US-Arab relations: Stuck at the crossroads?
Washington - Former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chas Freeman, capturing the essence of Arabs’ disenchantment with Washington and Americans’ sense that the Arab world is unable to understand US policy, said the “partnership between Americans and the Gulf Arabs has never faced more or greater challenges than at present”.
Freeman was speaking to the US-Arab Relations at a Crossroads: What Paths Forward conference, which was hosted by the National Council of US-Arab Relations October 14th and 15th in Washington.
The relationship is indeed at a crossroads but the paths ahead are as difficult to figure out as the road that led to the current juncture. Listening to officials and experts diagnose the problem conjures memories of a once perceived, but in reality imagined, model relationship. The cracks — some old and some still forming — are being exposed.
These cracks are manifest in the image of Arabs and Muslims in the United States and the perception of America, its role and its power in the region.
Freeman pointed to two misperceptions: “Islamophobia in the US is matched by disillusionment with America in the Gulf,” he said, adding that the “contradictions between US interests and policies and those of our GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] partners are widening”.
According to Freeman, the “ultimate sources of mutual discomfort are the strategic conundrums of what to do about Syria and how to deal with Iran”.
Prince Turki al-Faisal, former head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence agency and later ambassador to the United States, described the “heartbreak” of the Arab world being torn apart by violence and sectarianism. But he said that Russia is the “most unwelcome addition to an already combustible situation” and the United States is “ignoring the father of all terrorists; his name is Bashar Assad”.
James Zobgy, founder and executive director of the Arab American Institute, told The Arab Weekly that Arabs want protection — “a dependency, not a partnership” — from the United States.
“The Arabs do not understand that America cannot do it,” he said. “The US is exhausted militarily from two unfinished wars and the American people do not want wars.”
Zogby pointed to the heavy price that the United States paid for those wars and the catastrophic effects on the lives of thousands of Americans. Zogby says he believes that neither US President Barack Obama nor the Pentagon wants another ground war in the region.
Zogby said that when the Arabs do not get what they want from the United States they tend to engage in conspiracy theories. He called on the Arabs to “stop whining and do this on your own, take your destiny in your hands”. On a positive note, Zogby said the Arab states are starting to do this.
Zogby refuted the claim that Obama wants Iran to run the region. “Iran,” he said, “has a strategy, while the Arabs do not have a strategic vision. They have to figure out where they want to be in five years.”
A “real partnership”, Zogby added, “is when you have your own vision, your own resources to implement it and you team with a partner on equal footing”. He said he hoped that “what emerges is an Arab world that defines its strategic vision”.
Abdullah al-Shayji, chairman of the American Studies Unit at Kuwait University, concurred with Zogby on the need for a strategic vision. “[Iran and Turkey] have projects in the region but there is no Arab project,” Shayji said.
So what is the path forward for the relationship? Freeman called for “intensified dialogue [and] openness to a novel strategic partnership”. He said: “There are new realities in the Middle East… We must adjust to them and turn them to our advantage.”
But Shayji said more than an adjustment is needed. We need a “road map to reset the relationship”, he said, to make it into “a real partnership”.
John Duke Anthony, president of the National Council on US-Arab Relations, offered a practical suggestion: the opening of a GCC-American military liaison office in Washington and GCC capitals. But the United States has refused to grant such an office diplomatic immunity.
No matter what the differences are, the GCC and the United States need each other and the GCC states still look to the United States.
Iraqi Ambassador to the United States Lukman Faily put it bluntly: “We go to Russia because we do not have alternatives but the US is our choice for a partner.”
So while some in Washington want the United States to take a back seat in the region, most Arab states hope the crossroads will lead back to Washington.