By James M. Dorsey
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Debates about the US commitment to Gulf security are skewed by confusion, miscommunication, and contradictory policies.
The skewing has fuelled uncertainty about US policy as well as Gulf attitudes in an evolving multi-polar world and fuelled misconceptions and misunderstandings.
The confusion is all the more disconcerting given that the fundamentals of US Gulf relations are beyond doubt.
The United States retains a strategic interest in the region, even if its attention has pivoted to Asia. Moreover, neither China nor Russia is capable or willing to replace the US as the Gulf’s security guarantor.
“None of the Gulf states believe China can replace the United States as the Gulf’s security protector,” said Gulf International Forum Executive Director Dania Thafer.
The recent US military build-up in the Gulf to deter Iran with thousands of Marines backed by F-35 fighter jets and an aircraft carrier helped reassure Gulf states in the short term. So has the possibility of the US putting armed personnel on commercial ships traveling through the Strait of Hormuz.
The build-up followed the United Arab Emirates’ withdrawal from a US-led, 34-nation maritime coalition in May because the US had not taken decisive action against Iranian attacks on Gulf shipping, including a vessel traveling from Dubai to the Emirati port of Fujairah.
Even so, the United States has allowed confusion and uncertainty to persist. In addition, the US as well as the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, appear to pursue contradictory goals.
“The US…did not formulate a very clear approach to how the US wants to work with the GCC as a whole” instead of cooperating with individual Gulf states, said analyst Nawaf bin Mubarak Al Thani, a former Qatari brigadier general and defense attaché in Qatar’s Washington embassy.
The Gulf Cooperation Council or GCC groups the six Gulf monarchies – Saudi Arabia, the UAE. Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman.
“Unless the US becomes clear in its intentions about how it wants to proceed with its future defense relationship with the GCC as a whole, I think we will be going in circles,” Mr. Al Thani added.
The United States has unsuccessfully tried to nudge the GCC to create an integrated air and missile defense system for several years.
Former Pentagon official and Middle East scholar Bilal Y. Saab suggests that the US has moved in the case of Saudi Arabia to enhance confidence by helping the kingdom turn its military into a capable fighting force and developing a first-ever national security vision but has failed to communicate that properly.
“Our geographical command in the region, also known as the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), has been conducting a very quiet…historic transformation from being a war-time command to something of being a security integrator…to activate partnerships to attain collective security objectives,” Mr. Saab said.
“This is not just about having confidence in the US role; it’s also about the United States having confidence in the willingness and ability of those Gulf states to buy into this new mission of doing things together,” Mr. Saab said.
“My biggest problem is that we’re not communicating this stuff well… There’s a lot of confusion in the Gulf about what we’re trying to do,” he added.
Analysts, including Mr. Saab, caution that the United States’ recent willingness to consider concluding defense pacts with Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE is at odds with its revamped security approach to the region.
Saudi Arabia has demanded a security pact alongside guaranteed access to the United States’ most sophisticated weaponry as part of a deal under which the kingdom would establish diplomatic relations with Israel.
The UAE initially made similar noises about a defense pact but has since seemingly opted to watch how the US talks with Saudi Arabia evolve.
A defence pact “is incredibly inconsistent with what we are trying to do with CENTCOM… The moment you provide a defence pact to the Saudis or, frankly, any other country in the region, this is where you go back to the old days of complacency, of dependency on the United States as the guardian and as doing very little on your own to promote and advance your own military capabilities,” Mr. Saab said.
His comments may be more applicable to Saudi Arabia than the UAE, which has long invested in its military capabilities beyond acquiring sophisticated weaponry.
The roots of confusion about the US commitment to the Gulf lie in evolving understandings of the US-Gulf security relationship based on the 1980 Carter Doctrine, the United States’ response to Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, and that year’s Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
President Jimmy Carter laid out the doctrine in his 1989 State of the Union address. “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force,” Mr. Carter said.
Robert E. Hunter, then a National Security Council official and the author of Mr. Carter’s speech, insists that the doctrine was intended to deter external powers, notably the Soviet Union, rather than defend Gulf states against Iran or secure shipping in strategic regional waterways.
“The often-misquoted Carter Doctrine…did not refer to the ‘free flow of commerce.’ I wrote almost all of the speech… it was designed to deter Soviet aggression against Iran, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which began a few weeks earlier,” Mr. Hunter said.
The Reagan Doctrine, enunciated five years later by Mr. Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, reinforced his predecessor’s position.
“The US must rebuild the credibility of its commitment to resist Soviet encroachment on US interests and those of its Allies and friends, and to support effectively those Third World states that are willing to resist Soviet pressures or oppose Soviet initiatives hostile to the United States, or are special targets of Soviet policy,” Mr. Reagan said.
President George W. Bush’s development of US doctrine after the 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington proved more problematic for the Gulf states.
Mr. Bush defended the United States’ right to defend itself against countries that harbor or aid militant groups.
His doctrine justified the US invasions of Afghanistan and, Iraq. Gulf states saw the Iraq war as destabilizing and problematic, particularly with some on the American right calling for a US takeover of Saudi oil fields.
Nonetheless, Gulf states had plenty of reasons to reinterpret the Carter Doctrine to include a US commitment to defend Gulf states against regional as well as external threats.
The Gulf states’ reinterpretation resulted from a US lack of clarity and actions that seemingly confirmed their revised understanding.
These included the United States leading a 42-nation military alliance that in 1991 drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, establishing bases in the Gulf in the wake of the Iraqi invasion, US interventionism following the 9/11 assaults, and the ongoing protection of Gulf shipping against Iranian attacks.
As a result, a lack of clarity and confusion in Washington and the Gulf’s capitals continue to dominate the debate about the US-Gulf security relationship.
Said Mr. Saab: “I would like to understand from the Gulf states whether what we are selling, they are actually buying. What we are selling is…a very real partnership. No longer guardianship, but actual partnership. I don’t know where individual countries stand on these proposals… Until we get common ground on this, there is nothing in the Middle East that we do that is really going to work.”
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an Honorary Fellow at Singapore’s Middle East Institute-NUS, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and podcast, The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey.