The President, King Salman, and the Gulf between Them

Meetings between allied heads of state rarely risk any form of confrontation. They usually are carefully prepared beforehand to produce some kind of positive result rather than used to actually negotiate, and almost inevitably end in some kind of public statement that puts as positive a spin as possible on the meeting. The meeting between President Obama and King Salman of Saudi Arabia is unlikely to be an exception. Both nations are close strategic partners in spite of their differences, and both states need each other.

At the same time, anyone who travels to the Gulf and meets with Gulf officials and military is aware that the United States needs to reassure its allies and reinforce its commitment to that partnership. At a more popular level, it is also all too clear that many in the Gulf do not trust the U.S. commitment to stay in the Gulf, and are bothered by conspiracy theories that the United States is somehow turning to Iran. Many also see the United States as a nation that is not an effective enough leader and has no clear strategy for the region.

These feelings can scarcely come as a shock to the White House. Secretary Kerry and Secretary Carter have both traveled to the region in an effort to reassure Saudi Arabia and our other Gulf allies, and President Obama did his best to reassure them at his May summit meeting at Camp David with the representatives of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman.

It is also true that Gulf criticism and expectations often ignore the fact that the United States scarcely created the conditions that have led to so many political upheavals since 2011, and has no magic wand to wave that can suddenly alter the security problems raised by ISIS and other extremist movements, by Iran’s regional ambitions and military build-up, or by civil war and internal instability in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya. The Gulf’s major export may be petroleum, but it sometimes seems almost as interested in exporting conspiracy theories and responsibility.

But, the fact is that one price of an alliance is to constantly reassure one’s allies, and U.S. policy towards the region is often unclear, poorly defined, and seems more conceptual than real. Accordingly, the President may wish to take the opportunity of King Salman’s visit to make several things clear.

One is that the United States has a clear implementation plan to fully enforce every aspects of the nuclear agreement with Iran. The White House has so far done far more to defend the terms of the agreement than to show it is prepared and fully committed to confronting Iran with the reality that it cannot ignore any of the provisions of the agreement, that the United States will not compromise, and that the United States will respond to any Iranian test of how well the agreement is enforced.

A second point is to make it unambiguously and publicly clear that the United States will join its Arab allies to offset any Iranian misuse of the resources made available by the lifting of sanctions that adds to Iran’s other threats in the region: its missile forces, its asymmetric warfare capability in the Gulf, and its efforts to expand its influence in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen and exploit the Shi’ite populations in the GCC states.

One option would be to announce a full commitment to supporting Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states with theater missile defenses. Another would be a commitment to providing them with the weapons to maintain a clear military “edge” over Iran. A third, would be to make it clear that the United States will maintain its presence in the Gulf, and that USCENTCOM has the same strategic priority as USPACOM in the Pacific and Asia. Finally, the President might make the same kind of mention of offering the Gulf States extended deterrence if the nuclear agreement with Iran should fail that then Secretary Clinton raised in the past. These are all policies that the United States is to some extent already pursuing. Giving them more tangible and public form during the King’s visit is scarcely that much of a leap.

The President does face more serious challenges in several other areas that are critical to the Saudis. The U.S. campaign against ISIL and other violent extremist movements seems to have stalled except for the bombing campaign, and its strategic impact so far seems to be maintaining the status quo. It isn’t just the Gulf that has questions about the U.S. strategy in Syria. The U.S. train and assist mission to create “moderate” Syrian forces seems to have imploded into a near farce, it is unclear what level of cooperation that the United States has with Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states in aiding other Syrian Arab forces, it is unclear how the United States is now dealing with the Syrian Kurds, and it is unclear how whether the United States is being partnered by Turkey or being played by President Erdogan.

The U.S. strategy in Iraq is equally uncertain. It is far from clear that the U.S. train and assist effort is working. It is unclear that Prime Minister Abadi’s reform plans can bring political stability or that the United States is providing the support he needs. The U.S. policy towards Iraq’s Kurds seems as unclear as it is towards Syria’s Kurds, and Iran seems to be outplaying the United States in providing on the ground military support to Iraq’s Shiite militias, and in winning influence over Iraq’s regular military. Here, Saudi Arabia has a very valid complaint. It warned the United States before it invaded Iraq of what might happen in terms of sectarian and ethnic power struggles, and it then saw the United States effectively complete the disbanding of the military forces that were the primary barrier to Iranian efforts to expand its influence to the west.

The United States has done better in the case of Yemen, but largely in terms of having ships block Iranian efforts to send a supply convoy to the Houthi, and providing some intelligence and logistic support to the Saudi-UAE air and land effort. It has done little to make it clear that it is ready to at least provide meaningful humanitarian support, or to show it understands the reasons for Saudi action. The prospects of a hostile, pro-Iranian regime that might grant air or sea facilities in a country that shares a 1,300 kilometer border with Saudi Arabia and that can use the Bab el Mandeb strait to provide the same kind of threat to traffic through the Red Sea that Iran now poses at the Strait of Hormuz to access to the Gulf affects vital Saudi strategic interests, as well as those of the United States.

These are all areas where the President has provided broad concepts and good intentions in some form. But they are also all areas where comments and words are not enough. The President has to do a far better job of showing he can execute policy, and turn it into effective action. He also needs to do a far better job of strategic communications to describe his actions in detail, explain the limitations on his options, and go beyond “spin” in explaining their impact and degree of success. Admittedly, he can scarcely do all of this in time for King Salman’s visit, but the White House is not an ivory tower, and this president doesn’t have all that much time left.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy