US Foreign Policy

Memo to Mr Obama: Gulf Security and Why it Matters

in Program

Dear President Obama,

As you review the foreign policy legacy of your predecessor you will find much to discard, amend or reform. But one set of policies deserves preservation as you complement them with renewed and direct diplomacy with Iran: the approach to Gulf security that the Bush administration embraced in its last years promotes a better strategic dialogue with its Arab Gulf allies and enhances political-military relations. Your senior advisers, including Defence Secretary Bob Gates and CENTCOM commander General David Petraeus, have probably already spoken in favour of continuity, but here is a list of ideas from the region.

– Think of Iran and Iraq policies as components of Gulf policy instead of the other way round. Of course, the success or failure of your new approach to both will have profound implications, but the mistake would be to make them the sole determinant of your other regional security interests. The goal is not so much to tame Tehran and leave Iraq as it is to create lasting stability through a set of rules and mechanisms that create mutual trust, stabilise Iraq further and integrate a nuclear-free Iran in a regional architecture. 

– Reiterate your commitment to the security of your allies in the region through personalised diplomacy and high-level strategic engagement but stay away from appealing but strategically hazardous concepts. In particular, realise the limited value of offering a nuclear umbrella to the Gulf states, which some of your advisers may recommend in coming months. Their thinking is that it would draw a red line for Iran, reassure Gulf allies and prevent a regional nuclear race. In fact it adds nothing to the current US defence commitment in the region and denies everyone the ambiguity needed to deal with Tehran.

– Maintain the emphasis on improved political-military relations. The Gulf Security Dialogue is as much a framework for confidence-building as it is about arms sales and military cooperation. After the tumultuous Rumsfeld years, when the Gulf states were treated at best as a nuisance, at worse as treacherous, Mr Gates and his commanders are reestablishing trust in the US security commitment. In parallel, US military credibility is slowly recovering after being badly battered in Iraq.

– Evaluate cautiously the merits of greater multilateral defence cooperation or formalising security relations with the Gulf states. You may also be tempted to make progress on integrated early warning, air defence and missile defence systems. That should not be high on your agenda, nor should it be a test of success. It will lead nowhere in the short term because the Gulf states have yet to embrace collective security and prefer bilateral relationships. Instead, aim to strengthen the strategy that General Petraeus describes as fostering and animating a “network of networks” that reinforces security interdependence and interconnectivity. There are many areas where regional cooperation is needed (maritime security, counter proliferation, contingency planning) and in which the US is taking a lead role. In fields such as training, information-sharing, joint exercises, interoperability and others, significant progress is being made and confidence built.

– Engage, consult and brief the Gulf states on your Iran strategy. They have not yet defined a unified position on Iran, but they all agree that several of Iran’s policies are threats to the region. At the same time, they dread a military escalation that would damage their development. Balancing these two factors has never been easy for them. After years of cautious silence they have articulated interesting ideas on a region-wide nuclear weapons-free zone and a new, inclusive regional security organisation. Don’t just pay lipservice to these ideas, but work with the Gulf states to put these ideas on your own regional agenda.

– Welcome the new entrants in Gulf security as necessary leverage and encourage burden sharing rather than competition. For example, France will soon open a base in Abu Dhabi and reinforce the message that Gulf stability is a global concern, not uniquely a US interest. The will of the Gulf states to diversify security relationships is the reflection of a desire to fully integrate the global political and economic systems.

– Balance the security relationship with greater political and cultural engagement. Gulf policy has historically been Pentagon-heavy, with larger-than-life commanders with large staff, apparently unlimited resources and a direct line to the White House. To correct this, demand better cooperation between CENTCOM and US embassies, using as a template the well-oiled relationship between General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker in Baghdad that made the surge a success.

– Appreciate and tap into the Gulf states’ influence on other theatres, especially Afghanistan and Pakistan. Moreover, the Gulf states have now accepted Iraq’s political transformation and want to be part of its future. So make sure to accompany any withdrawal from Iraq with a regional approach that closely associates the Gulf states. 

– Work to re-establish America’s economic reputation and use trade and business as pillars. The meltdown of America’s financial system is doing tremendous damage to a core dimension of US soft power. Inclusion of the Gulf states in the new structure of world governance and progress on stalled free-trade agreements would go a long way to restoring confidence in the US.

– Recognise that any progress can solidify only if it is accompanied by sustained engagement on the Arab-Israeli front. The moderate position of the Gulf states, especially through the advocacy of the Arab Peace Initiative, is being undermined by paralysis and war, to the detriment of the US-GCC relationship. In 2001, a few weeks before 9/11, Crown Prince (now King) Abdullah of Saudi Arabia sent a stern letter to your predecessor warning him not to let the fighting between Israelis and Palestinians fester. The war on terror and the invasion of Iraq soon derailed any substantial progress.

This article first appeared in the National on February 25, 2009.


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