May 13, 2015
TSG IntelBrief: GCC Summit: A Region on the Brink
The U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit at Camp David tomorrow will have a full agenda. The headline discussion will reflect the equal concern on both sides that the other has misjudged Iran, but a deeper discussion will focus on the very many factors that affect the long-term stability of the Middle East, including the level of U.S. engagement.
Previous summits might have looked at energy issues and Israel as the main topics of conversation, but with oil prices low and U.S. domestic production reducing dependence on foreign suppliers, oil is less of a political lever in the bilateral relationship, though still important in global terms. Israel too is currently a non-issue. Although GCC countries continue to feel outrage at Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, Hamas has few friends, and Fatah is widely regarded as a broken reed. Furthermore, the Israeli government’s position on Iran closely matches that of Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
A U.S.-led nuclear deal with Iran, which remains a possibility despite the best efforts of the extremes on either side, would be a historic achievement on the path to a more stable Middle East. It is hard to imagine why Saudi Arabia (or Israel) would be reassured by a breakdown in talks that might encourage Iran to accelerate its nuclear program. While the deal under discussion could be improved from their point of view, realpolitik dictates that the Iranians gain enough to stick to the agreement. The U.S. has an uphill task in persuading the GCC of this logic because it founders on a completely different assessment of Iran’s good faith. The GCC will seek guarantees that if the U.S. proves wrong, it will do something immediate and decisive about it—or better still, give the GCC states the capacity now to take action at the right time. The U.S. will see this as an unnecessary escalation of the very tensions that the nuclear deal is meant to reduce.
But if that discussion can be put to one side, talks can focus on how to deal with the mess in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, where different approaches to the same enemy are only serving to empower it. Here the role of the U.S. will be crucial, and exactly the area where it should exert influence. If the root of these problems lies in sectarianism and poor governance, it will take a major effort by the U.S. and key allies to persuade the regional powers to adopt a fundamentally different outlook. Today’s wars are hard to win and easy to lose, and when they are proxy wars, the results are always worse for the civilians caught in the middle. Economic and social fragmentation, and a deep-seated desire for revenge or redress at a local level, all go to create ideal conditions for the spread of extremism, and make a return to whatever existed before impossible.
Unless the Camp David summit can reach into these areas, as intractable as they may seem, it will have proved a wasted opportunity. Even though the leaders of Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE will not attend, they are sending key figures who will have a great deal of influence on policy even if they do not decide it. The summit is serious and it will be the last opportunity for President Obama to engage personally with the GCC as a group on issues that will determine the nature of the threats that his successor will have to deal with, both at home and abroad. If he cannot make a difference, it will show that the GCC is still inclined to regard force as the most important and effective policy tool, with money being a distant second. The U.S. may have moved on from that approach, as well as from the view that it can solve all the problems of the world, so long as everyone else follows its lead.
The GCC has tended to regard U.S. disengagement as siding with the enemy, and so has substituted U.S. force with its own. In this vein, several of the GCC states will join Egypt, Jordan and Sudan in Cairo next week to discuss intervening in Libya. If Camp David can lead to a better understanding that the use of force can only be an adjunct to policy rather than the policy itself, it will have achieved something significant.
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