincotta
May 12, 2015
Among the few bright spots in the 2015 Freedom in the World Report, the brightest may be Tunisia, which for the first time was assessed as “free” – Freedom House’s highest “freedom status” and for many political scientists the definitive indication of a liberal democracy. Tunisia is the only North African state to have been assessed as free since Freedom House began its worldwide assessment of political rights and civil liberties in 1972, and only the second Arab-majority state since Lebanon was rated free from 1974 to 1976. Tunisians have had little time to celebrate. A deadly raid by jihadists on Tunis’ Bardo Museum on March 18 left 20 foreign tourists and 3 Tunisians dead and has led several analysts to warn that Tunisia’s fledgling democracy is at serious risk.
Wooing the Gulf States: From Riyadh to Paris to Camp David
By Simon Henderson
May 7, 2015
Amid a flurry of speculative news stories about what Washington can offer to placate Gulf concerns about the putative nuclear deal with Iran, a dress rehearsal of sorts took place on May 5 in Riyadh. The leaders of five Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries were there — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates — while Oman sent a special representative of Sultan Qaboos, who has been unwell. Also in attendance was French president Francois Hollande as the guest of honor, probably reflecting France’s tough stance in the nuclear negotiations and its record as an arms supplier to the Gulf states. (Last month, for example, Qatar announced a $7 billion deal for French fighter aircraft.)