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Since the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the United States has functioned as the primary security guarantor for the Arab states of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Recently, however, a variety of forces, trends, public sentiments, and the result of the 2020 elections have made it possible that the U.S. commitment to protect the Gulf region might be approaching its ‘use-by’ date. Public fatigue with the seemingly endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has generated a desire among Americans to decrease or even terminate the U.S. military presence in the Gulf region. The very large increase in the production of oil and gas resources in America and the defeat of ISIS have persuaded the public and politicians alike that the U.S. has no important interests in the Gulf. Therefore, the withdrawal of American forces looks attractive to both politicians and the populace. Finally, the argument that a realignment of U.S. security priorities, together with genuine questions regarding America’s budget and capacity to fight seemingly endless wars, has gained traction. These factors taken together have undermined the long-established doctrine that the U.S. must guarantee the Gulf’s security across the political spectrum. Recently the Trump administration went as far as using the U.S. presence in Iraq to counter the perceived Iranian threat. This policy turned Iraq into a battlefield for Tehran and Washington and added an additional pressure on Baghdad that is already struggling to reestablish state institutions’ power in the face of external interference and paramilitary groups. Some form of an American withdrawal appears inevitable. In practice, this could range from a relatively limited decrease for cosmetic purposes, to a total withdrawal.
While it remains true that the American public’s antipathy toward Iran and other outside interests such as with Israel could continue to motivate American interest in the Gulf, it is equally true that the U.S. – Gulf relationship is likely on the precipice of significant change, a change that’s effects are sure to reverberate across the entire region.
Regardless of its extent, an American departure from the Gulf will have consequences for all states of the region and, in particular, for the oil-rich Arab states of the GCC. Throughout history, these states have sought to attract outside powers to guarantee their independence. As Mark Twain reportedly said, “History may not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” That the smaller GCC States will seek to find and invite an outside guarantor would appear certain. However, finding a candidate to fill the role will present challenges. The obvious suspects, Russia, China, and India, each have clear downsides. Saudi Arabia or the UAE may believe that they can fill the gap. However, such an initiative would almost certainly provoke a rush by the smaller Gulf states to find an outside protector or even to line up with Iran to avoid subjugating themselves to their larger Arab neighbors. Building an internal security structure within the GCC, though unprecedented, could compensate for the failure to find an outside security guarantor. No matter what happens an American withdrawal will have momentous consequences for the region.
Featured speakers: Ambassador Patrick Theros (moderator), Genetary Anthony Zinni, Dr. Dania Thafer, and Dr. Abbas Kadhim.
General Anthony Zinni
The United States Marine Corps (ret.)
General Zinni joined the Marine Corps’ Platoon Leader Class program in 1961 and was commissioned an infantry second lieutenant in 1965 upon graduation from Villanova University. He held numerous command and staff assignments that included platoon, company, battalion, regimental, Marine Expeditionary Unit, and Marine Expeditionary Force command. His staff assignments included service in operations, training, special operations, counter-terrorism, and manpower billets. He has been a tactics and operations instructor at several Marine Corps schools and was selected as a fellow on the Chief of Naval Operations Strategic Studies Group.
General Zinni’s joint assignments included command of a joint task force and a unified command. He has also had several joint and combined staff billets at joint task force and unified command levels.
His military service includes deployments to the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, the Western Pacific, Northern Europe, and Korea. He has also served tours of duty in Okinawa and Germany. His operational experiences included two tours in Vietnam, where he was severely wounded; emergency relief and security operations in the Philippines; Operation Provide Comfort in Turkey and northern Iraq; Operation Provide Hope in the former Soviet Union; Operations Restore Hope, Continue Hope, and United Shield in Somalia; Operations Resolute Response and Noble Response in Kenya; Operations Desert Thunder, Desert Fox, Desert Viper, Desert Spring, Southern Watch, and Maritime Intercept Operations in Iraq and the Persian Gulf; and Operation Infinite Reach against terrorist targets in the Central Region. He was involved in the planning and execution of Operation Proven Force and Operation Patriot Defender during the Gulf War and noncombatant evacuation operations in Liberia, Zaire, Sierra Leone, and Eritrea.
General Zinni has participated in presidential diplomatic missions to Somalia, Pakistan, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, and State Department missions involving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and conflicts in the Persian Gulf region, Indonesia and the Philippines. He has worked in mediation and negotiation efforts with the University of California’s Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, the US Institute of Peace, and the Henri Dunant Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva. He has also been President of UCLA’s Center for Middle East Development, a Distinguished Advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an Honorary Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Chairman of the Council’s Middle East Forum, a board member of the American Academy of Diplomacy, Chairman of the Board of the Institute of World Affairs, Co-Chair of the American Security Project, member of the board of the Henri Dunant Centre, member of the board of the Atlantic Council, member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Policy Advisory Group, Chairman Emeritis of the Board of the Middle East Institute, a Camden Conference Fellow, member of the board of the Peace Research Endowment, member of the board of Inter Mediate, and Co-Chair of The Center for U.S. Global Engagement’s National Security Advisory Council.
General Zinni’s 23 personal awards include the Defense Distinguished Service Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster; the Distinguished Service Medal; the Defense Superior Service Medal with two Oak Leaf Clusters; the Bronze Star with Combat “V” and Gold Star; the Purple Heart; the Meritorious Service Medal with Gold Star; the Navy Commendation Medal with Combat “V” and Gold Star; the Navy Achievement Medal with Gold Star; the Combat Action Ribbon; and personal awards from Vietnam, France, Italy, Egypt, Kuwait, Yemen, and Bahrain. He also holds 37 unit, service, and campaign awards.
He has attended numerous military schools and courses including the Army Special Warfare School, the Marine Corps Amphibious Warfare School, the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and the National War College. General Zinni retired from the military in 2000 after commanding the US Central Command.
General Zinni was born in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania in 1943 and raised in the Philadelphia area. He attended Saints Cosmos and Damian grade school and Saint Matthew’s High School in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania. He currently resides in Williamsburg, Virginia. His military, diplomatic, business, and academic career has taken him to over 100 countries.
Dr. Dania Thafer
Executive Director, Gulf International Forum
Dr. Dania Thafer is the Executive Director of Gulf International Forum. Her area of expertise is on the Gulf region’s geopolitics, US-Gulf relations, and the political economy of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. She is also a Professorial Lecturer at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University.
Dr. Thafer been widely published on matters concerning the Arab Gulf states including several articles and publications. She has co-authored two edited books “The Arms Trade, Military Services and the Security Market in the Gulf States: Trends and Implications” and “The Dilemma of Security and Defense in the Gulf Region”. Dr. Thafer is currently writing a book focused on the effect of state-business relations on economic reform in the GCC states. Previously, she worked at the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies.
Dr. Thafer has a master’s degree in Political Economy from New York University, and Ph.D. specialized in the Political Economy and International Relations of the GCC states from American University in Washington, DC.
Dr. Abbas Kadhim
Director of Iraq Initiative and Resident Senior Fellow, the Atlantic Council
Dr. Abbas Kadhim leads the Atlantic Council Iraq Initiative. He is an Iraq expert and author of Reclaiming Iraq: The 1920 Revolution and the Founding of the Modern State. Most recently, he was a senior foreign policy fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He was formerly an assistant professor of national security affairs and Middle East studies at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California and a visiting assistant professor at Stanford University. He also previously held a senior government affairs position at the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, DC. His books include Governance in the Middle East and North Africa and The Hawza Under Siege: Studies in the Ba’th Party Archive. He earned a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies from the University of California, Berkeley.
Ambassador Patrick Theros (moderator)
Strategic Advisor, Gulf International Forum
Ambassador Theros has held such positions as Political Advisor to the Commander in Chief, Central Command; Deputy Chief of Mission and Political officer in Amman; Charge D’affaires and Deputy Chief of Mission in Abu Dhabi; Economic Counselor in Damascus; and U.S. Ambassador to the State of Qatar. In a career spanning almost 36 years, he also has served in diplomatic positions in Beirut, Managua, Dharan and Abu Dhabi, as well as in the Department of State. During that period, he earned four Superior Honor Awards. After retirement Ambassador Theros served as President of the U.S. Qatar Business Council in 2000-2017.