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The United States Learns Humility in the Gulf (And is Better Off For It)

In the 32 years since the termination of Operation Desert Storm, the United States has internalized an unhealthy axiom about its dealings in the Middle East: that Washington must maintain primacy in the Gulf and remain at the forefront of regional developments to achieve its interests. Borne of President Jimmy Carter’s public commitment to protect the global oil routes that crisscrossed the Gulf and cemented by Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, U.S. security guarantees to its Gulf partners were of great significance to American national security interests. When the Carter Doctrine failed to deter aggression in the Gulf, Washington blamed itself. As it was argued at the onset of Baghdad’s invasion, feeble U.S. commitments to Kuwait had invited aggression. In the same breath, however, the United States doubled down on its commitments to the Gulf, to great effect. The overwhelming power of U.S. and coalition forces—conveniently assembled just across the Kuwaiti border in Saudi Arabia—quickly and efficiently returned the region to the status quo ante.

The tactical and strategic successes of Desert Storm had a profound impact on generations of U.S. policy toward the Gulf, which came to presuppose ubiquitous American engagement and security commitments backed by overwhelming military superiority. The 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq relied on the assumption that the U.S. could act with impunity in the region—eradicating terrorism and molding diverse, weak states into flourishing democracies. In many ways, the short-lived success of the military campaigns confirmed America’s perceived omnipotence. These wars, the military forces they required, and the vast sums of treasure expended to support U.S. troops and partners made it clear to the Gulf states that that the United States was the region’s sole power broker.

However, an unsustainable relationship had begun to develop. As the United States’ commitment to its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—and by extension the Gulf states—grew, so too did Washington’s sense of self-importance. As the leading international patron of the Gulf region, the U.S. was expected to grant greater security assurances, more arms sales, and uncompromising support for its partners vis-à-vis the growing threat of a nuclear-armed Iran. If U.S. and partner interests ever clashed, the United States risked ceding its supreme regional role if it did not adequately satisfy the wants of its friends in the region. But two things are clear: the threat perceptions of the United States and its Gulf partners have diverged significantly over the past 20 years, and this reality will shake the security order that has persisted in the region for so long.

A House of Cards

Two decades after the beginning of the Iraq War, the United States’ footprint remains, though U.S. commitments to the region now face intense scrutiny. Many of the same military bases that the United States relied on to launch military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq continue to operate. At the outbreak of the 2003 Iraq war, these installations were present in each Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) state. While its forward-deployed forces granted the United States significant leverage over the GCC states, their presence also tied Washington’s authority and credibility to its continued military presence in the region. Presumably, if the U.S. were to draw down its presence in the region, its Gulf partners would necessarily seek other partners to guarantee their security.

Thus, the fate of America’s standing with its Gulf partners was sealed as American public opinion began to turn against the Global War on Terror, prompting successive administrations to begin the painstaking process of extricating the United States from Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Middle East more generally. Because of the importance close security partners in the Gulf placed on Washington’s military forces, U.S. retrenchment was perceived as proof that Washington’s commitment to their security was faltering. When Iranian drones struck key oil processing facilities within Saudi Arabia on September 14, 2019, the United States displeased its Gulf partners by refusing to retaliate militarily. Even as the U.S. and its allies confirmed Iranian shipments of advanced weaponry to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, the Biden Administration has limited its combat support for the Saudi-led coalition and slashed “offensive” arms exports to Riyadh. The United States’ abrupt and disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, its abandonment of the Ghani government, and the eventual collapse of the country’s armed forces before the Taliban set alarm bells ringing throughout GCC states. On March 29, 2023, the U.S. Senate voted to repeal the resolution that empowered the George W. Bush administration to wage war in Iraq. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer claimed that the vote signaled “an end to endless Middle East wars” that did little to advance U.S. interests.

Many in the United States believe that Washington has no obligation to give its Gulf partners carte blanche to pursue their aims. Washington’s interests have undoubtedly changed over the last 20 years. From the United States’ perspective, today’s global security environment is dominated by the threat of America’s peer adversaries, Russia and China, not transnational terrorism. In such an international context, continuing to funnel American resources into the greater Middle East would necessarily detract from Washington’s ability to bolster Ukraine’s ability to defend itself against Russia, or improve the defensive capabilities of American allies and partners in East Asia. From the Obama administration’s “Rebalance” to Asia and the Pacific, the 2017 National Defense Strategy’s emphasis on competition with Beijing and Moscow, and the 2022 Indo-Pacific Strategy, the United States has made it clear that its foreign policy priorities lie elsewhere.

Unfortunately for the United States’ regional partners, they cannot so easily remove themselves from the Gulf’s conflicts and rivalries. They must contend with the solemn task of addressing national security threats that the United States can afford, due to its geographical position and military strength, to discount. Current threat perceptions of the GCC states differ from Washington’s. Hence, we see Gulf states like the UAE and Saudi Arabia diversifying their international partnerships with American adversaries to hedge against the United States’ perceived withdrawal from the region. Chinese arms sales to the Gulf have steadily risen, though Beijing’s security assistance role still lags far behind the United States. Some Gulf partners, like Saudi Arabia, went as far as convening a first China-GCC summit in Riyadh on December 9, 2022, which served as a precursor to a landmark March 10, 2023 agreement that saw the Gulf’s most bitter rivals—Saudi Arabia and Iran—reestablish diplomatic ties.

A Bitter Pill

In typical fashion, U.S. media outlets and foreign policy analysts have reacted to the China-brokered deal between Riyadh and Tehran with a mixture of angst and self-criticism. The Chinese, reflected one prominent writer, “have transformed themselves into the new power player,” upending decades of U.S. primacy. Another analyst suggested that “China is taking over [the United States’] traditional role in the region.” Some even claimed that the Biden administration has unwittingly allowed China to weaken U.S. standing in the region. None have explained how the United States should mediate a deal between a partner with whom it shares a rocky relationship and a regional adversary with whom it has no diplomatic relations.

The truth is that regardless of China’s role in Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, the March 10 agreement grants the United States a massive boost to its regional foreign policy interests. Although Washington has deprioritized the Gulf in recent years in favor of other strategic theaters, it still views regional stability as paramount to its global security strategy. The United States’ European allies depend on the unmolested flow of hydrocarbons from the Gulf to sustain their oil-dependent economies, which have been strained by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Moreover, if the agreement does in fact lessen tensions between the GCC states and Iran, the United States will feel less pressure to divert manpower and materiel to the region—freeing up scarce resources to assist with the defense of Ukraine or the strengthening of allied capabilities in the Indo-Pacific.

The more likely scenario, however, is that China will find it difficult to enforce the terms of the agreement, which will require the deftest of diplomatic maneuvering to maintain. The re-opening of embassies will prove relatively simple to implement, compared to the accord’s other obligations. Iran and Saudi Arabia have committed to abide by “non-interference” principles in their dealings within the Gulf. For experienced analysts, expecting the region’s most vociferous rivals to set aside their ideological and geopolitical differences is as wishful as thinking comes. If the agreement does collapse, it will be China—not the United States—that will suffer the diplomatic penalties. If Beijing cannot influence either party enough to comply with the agreement’s obligations, its regional ambitions will be dealt a serious blow and the limits of its influence in the Gulf will be exposed for the world to see.

Though the United States remained on the sidelines as the parties negotiated the March 10 agreement, perhaps Washington will learn a crucial lesson about its engagement in the Gulf region: that it need not play a leading role in settling every long-standing, twisted rivalry to achieve its foreign policy aims. By biting its tongue and relying on closed-door diplomacy (as it did with Saudi Arabia throughout the talks), the United States will emerge stronger than it would have if it openly tried to influence its partners or stymie negotiations. The quietly supportive tack taken by the Biden administration toward the deal would suggest that U.S. officials have already arrived at this conclusion. It has taken the United States three decades to realize the uncomfortable truth that U.S. power in the Gulf should be exercised sparingly, as conditions require. Though China may claim the diplomatic accolades for mediating a new chapter in Saudi-Iran relations, Washington’s geopolitical position will be all the better for it.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Department of Commerce or the United States Government.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: U.S. – Gulf Policy
Country: GCC, Iran

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