Of all the foreign policy fantasies of the current administration, one of the most alluring is that key Sunni Arab states can now be mobilized effectively in the service of U.S. interests.
Anyone experiencing these visions ought to lie down and wait quietly until the sensation passes. There is much that the United States may be able to do with Sunni Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, where U.S. investments have paid off. But furthering Trump’s agenda isn’t one of them. The president is likely to find that his vision of U.S. interests, let alone strategy, doesn’t mesh with that of the Arabs on whom he’s relying. They’ll be just as critical publicly of his mistakes as they were about the Bush administration’s Iraq invasion and the failure of the Obama administration to enforce its red line on Syrian use of chemical weapons. In the end, the Arab states will be just as hard to corral as ever into doing what Trump wants.
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Ever since President Jimmy Carter declared the Persian Gulf a vital American interest in 1979, America’s military and security cooperation with the Arab states of the Persian Gulf has largely been a two-way street. During this period, those nations provided the United States with military facilities and material support to defend the Gulf against a Soviet invasion and to support Afghan freedom fighters against the Soviet Union; assist the U.S. Navy to protect shipping in Gulf waters; prevent Iran from defeating Iraq in their eight-year war; repel Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait; and support U.S. forces in the Iraq war, U.S. operations in Afghanistan, and the campaign against the Islamic State.
Moreover, throughout most of this period, Bahrain hosted the U.S. 5th Fleet. Washington also exchanges a substantial amount of intelligence about terrorism with these countries. Even though the United States and Sunni Arabs have had their differences (especially over the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Israel, and their domestic practices) the Gulf Arabs were reliable partners in protecting core American interests — preserving access to Gulf oil, countering terrorism and preventing a hostile country from dominating the region.
Trump’s views on the Gulf states are clearly evolving. He was consistently contemptuous of Saudi Arabia on the campaign trail, dismissing the relationship as one-sided with little advantage for Washington. Trump probably had little idea about the history of U.S. security relationships with the Gulf states and chose not to focus on the billions in military equipment they buy from American defense contractors. But pushing allies and security partners to do more is central to the president’s talking points. The trio of advisers on national security of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — all of whom know the Gulf-state brief well — will also want to explore what more can be done to enlist and repurpose Arab state support in the service of U.S. interests.
Trump wants to deepen the relationship with the Gulf Arabs in three critical areas: countering Iranian influence; enlisting them in the fight against the Islamic State; and negotiating peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
But the same contradictions and challenges that have held back the relationship still exist. Gulf state military support for the United States has all been provided bilaterally; they have an awful track record acting as a unified military coalition. The failure of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the security organization they formed in 1981, to achieve any meaningful military integration is a monumental example. It has not been for lack of U.S. efforts to prod them in this direction, but rather the lack of trust and differences among GCC members. And then there’s the politically inconvenient matter of private Saudi and Emirati support for the very jihadist ideology and groups that the United States is seeking to defeat. Moreover, the more the Trump administration asks of the Sunni Arabs without amending some of its own policies and proclivities, the less it can expect to get from them.
The White House reportedly wants to form an anti-Iranian military alliance; it has begun consulting with Sunni Arab governments about it, and it calls U.S. military assistance to the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen the proof of this new partnership. This is enough to make one’s head spin. The Saudi and UAE campaign to defeat the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels in Yemen has been disastrous, leaving in its wake large-scale destruction, civilian casualties and greater human suffering. Their diplomatic efforts to find a negotiated solution have been equally baleful. These are not problems in which Washington should want to play a central role.
Sunni governments have no influence, access, or allies in Iraq to assist in the fight against the Islamic State, to push back against the power of Shiite militia groups that serve as Iran’s proxies, and to help in the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq after the Islamic State has been kicked out of Mosul. The Gulf Arabs may have more success in preventing the expansion of Iranian influence in Bahrain, but only if they pressure Bahrain to ease up on its repressive domestic controls, which give Iran ample opportunities to agitate among its co-religionists. And this is not something the Saudis have been willing to do out of fear that any compromise with the opposition in Bahrain would ultimately lead to the collapse of the neighboring regime. U.S. proposals for the Gulf states to work together on maritime defense in the Persian Gulf have been met with a tepid response. In short, rolling back Iran’s regional influence, without putting at risk other important U.S. objectives, is easier said than done because like it or not, the Iranians and their proxies enjoy significant advantages on the ground.
Similarly, enlisting key Arab states to play a bigger role in U.S. policy toward Syria remains more of a thought experiment than a practical reality. The Gulf states will welcome Trump’s pledge to eradicate the Islamic State from the face of the earth, but not his apparent willingness to defer to Russia as the senior partner in determining what happens inside the country, particularly acquiescing in preserving the Assad regime and cutting back on support for the Syrian Arab opposition. Nor will the Gulf states take kindly to Trump’s suggestion that they fund safe zones in Syria — a risky and ill-considered idea whose purpose, other than to prevent an outflow of Syrian refugees, has not been established.
The politically inconvenient fact is that in Syria, the Gulf Arabs are too risk-averse and divided to play an effective role. They’re also outgunned and outmatched by the Russians, the Turks, Syria’s armed forces, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Units, and the Hezbollah and Shiite militia units that are closely aligned with Tehran. Equally problematic is the Sunni regimes’ suspicions that Trump’s primary agenda — destroying the Islamic State — will allow the Assad regime and Iran to fill the vacuum and threaten their interests. The idea of a rising Shiite crescent covering the region is overblown, but in Syria it looks real. And the Saudis will balk at the Trump administration’s unwillingness to wage a proxy war against Iran in Syria (and by implication with Russia) to dilute Iran’s influence there and undermine the Assad regime.
Another area where optimism has outpaced reality concerns Arab states’ support for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. This is clearly worth testing, particularly in light of the positive trend in relations between Israel and the Gulf states driven by a common fear of Iran and Sunni militants. To be sure, nothing else in the peace process has worked. But the notion of broadening the circle of peacemaking (to make concessions on all sides less painful and a deal more secure) is old wine in new bottles. It can be productive if Israel and the Palestinians are prepared for tough decisions on some of the core issues, such as borders and Jerusalem. But there’s no indication that’s the case. Indeed, it’s hard to believe that the Arab states would abandon their own 2002 Arab Peace Initiative and trade away recognition of Israel and pressure on the Palestinians for nothing substantial in return. The Saudis are indeed sending positive signals, but nothing comes free.
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Washington will sooner or later discover, hopefully before real damage is done to U.S. interests, that the Sunni Arabs will be problematic security partners, and plans of transformative regional cooperation will go nowhere. These countries have a very poor track record of playing well together and they lack many of the basic military rudiments for effective coalition operations. U.S. efforts to empower them will only give them license to interfere in the internal affairs of their neighbors and launch attacks against Shiite opponents (in the region and even domestically). The United States should be doing everything it can to de-escalate rather than fan the Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict that is raging throughout the region.
At the end of the day, the Trump administration will be just as frustrated as its predecessor. Certain policies, such as restrictions on Muslim immigration and support for hard-line elements in Israel, will only make closer cooperation harder.
The United States needs to keep its expectations low for working closely with the Sunni Gulf states. There are areas of possible cooperation — maritime and ballistic-missile defense and protection of critical infrastructure in the Gulf against Iranian and terrorist attacks — but the vision of a new U.S.-Sunni alignment that seems to be animating the United States’ broader Middle East strategy is flawed. It could enmesh us further into conflicts, such as the one in Yemen, that do not affect vital interests. If we let them, our Gulf Arab friends will drag Washington into costly and risky commitments the United States will not be able to meet, further undermining our leadership and reputation. And if Sunni Arab governments are true to form, the United States will do most of the heavy lifting while they cheer us from the sidelines and then heap blame on Washington when things go wrong.