Obama to discuss Gulf security at GCC Summit
WASHINGTON - As US President Barack Obama prepares to attend the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit to signal his commitment to America’s long-time Gulf Arab allies, his comments to Jeffrey Goldberg in an Atlantic magazine interview echo hauntingly.
The Saudis need to “share” the Middle East with Iran, Obama told Goldberg: “The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians… requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share the neighbourhood and institute some sort of cold peace.”
Obama was quick to add that the United States would never throw its allies “overboard” in favour of Iran. However, the damage had been done and only confirmed to many Gulf Arabs that the Obama administration, even in its final months, was promoting a hands-off policy that future administrations might be reluctant to change while popular support for US activism overseas remains low.
But Obama’s bluntness — a personal characteristic that often riles opponents — should not be cause to dismiss the substance of his remarks. What Obama is essentially saying is: If your choices are all-out war, endless proxy wars or a “cold peace”, maybe you should consider option number three.
This is exactly what the United States and the Soviet Union did in the 1960s. Following the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 — arguably the closest the world ever came to nuclear war — Washington and Moscow began a concerted effort to transform their rivalry into a managed conflict, indeed, a “cold peace”.
Proxy wars — often driven by the manipulations of local actors — continued in Vietnam, Angola, Central America and eventually Afghanistan. But there were “rules” to these wars that ensured they would not escalate too far. And after Vietnam, US president Richard Nixon undertook his détente strategy to engage with the Soviet Union through a series of agreements on arms control, commercial relations and societal contacts.
One institution that evolved out of détente (and was initially a Soviet suggestion) was the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE). At its core, CSCE was a crisis-prevention, tension-reduction organisation. It provided a forum for maintaining dialogue, preventing misunderstandings and pursuing avenues of potential cooperation.
The CSCE did not end the Cold War but it contributed considerably to preventing it from becoming a hot war. The idea of creating a similar security architecture for the Gulf was being vetted even before Obama’s Atlantic interview.
In July 2015, two scholars at Germany’s Bertelsmann Stiftung foundation published a report calling for a Gulf version of the CSCE, which they proposed should include the six GCC states plus Iran and Iraq.
“Without a comprehensive diplomatic initiative, the downward spiral of violence threatens to continue unabated… a Gulf CSCE can function as a kind of diplomatic and political safety net,” the report concluded.
In October 2015, two senior scholars at Washington’s Carnegie Endowment for International Peace published a policy paper that called for active participation by the United States and other powers in a new Gulf security organisation.
It suggested that “to give this initiative a boost, a senior US official — the president or the secretary of state — should articulate a long-term security, political and economic vision for the Gulf that includes a more effective regional security organisation.” This suggestion may have found its way into Obama’s briefing book for his forthcoming trip.
Most recently, the Brookings Institution think-tank in Washington issued the report of a working group that was led by former secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former National Security Council director Stephen Hadley. It, too, invoked the CSCE model for the Gulf and, like the Carnegie report, called for an active role by the United States to bring it about.
One of the most interesting appeals for a new Gulf security structure was made by the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi. It is interesting because it calls for the involvement not only of the P5+1 countries that negotiated the Iran nuclear deal, but also of India, South Korea, Japan and Indonesia — all countries that rely heavily on Gulf oil and thus on Gulf peace.
Let us hope that the Indian appeal also makes its way into Obama’s briefing book as a reminder that even under a “pivot to Asia” as his administration stated it wanted to do, the path eventually returns to the Middle East.
It is easy for the president to say, offhandedly, that Gulf Arabs and Iran need to “share the neighbourhood”. The hard part is building a security structure that achieves this goal without sacrificing US allies’ interests. This will require active US engagement in the process as well as a firm commitment to its allies’ defence — two pledges Obama should make at the GCC summit.