The Caravan

The U.S. in the Gulf: Threats and Prospects

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

For decades the United States has served as the foundation of the security architecture in the Gulf as well as for a network of allies in the broader Middle East. It is more likely than not that the U.S. will continue to do so. Pessimistic predictions of an end of the American era in the Gulf are mistaken. To be sure, we currently face some significant irritations in bilateral relations, notably with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but these are best understood as part of the inevitable ups and downs in any partnership. In addition, Washington-watchers in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are keenly aware of how American foreign policy has become partisan and how matters could well change dramatically in the next election cycle. The long history of U.S. involvement in the Gulf and the continued alignment of interests point to the likely continuation of an American future in the region.

Yet while the sky may not be falling and the era not ending, a continued American presence in the region is by no means guaranteed, and a reduction of American presence would inevitably imply reduced American influence in a strategically important part of the world. A responsible foreign policy in Washington therefore ought to be counteracting the very real pressures that are working against U.S. interests and the partnerships with our allies. Confidence about the future should not blind us to these real threats.

Some of these challenges are a result of exogenous developments, especially the efforts by adversaries to project their power into the region. At stake above all are the roles of China and Russia in the multipolar world: China as a major consumer of Middle Eastern oil, and Russia as a key player in the global energy market. The U.S. is not the only possible interlocutor for Gulf countries, and if relations with Washington become chilly, they can look for warmer receptions elsewhere. Especially in the context of the Ukraine War and the spike in oil prices, Washington has learned how it cannot take the Gulf for granted.

In addition to these pressures from the outside, there are also endogenous factors weighing on U.S. ties to the region, in other words, aspects of American foreign policy that have had a deleterious impact on the pursuit of U.S. goals. These include some specific policy choices that have been remarkably unhelpful. Washington is not immune to poor and short-sighted decisions, sometimes compounded by poor communication skills with unfortunate consequences.  

In the context of the Gulf, two key flaws have characterized US foreign policy.  The first may be primarily a matter of words, but words matter deeply:  President Obama's unnecessary rhetoric of a "pivot to Asia" has done a lot of damage. Across the region, the phrase has been understood as the announcement of an imminent reduction in American presence. Repeated efforts to walk back that prospect have not had much success. Instead, every limit on U.S. engagement--including reasonable limits--is now viewed as evidence of withdrawal; the promise to pivot has now become the dominant framework for judging U.S. action. As local actors begin to factor in the prospect of an American departure--perhaps as dramatic as the chaotic departure from Afghanistan--it can seem wise to them to hedge their bets and to look elsewhere for support. Obama's word choice has contributed to an undermining of American credibility in the region. Our opponents will not let our allies forget it.

The second flaw involves the initiation of a rapprochement with Iran, first by the Obama administration and now continued during the Biden administration. While proponents of the JCPOA have defended it as an effort to limit the proliferation of nuclear arms, the terms of the agreement hardly support that understanding. The agreement is marked by an absence of credible inspection regimes and by short sunset terms, which conceded eventual access to nuclear capacity in the not distant future. The JCPOA was therefore never plausibly about real arms control. Instead, the extensive negotiations were driven by a very different goal, an enhancement of Iranian power to the detriment of the Sunni states of the Gulf. President Obama talked about this agenda explicitly as forcing the Saudis to "share" the Gulf with Iran. In effect, this was a vision of shifting American support away from conservative monarchies, to the benefit of a revolutionary theocracy, a choice that clearly reflects ideological preferences. This is what an intentionally progressive foreign policy looks like. Against the background of the promise that America would soon depart, nothing has corroded America's reputation in the region more than this dogged pursuit of appeasement with Tehran.

Addressing a prospective return to the JCPOA, from which President Trump had withdrawn, candidate Biden repeatedly promised a "longer and stronger" agreement. Yet none of the reports concerning the Biden administration's negotiation efforts suggests anything of the sort: if there is a return to the JCPOA, the treaty will neither extend the sunset dates nor will it amplify inspections. Nor will it address a further issue of vital concern to Gulf allies, Iranian destabilization in the region. At stake in particular are the rocket attacks by the Iran-supported Houthi movement in Yemen against both Saudi Arabia and the UAE.  Despite the vulnerability of traditional partners, the Biden administration removed the terrorist designation of the Houthis, while it reduced military support to counter the Houthi attacks, thereby sacrificing our allies' security, as part of the policy of rapprochement with Iran. Because Washington has been less than robust in fulfilling its role as provider of security, it should come as no surprise that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi proved unresponsive to U.S. requests to increase oil production in order to bring down prices.

Relations with the Saudis have been further strained in the wake of the grisly murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The case has been widely discussed, including in the Caravan. It unfortunately remains unclear if the Biden administration has any realistic plan to move ahead with bilateral relations, burdened as it is with its designation of the Kingdom as a "pariah state." Undisciplined rhetoric like this is undiplomatic, to say the least, and has been at least as damaging as the irresponsible talk of the "pivot."  Coupled with the administration's shunning of the effective leader of the country, Mohammed bin Salman, it places rigid limits on the possibilities of effective relations in a way that does not serve U.S. national interests. The case also highlights a glaring imbalance: while the killing of Khashoggi remains a major stumbling block in relations with Saudi Arabia, the kidnapping and murder of Iranian journalist Ruhollah Zam have never impeded negotiations with Tehran, nor did the murder of Lebanese journalist Lokman Slim by Iran-supported Hezbollah. In response to the death of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, 57 House Democrats called for an FBI and State Department investigation; their consistent silence on the victims of the Iranian regime speaks volumes about their loyalties.  

However, none of these challenges is irreversible. The "pivot" rhetoric could be corrected with consistent and clear messaging about the durability of a U.S. commitment to regional stability. The widespread perception of a pro-Iranian and, effectively, anti-Arab bias in current U.S. foreign policy will be more difficult to change, unless the infatuation with Tehran is terminated, which is probably unlikely in this administration.  In contrast, a promising path forward is available, building on the normalization efforts that began with the Abraham Accords during the Trump administration that point toward a model of regional integration and prosperity among U.S. aligned partners. The American era in the Gulf need not be jeopardized but maintaining it will require significant changes in current policies.