We are going through a period that will define future features of the US-GCC ties. To be able to form an idea about how best, from both sides’ perspectives, could these ties be shaped, we have to gloss quickly over some of the past and present problems before we deal with potential future paths.
So much as the US went through a period of loss of strategic direction after the sudden collapse of the USSR, GCC countries were taken aback by the rapid rapprochement between the US and Iran. The fact that Iran ended its isolation without having to give up any of its policies, regional or global, surprised many, even in the US.
The emergence of a regional power on or the demise of a global one are qualitative shifts with different scales and impacts But either one imposes a violent departure from long established rules regionally or globally. In early phases, this departure encourages testing experimental methods to draw the limits of what is perceived as a new balance of power. Eventually, the relevant parties reach a “modus operandi” that accommodates the new reality.
Normally, the length of this experimental period depends on a set of complex factors. One of those factors is the margin of freedom of movement of the political power in the relevant countries. In cases where this margin is relatively large, due to the form of governance, we may see subjective choices playing a larger role. Another important factor is the degree of fluidness of the environment of the situation.
In the US for example we have seen within a period of less than only two decades an oscillation, particularly clear in the case of Iran, between wars and talks, confrontation and coordination, threats and concessions and a rich variety of contradicting tactics and even changing strategies. In the Gulf, we currently witness a departure from its previous cautious approach to regional crises. True, this did not happen only under the impact of Iran’s ending of its isolation and continuing its aggressive regional policy at the same time, the Arab Spring played a role as well when it created a vacuum in the regional security configuration. Yet, the sense that the US is not ready to continue its previous role in regional security arrangements, if a serious test happens, and the changes in Washington’s motives of engagement, in addition to the increasing Iranian intervention were the main reasons of the shift in the GCC approach to its regional environment.
Examining the change in the US regional posture, and within the region itself, will lead to one major conclusion. It is that the previous nature of the balance of power is changing, hence necessitates a new thinking in introducing parallel changes in the security doctrine in the region. In other words there were two things happening together: First Iran was getting more aggressive (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen). Second, the US has changed its views of how to preserve the balance of power. This was happening in one of the most critical moments in the region’s recent history.
This dynamic became even more complex by the fact that the US was, at least indirectly, a catalyst in making the Iranian more aggressive either by the American invasion of Iraq or by lifting the sanctions on Iran without one single reference to restraining its regional interventionism. Soon, this situation of the US regional absence from major events lead to Iran’s opened intervention in both Iraq and Syria, then to the Russians siding by the Iranians and expanding their own role in the region to fill the vacuum.
Two facts appeared clearly from the new US policy. The first is that the role of the balancer, previously played by the US, would necessarily be redefined. The second is that a more proactive approach in the part of the GCC was called for to preserve regional security, in light of the absence of major security components due to the Arab Spring, US “do-nothing-policy”, and the increasingly aggressive Iranian role.
The balancer role, which was previously defined as containing Iran and bearing a principle portion of regional security, was an established “fact of life” until recent years. This established feature was built on previous experiences and decades of institutionalization. It was “the norm”. Now, things seemed to have changed. One persisting question emerged everywhere in the region: How would the US play a balancer role between two friendly camps engaged in an increasingly intensive conflict with each other?
The “clear” job of containing Iran had its own instruments and created the grounds for close GCC-US ties. Now, it is the fog.
Theoretically, a balancer role does not necessarily mean neutrality. If understood in broader terms, it would mean agreeing on a set of “rules” which define the regional balance of power or rather the rules that organize the game. When the US does not set any rules in agreement with the international community and the regional powers in order to set the contours of the regional balance of power and organize methods to try to modify its nature that will mean that the US is voluntarily resigning its role as a world power and allowing regional countries and other world powers (e.g. Russia) to try to shape the region according to their interests (e.g. Iran in Syria or Iraq).
Verbal assurances and arms sales help little. For it became clear that intrinsically it would be difficult without continuous engagement to be a balance between two sides in a conflict while each is an ally or a potential ally. The Arabs understood quickly that the US security guarantees has become questionable at best. The US did not show any sensibility to the new dynamics caused by many factors including its own actions (e.g. Iraq’s invasion and the nuclear deal). The US was showing over and over again that it is focused on compulsive, short term interpretations not only of the regional situation but also of its own longer term interests.
Policies are not generated in vacuum through the mental labor of a genius or a group of them. It is created to deal with specific existing situations and in consideration of the national interests and objectives of the policy makers. And in the case of the GCC there was a need to devise a policy which is based on the changing US role, Tehran aggressive regional aspirations and the newly founded ties between America and Iran, and the profound impact of the Arab Spring on the regional security structure.
And what we see now is in fact the transitional period, for both sides, when new instruments are tried, new tactics are experimented with new ideas are debated and new modus operandi is shaping up.
No wonder there has been hundreds of worthy papers proposing a host of different approaches to the task of rebuilding GCC-US relations in a way that accommodates the changes in the region and in both the US and in Iran’s role. It is a difficult issue. The balancer role needs to be redefined. The post-Arab Spring epoch, pregnant with images of recent revolts, should be considered. The experimental nature of the moment in both sides should be thought of very carefully as it seems that the margin of error has been narrowed considerably.
But one thing is clear: transparency from both sides, the US and the GCC, in such circumstances is paramount. When it is foggy, one does not know what to expect. It is a time when misunderstandings, disappointments and suspicions are generated on daily bases. This may explain why conspiracy theories are enjoying high demand nowadays in the Middle East.
Some of the views circulating now on this subject call for a demotion of US-GCC ties. Oil is abundant, the US turned to be a major global producer, Iran’s role is active, and then what do we need the Arabs, who are giving the world terrorism, religious fundamentalism, wars and many other troubles, for?
See it from any angle you wish, US-GCC will remain very important part of the national interest of both sides. Because of Middle East terrorism, sectarianism and fundamentalism, the region needs a new role from the US as a force of a fair balancer which base regional conflicts on a set of globally agreed upon basic rules.
Diplomats from the US and the GCC can appear together as much as they want, exchange hands shakes and reiterate the usual lexicon of “unshakable friendship” and “solid partnership”. Yet, any tour in the region will reveal immediately that the loss of credibility of the US, exacerbated by the policies of President Obama, is as at a very high point.
A clear-headed analysis of the reasons of this lack of confidence is the only correct way to regain the lost capital of trust between the two sides: the GCC and the US. A new policy should be based on a degree of flexibility to accommodate for new realities in the region and on a set of clear rules to organize regional ties and collectively manage regional crisis.
And this will be one of the first tasks of the new administration in Washington.