The presence of a US security umbrella over the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states has been a defining feature of the contemporary geopolitics, security and economics of the six countries that collectively contain almost one-third of the world’s proven oil reserves. There are American red lines in the sands of Arabia and adversaries who cross those lines would face the full might of the most powerful military ever assembled in human history. Case in point: Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the successful US-led Desert Storm coalition to repel the Iraqi dictator.
Today, however, that basic assumption has come under question in GCC capitals. Have the American red lines blurred? Does the US security umbrella have an expiration date? Does the Iran nuclear deal mean that Washington is seeking to replace its GCC allies with a newer regional power?
Relations with Iran
Viewed from Washington, many of the questions seem alarmist. The most alarmist of all, perhaps, is the idea that Iran could somehow “replace” Saudi Arabia or the UAE or the GCC as America’s regional ally. Nothing could be further from the truth. US President Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear diplomacy represented a high-stakes gamble and the results will only be known within a decade, long after he has left office. The gamble was not without controversy and large sections of the American public and foreign policy establishment remain skeptical.
The notion that Iran is now an American “ally” belies every fact on the ground. The United States does not sanction its allies and Washington still maintains a web of sanctions on Iran that make it virtually impossible for US companies to conduct substantive business there. What’s more, an archipelago of state sanctions on Iran would require deft maneuvering to bypass even if the federal sanctions loosened more. The Obama administration has resisted calls for a grand bargain with Iran on regional security issues, and the US Congress would fight tooth and nail any attempt to grow the relationship beyond the nuclear deal.
All of this is just fine by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has made it clear: a nuclear deal is a nuclear deal, but don’t expect a breakthrough in the wider relationship. Maintaining an anti-American stance is an important piece of the political theater of the Islamic Republic.
What’s more, Obama has been, by far, the most patient and persistent Iran deal-maker since the 1979 Iranian revolution. The next president – whether it be Hillary Clinton or a Republican candidate – will not display the same level of patience and persistence. If Barack Obama doesn’t visit Iran, don’t count on a US presidential visit to Tehran anytime soon.
It’s also important to remember the historic Camp David summit of GCC leaders that took place in May, 2015. The very same Barack Obama who has been criticized as too soft on Iran and too quick to dismiss his Arab allies signed a document that was essentially a reiteration of the American security umbrella.
“The United States policy to use all elements of power to secure our core interests in the Gulf region and to deter and confront external aggression against our allies and partners, as we did in the Gulf War, is unequivocal,” noted a joint statement issued by White House after the meeting. It could not be clearer: the security umbrella remains intact.
Reason for worry?
So, why the concern? It began with Egypt. Amid the uprisings in Cairo, Obama stood in front of television cameras and suggested that it was time for Hosni Mubarak to step down. Viewed from the GCC, Obama undercut Egypt – a long-time ally. For the US president, however, it was a moment to stand with the people of Egypt in their calls for a new order. Still, Riyadh, in particular, was incensed: how could the US President dump a long-standing ally like Hosni Mubarak?
The difference lies, of course, in the interpretation of who the ally is: the leader or the people? If Obama was ostensibly siding with the people of Egypt, then what about the people of Syria? It took much longer for Obama to call for Bashar Al-Assad’s resignation and he has dragged his feet every step of the way on supporting moderate rebels, striking at Al-Assad’s air force or other measures that could have averted the bloodbath.
Meanwhile, he has evinced little in the way of public human empathy for a genocide being perpetrated by ISIS in Syria and Iraq and some of the most heart-wrenching scenes of human suffering since World War II. The cool US President – dubbed No-Drama-Obama – comes off as cold, even heartless, and his inaction may prove to be an albatross tarnishing his legacy for years.
Obama and his apologists will set up a straw man and declare that the US is tired of fighting wars in the Middle East and that, therefore, it could do nothing in Syria, but no serious policy-maker or advisor was calling for US boots on the ground. That train, everyone knows, has largely passed by. Early support for more moderate rebels, energetic diplomacy to build a coalition against Al-Assad or, at least, maintaining the chemical weapon red line, might have sent different signals.
To be sure, Syria does not fall under the US security umbrella, but the view in the region over the past three years has held that Washington’s total unwillingness to lead on Syria reflects Obama’s wish to disengage from the region.
The President fed fuel to this notion in a recent interview with journalist Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic magazine. The interview was peppered with disdain for the Arab world and the US’ Gulf Arab allies. Goldberg even likened the situation to the Tony Corleone character in The Godfather, who kept trying to get out of the mafia, “but they kept pulling me back in.” Obama agreed cheerfully with this notion. The truth is, however, that President Obama – a man who “tried to get out” – never did anything to change America’s fundamental military posture in the region, beyond the drawdown of troops in Iraq that he had promised. No existing military base has been closed or threatened to be closed and the Camp David agreement ensures that Obama is bound – at least on paper – to defend the GCC states in the face of external aggression.
The big picture
But why the US interest in the region? The short answer has been oil, but for the wrong reason. The US is highly dependent – even addicted – to Gulf oil, the argument goes, and that’s why it maintains its defense posture in the region. This, too, is not the real story.
Yes, oil plays a key role, but the US is not highly dependent on Gulf oil. In fact, even before the rise of shale oil, the US only sourced roughly 20 percent of its oil from the region. If the US was addicted to anyone’s oil, it has been Canada, where more than one in three barrels of imported oil come from.
No, it’s not the transaction of oil imports that matters, but the position of the GCC states – especially Saudi Arabia – as the key swing producer and the importance of regional sea-lanes to the price of oil. The price of oil affects everyone, including the US, and Washington cannot afford a malign actor closing down, for example, the Strait of Hormuz.
Washington is not alone in this view: two out of three barrels of Gulf oil exports go to Asia; China, too, would not look kindly on an attempt to close the Straits, but it is content for the US Navy to police these global commons and the US Navy is not going anywhere.
This remains true, despite the extraordinary rise of shale oil and gas in the United States. If the US was never all that dependent on Middle East oil in the first place, the rise of shale should not change the basic equation.
The rise of Donald Trump – and the potent challenge of Bernie Sanders to Hillary Clinton – poses a different kind of danger to the US-GCC relationship. Both men – from different ends of the political spectrum – represent a growing isolationist streak in US foreign policy, one embraced by a public exhausted by wars in the Middle East. This brand of isolationism might make Obama’s cold realism look soft, and many Americans are simply saying: let’s just leave the Middle East to its own devices and rebuild our own home first.
This brand of isolationism could rip up the Camp David Agreement and a new calculus could emerge. That’s why the least risky outcome for the US-GCC relationship would be an election victory by Hillary Rodham Clinton. Trump is too unpredictable a force to gage: he could double down on the GCC relationship just as easily as he could declare Iran a new ally.
President Hillary Clinton would enter office amid choppy waters in the Middle East. She will not try to rock the boat, but the boat is already rocking.