The Gulf leaders’ meetings with President Obama last Wednesday evening at the White House and Thursday at Camp David resulted in conditional, half-hearted pledges from both parties. The Gulf leaders recognized that if a verifiable and comprehensive (that’s one that cuts off all routes to a bomb) nuclear agreement with Iran can be reached, it will be in their interest. President Obama pledged to deter and confront any external threats to Gulf states.
But external threats are not the Gulf’s main concern. Iran’s efforts against its Arab neighbors are not overtly aggressive. Compared to the Gulf countries, Iran is strikingly weak in conventional military terms. It should not be able to win a force-on-force war with Saudi Arabia.
Tehran’s regional efforts are mainly subversive, aimed at undermining the internal security of their neighbors. Tehran supports non-state actors–Shia militias in Iraq, Hizbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and the Houthis in Yemen–who operate within weak states. This “asymmetric” strategy has produced good results at extraordinarily low cost.
The response has to be more than military. In what I regard as his most positive remark about state-building in a long time, the President said after his meeting with the Gulf states:
When you look at a place like Yemen, the issue there is that the state itself was crumbling, and that if we can do a better job in places like Syria, Yemen, Libya, in building up functioning political structures, then it’s less likely that anybody, including Iran, can exploit some of the divisions that exist there.
That makes a lot of sense, but we are a long way from doing the better job he says is needed. The Syrian state is collapsing. Yemen’s has already collapsed. Libya’s is hanging on by a thread. And there is no sign of a renewed effort to do much about any of them.
Nor are the Gulf states the ideal partners to join us in the effort. The President was at pains to articulate
core principles to guide our efforts: respect for state sovereignty; recognition that these conflicts can only be resolved politically; and acknowledgment of the importance of inclusive governance and the need to respect minorities and protect human rights.
The Gulf states are big on state sovereignty, but they haven’t been as keen on political solutions, few of them practice anything like inclusive governance, and most of them are sorely lacking when it comes to respect for minorities and protection of human rights. The elaborate annex to the official statement on the Camp David talks is notably silent on these issues so far as the Gulf states are concerned.
Nor is the United States pristine in these respects, but it seems to me clear we embrace the ideals more than the Gulf does, with the exception of state sovereignty. That we sometimes honor more in the breach than in the observance.
The Gulfies would have liked a clear signal that the United States is prepared to do what it will take to get rid of Bashar al Assad. There too the President’s signal was half-hearted:
With respect to Syria, we committed to continuing to strengthen the moderate opposition, to oppose all violent extremist groups, and to intensify our efforts to achieve a negotiated political transition toward an inclusive government — without Bashar Assad — that serves all Syrians.
That would be nice, but it isn’t happening. Instead extremists are leading the opposition advances in northern Syria and UN mediation efforts have been reducedd to a slow-motion consultation in Geneva. The only really good news is the advance of moderate opposition forces on the southern front in Syria, where they have formed a joint command and seem to be coordinating well while marginalizing extremists. But President Obama clearly remains concerned that an opposition victory would open the door to an extremist takeover. Sometimes there are reasons to be half-hearted.