Obama to discuss Gulf security at GCC Summit

As Obama prepares to at­tend GCC summit, his com­ments to Jeffrey Goldberg in Atlantic magazine interview echo hauntingly.

File picture showing Obama hosting GCC leaders at Camp David


2016/04/17 Issue: 52 Page: 5


The Arab Weekly
Mark Habeeb



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.


Mark Habeeb is East-West editor of The Arab Weekly and adjunct professor of Global Politics and Security at Georgetown University in Washington.


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