The buzz in Washington, DC Middle East think tanks and in Gulf capitals revolves, as usual, around speculation regarding U.S. intentions and actions in the Gulf. Does the calamitous withdrawal from Afghanistan, a murky agreement on the drawdown in Iraq, and the less spectacular withdrawal of air defense units from Saudi Arabia presage a new Gulf environment without the United States? What does America mean in terms of discernible intentions and actions as it once again announces a “pivot to Asia?” The debate in Washington covers the gamut from “the United States no longer has any real interests in the Gulf and should pull out entirely” to “après moi, le déluge” if the status quo shifts in any way. The United States sends constantly conflicting signals. If the U.S. is leaving, why does it double down on the confrontation with Iran by imposing new sanctions, all while telling the Israelis what they want to hear about Tehran and dragging its feet on restoring the JCPOA? If these actions point towards confrontation, why has America withdrawn air defense assets from Saudi Arabia and reduced its forces in Iraq? No matter what our policy, we need to explain it so others can adjust.
For the umpteenth time since the end of the Cold War, the Gulf states struggle with American unpredictability so they can figure out what they need to do to adapt to US policy. The fact is that for at least the last three decades, the U.S. has not articulated a policy in the Gulf that explained what U.S. foreign policy actually does. Recently, I engaged in a tongue-in-cheek exchange with fellow retired colleagues during which I quipped that “I spent a career in the Gulf without ever being told in a coherent way what U.S. policy I had been sent to implement. Instead, Washington either sent us reams of internally incoherent instructions or, often, nothing at all to deal with exploding crises. Usually, I just made it up as I went along.” I tossed in a couple of examples. To my delight, a half-dozen or more of my old diplomatic buddies chimed in citing examples of their own.
I fear that the U.S. have not learned that policy opaqueness or lack thereof has costs as both Gulf leaders and American diplomats in the field try to make rhyme or reason out of the buzz in DC. This makes the United States the most institutionally unpredictable superpower in history. Unpredictability in a superpower creates unnecessary risks for its adversaries, its allies, various innocent bystanders and, not least, for the United States. Unpredictability is not policy, despite the mythology surrounding President Richard Nixon’s frequently misquoted comments during the Vietnam War negotiations and the 1973 Arab-Israeli War about the virtues of unpredictability. Nixon’s comments referred to the tactical unpredictability of a poker game, i.e., how other players would react to the cards dealt. Nixon insisted, however, that the US must always maintain its credibility, its strategic predictability, in defining its interests, and the lengths it would go to protect them. Nixon would have agreed with my late father who once told me: “Never make a threat or promise you do not intend to keep.”
During the Cold War, the confrontation with the Soviet Union forced the United States to act very predictably. Two superpowers armed with the capacity to wipe humanity off the face of the Earth could not afford ambiguity and misperception. Both sides made mistakes, but neither abandoned certain basic policy principles—the most important being that Moscow and Washington would, after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, never, ever again risk direct military confrontation. The demise of the USSR and the end of the Cold War robbed U.S. policymakers of their guiding star.
Failed Signals and Misperception in the Gulf
Gulf leaders are most preoccupied with US unpredictability when it leads to serious mistakes. Saddam’s attack on Kuwait in 1990 may count as the first example of American unpredictability resulting in disaster. As Iraqi forces began to concentrate on the Kuwaiti border during July 1990, Washington remained silent publicly. Those of us in the field received no instruction as to what messages we should have delivered to our host governments. U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie spoke truthfully—as diplomats always do—when she told Saddam Hussein in a meeting on July 25, 1990, that “[The United States has] no position on your dispute with Kuwait.” A day or so later, a State Department spokesman denied that any protest had been sent to Saddam. In addition, given the personal rapport the Iraqi leader had developed with then-Middle East Special Envoy Donald Rumsfeld and other senior American officials, the United States should not have been surprised if, as appears likely, Saddam believed the U.S. would not respond forcefully to his aggression.
The U.S. next caught Gulf leaders by surprise when America invaded Iraq in 2003 for no valid strategic reason after it already had Saddam bottled up. After all, Riyadh had made it clear in 1991 that it opposed an American march on Baghdad to depose Saddam. Some Gulf leaders assumed that President Bush simply wanted to take revenge for the attempted assassination of his father. Others thought he had a father complex and wanted to prove to his dad that he was up to the job. All were aghast that the U.S. had destroyed the one regional power capable of standing up to Iran and counterbalancing Tehran’s and Riyadh’s hegemonistic pretensions for the Gulf. The U.S. further confounded Gulf leaders when it appeared to have imported Ahmad Chalabi, a fugitive from justice in Jordan, as the appointed leader of the new Iraq. Then we doubled down and abolished the Iraqi Army, police, and intelligence services rather than put them to good use.
Good policy deliberations may have taken place which could explain Obama’s “pivot to Asia” while America pulled out of Iraq and surged its forces fivefold in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the U.S. government never articulated these reasons, nor laid out how it would react in the event things went wrong. One could argue that the American withdrawal from Iraq demoralized poorly led Iraqi troops in the face of the ISIS offensive. Similarly, Trump’s unconditional agreement to abandon Afghanistan to the Taliban— later implemented by the Biden administration—demoralized the poorly led Afghan Army. Obama’s failure to keep his “red line threats” ruined his reputation in the Gulf, after the Assad regime dropped chemical weapons on innocent civilians. President Trump further contributed to Gulf anxiety because he enshrined unpredictability as a cornerstone of his foreign policy.
In an earlier incarnation, I had the luck to be included in a conversation involving several senior Gulf diplomats over their concern about American predictability during Bush ‘43’s second term. The diplomats had concluded that the U.S. could not be relied on to protect the smaller Gulf states because they simply could not understand the rationale behind America’s various actions. An hour’s conversation essentially dismissed all other candidates for Gulf security guarantor: Russia was too close to Tehran, Europe as feckless, while China and Japan simply had no interest in playing the role. One participant mentioned India as a regional power, but the others shouted him down, pointing out that India as protector was too close geographically and too intimately entangled in the region to be trusted.
President Obama, who succeeded George W. Bush, talked openly about a policy shift that would “pivot to Asia.” His administration never put any meat on the bones of this policy and appeared too aloof to make any real effort to explain to its Gulf allies what this initiative meant on the ground in their countries. His decision to abandon support for Arab dictators when the Arab Spring erupted can easily be justified; Obama, after all, was president of the country that stood for democracy all over the world and there was no doubt at the time that Muammar al-Qaddafi, Husni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had reached the end of their shelf life.
However, the administration made no serious effort to explain either point to our Gulf allies. The Gulf states responded in the way they believed best advanced their interests. Qatar sent half its air force to Suda Bay in Crete to participate in the NATO operations that played a critical role in bringing Qaddafi down. Saudi Arabia offered asylum to Abidine Ben Ali while complaining that the U.S. had “betrayed” Mubarak. When the Syrian civil war exploded a short time later, Saudi Arabia and Qatar supported different insurgent groups. Qatar’s then-Prime Minister, Hamid bin Jassim, went on the record at an Atlantic Council dinner in Washington to complain that the U.S. administration had repeatedly rebuffed his attempts to get guidance on which insurgents to support. A couple of years later, the U.S. criticized Qatar for supporting the wrong insurgents, ignoring our unwillingness to provide guidance at the beginning.
Obama’s seemingly unconditional withdrawal from Iraq persuaded the GCC states that the US was indeed abandoning the region. Again, whatever the reasoning behind the president’s decision, his administration made no real effort to explain its reasoning and its goals to those who bore the consequences. The “red line” fiasco confirmed Gulf views that Obama had little interest in taking risks on their behalf. Obama’s major Gulf initiative, negotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, took place without consultation with any of the GCC states. The JCPOA was met with a mixed reception among Gulf states. Oman and Qatar cautiously welcomed the deal, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE opposed it. Obama bought Riyadh’s acquiescence to the JCPOA by agreeing to support the Kingdom’s ill-conceived and worse-executed war in Yemen. Hedging their bets, the Saudis then quietly began their best efforts to undermine the deal.
More of the Same: The Trump Administration and Changing U.S. Policy
The Gulf Arab states and most of their citizens welcomed President Donald Trump, who appeared to them as a welcome change from Obama; they expected him to bring renewed toughness in dealing with Iran. They cheered too soon. In his first foreign policy campaign speech, Trump stated: “We must as a nation be more unpredictable. We are totally predictable. We tell everything. We’re sending troops. We tell them. We’re sending something else. We have a news conference. We have to be unpredictable. And we have to be unpredictable starting now.”
Trump proved true to his promises. His policy pronunciamentos made Obama look like George Kennan by comparison. For Trump’s first foreign visit, he selected Riyadh to attend the May 2017 back-to-back summit meetings of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and the GCC and to inaugurate a new counterterrorism center. The high point for Trump was the signing of a $350 billion arms deal with the Kingdom, described as the largest such deal in American history. The last provided a moment of unintended comic relief as Trump, Saudi King Salman bin Abdel Aziz and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sissi all embraced a glowing orb in a scene reminiscent of a Harry Potter movie. The Saudis, believing they had cracked the code on dealing with the administration, joined with the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt in declaring a blockade of Qatar. At first, Trump joined the chorus accusing Qatar of supporting terrorism, which in turn persuaded the Saudis that the U.S. had given them the green light to invade Qatar. Saudi troops began to muster on the Qatari border. The region soon plunged into utter confusion as Turkish troops deployed to Qatar. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stepped in to signal to the Saudis that aggression toward Qatar would not be tolerated; Trump fired Tillerson for curtailing Saudi adventurism. True to form, Trump abruptly reversed course and praised Qatar for its cooperation on counterterrorism.
As promised in his campaign, Trump denounced the JCPOA, pulled out in 2018, and imposed sanctions on Tehran, which the administration dubbed a “maximum pressure campaign. His new Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, appeared so confident it would bring the Iranian regime to its knees that he issued an ultimatum essentially calling on the mullahs to self-immolate. Although the administration must have known that the Iranian regime could never accept Pompeo’s demands, I suspect Gulf leaders assumed that the Americans had worked it out. If so, they were badly disappointed. The sanctions hurt Iran but failed to achieve either of the Trump administration’s declared objectives, bringing the Iranians begging to the negotiating table or regime collapse in Tehran. Instead, Iran responded by enriching uranium to unprecedented levels of quantity and purity while developing new technologies to do so.
In fact, only Iran seems to have figured out how to predict Trump’s unpredictability. They divined that Trump did not want a shooting war, only the opportunity to preen and posture. Pompeo and John Bolton (until he got fired) apparently did want a hot conflict. The Iranians may have figured it out after they shot down a large and expensive reconnaissance drone which had entered the Iranian air defense zone following a period of intense bombast by the president (no U.S. officials ever explained why this sitting duck of target was sent provocatively into such a risky environment). The press reported that Pompeo and Bolton, as well as CIA Director Gina Haspel, urged Trump to order a massive retaliatory strike. U.S. planes had scrambled and ships had launched, and were moments from launching missiles, when Trump countermanded the order. He later stated that he did not want to cause Iranian civilian casualties because no Americans had been killed and he “wanted to avoid war.” Tehran may also have concluded from the February 2020 Doha agreement with the Taliban that Trump would back down unless American troops were killed. Numerous reports indicated that the Iranians began to spread the word among their allies in Iraq not to target Americans.
The U.S. killing of General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Republican Guards tested the hypothesis that the president would not respond with force unless Americans died. The Iranian retaliation for the assassination, striking American bases in Iraq but with a warning and careful attention to destroying only equipment, seems to validate the theory. When the news emerged later that 100 American troops had suffered injuries, Trump studiously ignored it. The Iranians may have figured it out; I suspect that other Gulf countries failed to understand the purpose behind this series of American actions. As in the case of the drone, no one has really explained the rationale behind the assassination. One is tempted to believe that Pompeo once again tried – and failed – to precipitate the American attack on Iran that he so obviously craved.
By the end of Trump’s term, the president had eliminated any confidence that the U.S. would stand firm in the Gulf. Unfortunately, like his predecessors, he never communicated what the United States intended to do. If anything, President Joe Biden has done little to improve Gulf perceptions of American dependability. His early actions have indicated a disdain for the Saudi regime, cutting back material support for the Saudi adventure in Yemen and criticizing the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, an exiled Saudi journalist working for the Washington Post. Nine months into his administration, however, nothing has happened to put an end to the war. As for Yemen, it appears that the Saudis have now decided that the road out of Yemen runs through Tehran. Press reports and leaks from the four Saudi-Iranian meetings in Baghdad and the fifth at the UNGA indicated that Yemen was on the table. The decision to pull out of Afghanistan may appear to have been inevitable, given the 2020 Doha Agreement to abandon that unhappy country. However, the subsequent debacle in the execution of that withdrawal boggled minds across the entire region.
The U.S. needs a thoughtful development of a coherent strategy in the Gulf and then, after careful vetting, articulating it in clear terms to allies, friends, and adversaries. Tactics can remain unpredictable, but not a strategy. The U.S., by any criteria, is still the most powerful country in the world. Friends and allies deserve not to be blindsided by U.S. policy decisions. Weaker adversaries need to know America’s red lines so as to avoid crossing them. The United States must make certain that powerful adversaries do not accidentally stumble into a catastrophic confrontation with the U.S. It is all well and good to talk about the “U.S. pulling out of the Gulf.” Before it does, it needs to carefully analyze how the various players inside the Gulf will react to the power vacuum created by America’s recalibration. What if Iran decides to flex its muscles and start a proxy insurrection among persecuted Shi’a in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia? The U.S. needs everyone to know if that is a red line that will bring it back to the region. Failing to do so raises the risk that this time the Iranians will read us wrong.
Winston Churchill has been credited with two remarks about American unpredictability. “The Americans are a bull that carries its own China Shop around with it.” and “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.” The stories may in fact be apocryphal, but do we always have to prove them right?
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Gulf International Forum.