This was supposed to be the week when President Obama put on a show of his desire to reaffirm America’s support for its Arab allies. Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states have spent the last year in the unusual position of agreeing more with Israel than the United States, as Obama pushes for détente with Iran. Like the Israelis, the Arabs are pondering their future in a region dominated by an Iranian nuclear threshold state that appears to be the lynchpin of the president’s foreign policy legacy. So to demonstrate his good will, Obama invited these nations to a summit at which he would convince them they had nothing to fear. But with the U.S. putting nothing on the table of substance that would allay those concerns about the weak nuclear deal being negotiated with Iran, the Saudi king and other leaders snubbed the event, turning it into a fiasco even before it began. But it turned out King Salman didn’t miss much. Though Obama offered what he called an “ironclad guarantee’ of America’s support for the Arabs, it was phrased in the kind of ambiguous language that rendered it meaningless. The meeting and especially the statement epitomized an Obama administration foreign policy that puts a premium on appeasing foes and alienating friends.
The wording of the president’s “guarantee” is a marvel of lawyerly ambiguity that any connoisseur of diplomatic doubletalk must appreciate:
In the event of such aggression or the threat of such aggression, the United States stands ready to work with our GCC partners to determine urgently what action may be appropriate, using the means at our collective disposal, including the potential use of military force, for the defense of our GCC partners.
Let’s unpack this carefully so we’re clear about what the United States isn’t promising its Arab allies. As even Obama’s cheerleaders at the New York Times noted, this “carefully worded pledge that was far less robust than the mutual defense treaty the Gulf nations had sought.” In the event of aggression, the U.S. isn’t going to spring into action to defend them. Instead it will “work” with them to “determine” what they might do. That falls quite a bit short of a hard promise of collective action, let alone the drawing of a line in the sand across which the Iranians may not cross. In other words, if something bad happens, Obama will talk with the threatened parties but he won’t say what he will do in advance or if he will do anything at all. If that is an “ironclad guarantee,” I’d hate to see what a less binding promise might sound like.
To understate the matter, this is not the sort of pledge that will deter an Iran that is emboldened by its diplomatic victory in the negotiations that let them their nuclear infrastructure and continuing working toward a bomb. Iran’s push for regional hegemony has also been boosted by the triumph of their Syrian ally Bashar Assad with the help of Tehran’s Hezbollah terrorist auxiliaries. With the Iran-backed Houthi rebels threatening to take over Yemen and Iran also resuming its alliance with Hamas in Gaza, the axis of Iranian allies has Arab states understandably worried about their future. Now that the nuclear deal makes an Iranian bomb only a matter of when rather than if, the Gulf nations were hoping for more than just a carefully worded expression of American indifference.
That’s why the statement at the end of the summit made no mention of America’s chief worry about the Gulf states: the possibility that the Saudis will, either acting alone or in concert with their neighbors, seek to match Iran’s nuclear potential. As critics of the Iran deal foretold, far from saving the Middle East from an Iranian bomb, it has set off an arms race that has will make the world a fare more dangerous place.
This omission will likely make the Iranians even more reluctant to give in to U.S. demands about sanctions, Tehran’s military research and the disposition of its stockpile of enriched uranium in the final stages of the nuclear talks. A better guarantee for the Arabs might have convinced the Islamist state that the president really meant business about strengthening the deal. In its absence, they have no reason to think Obama won’t fold as he has at every other stage of the negotiations.
Under the circumstances, it’s little wonder that Bahrain’s King Hamad preferred to go to a horse show London rather than confer with Obama. Just as Israel has learned that the United States is more interested in a new Iran-centric policy than it backing its traditional allies, so, too, must the Arabs come to grips with a new reality in which their Iranian foe is no longer restrained by the United States.