On Thursday, President Barack Obama met with representatives from all six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – at a Camp David Summit to assuage Gulf Arab fears about both current nuclear negotiations between Iran and a United States-led international coalition and Tehran’s destabilizing activities in the Middle East.
Many Gulf States made clear they were seeking a written agreement resembling a NATO Article Five-like arrangement where the US would guarantee to defend the GCC if any of its members were attacked by Iran. No such document came to fruition, but Washington did expand security cooperation with the Gulf countries in an effort to assure them that the US remains committed to their security.
The US and GCC agreed to increase joint military exercises and expand counterterrorism efforts. Furthermore, America will improve maritime and border security, harden critical infrastructure, and expedite the shipment of greater defense capabilities. Most importantly, the US will help the GCC create a ballistic missile defense including an early warning system.
Despite these important promises, the Camp David Summit, as many predicted, failed in its main objectives. Both sides said the summit was very productive, and it probably was, but there were no breakthroughs or noteworthy changes in attitude.
Richard LeBaron, a former US ambassador to Kuwait, described the meeting’s outcome as “status quo-plus.” Given the GCC’s negative feelings prior to Thursday’s meeting about both the framework agreement over Iran’s nuclear program and Tehran’s aggression in the region amidst a lack of American leadership, LeBaron’s assessment is not encouraging.
What is particularly striking is the lack of faith in President Obama’s statement on using military force. At his post-summit news conference, the president asserted that in the event of external [Iranian] aggression towards GCC states, “The United States stands ready to work with our GCC partners to urgently determine what actions may be appropriate, using the means at our collective disposal, including the potential use of military force, for the defense of our GCC partners. And let me underscore, the United States keeps our commitments.”
To understand why America’s Sunni Arab allies do not take such words seriously and need them in writing, one must look to Syria. In 2011, a civil war started when President Bashar al-Assad violently attempted to put down protests against his regime. After Assad continued to perpetrate violence against his people and the Syrian opposition grew, Obama said the Syrian leader’s “days were numbered” and that he must step down from the presidency.
After taking this strong position, however, Obama did nothing to back up his rhetoric. America gave no noticeable military support nor led any diplomatic mission to seek a political solution to the civil war where Assad would not retain power.
Obama then set a clear redline that if Assad used chemical weapons, the US would intervene against him. In 2013, the United Nations officially announced that Assad used such weapons to slaughter civilians, but the US did not act, leading Leon Panetta, Obama’s former Secretary of Defense, to criticize the president’s inaction as “damaging.” He elaborated, “It was important for us to stand by our word and go in and do what a commander in chief should do.”
Beyond America’s failure to act in Syria undermining US credibility, it particularly alarmed the GCC and other Sunni Arab countries. Assad’s regime is both Alawite (an offshoot of Shia Islam) and an Iranian ally/client. Assad gave Tehran direct land access to its proxy terror organization Hezbollah in Lebanon and helped expand Iranian influence. Therefore, the GCC states see US inaction in Syria as a direct parallel of what it may not do against Iran in the future.
While Obama’s Syrian redlines and calls for Assad to go were a few years ago, they still affect US foreign policy today. Countries around the world saw the US make clear promises and fail to act on them, indicating a lack of will to appropriately engage in the world and use military force when necessary. No one saw this more clearly than the Gulf Arab states.