Here's a question that's been nagging me for a while: Why don’t the Arab states that provide so many weapons, and so much funding, to the Syrian opposition, and that also demand greater U.S. intervention in the Syrian civil war, just intervene themselves? The countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, in particular, both vociferously support opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and are very well armed. Saudi Arabia alone flies about 300 combat aircraft; the United Arab Emirates has at least 140.
If it is true -- and I think it is -- that the creation of no-fly zones and civilian havens would have prevented the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocent Syrians, then why didn’t the Arabs, whose tears flow in rivers for their Sunni Syrian brethren, do more to protect them? One obvious answer is fear of Iran, the protector of the Assad regime. But to paraphrase Madeleine Albright, what is the point of fielding these superb air forces if you’re not going to do anything with them?
I finally discovered at least part of an answer while traveling to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel this month with U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. Although Hagel tends to conserve his energy on overseas trips, he still managed, over the course of four efficient days, to reassure eight U.S. allies that Barack Obama's administration is not withdrawing from the Middle East. (The question of why the secretary of defense must go on reassurance tours to friendly and dependent nations is one of the largest ones looming over Obama’s foreign policy.)
Hagel’s first stop was Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where the defense ministers of the six Gulf Cooperation countries were holding a summit meeting. Top officials from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and everyone’s favorite regional black sheep, Qatar, all attended. It turns out the meeting was Hagel’s idea, which should immediately tell you something about the level of cooperation among members of the GCC: When the military leadership of these countries won’t meet without a direct request from the Pentagon, it can safely be assumed that the council doesn't have NATO-like aspirations. (To be fair, not even the North Atlantic Treaty Organization appears to have NATO-like aspirations anymore.)
The most interesting and troubling piece of information that I learned in Jeddah is that the members of the GCC don't have a sophisticated, regionwide, integrated air and missile defense system in place. The council was founded as a direct response to the threat posed by the Iranian revolution -- Iran is a true existential threat to the monarchs of the Gulf -- and Iran has fairly sophisticated missile programs already, as well as limitless ambition. It was up to General Lloyd Austin, the head of U.S Central Command, who accompanied Hagel on his visit, to explain to the assembled ministers the benefits of regional early-warning systems, as well as greater maritime cooperation. Also on Austin's agenda was to cajole the countries into working together to protect against cyber-attacks, which Iran is good at staging.
Thirty-three years after the founding of the GCC, its members cooperate with one another in semi-scattershot fashion. This is partly due to Qatar’s disruptive presence in the group. Qatar supports the Muslim Brotherhood and the most extreme Syrian jihadi groups. Its television network, Al Jazeera, regularly afflicts other Gulf monarchs but most certainly not Qatar’s. But it is not only Qatar that has rendered the GCC ineffective. Poor management and leadership, jealousy, and mediocrity all play roles. They explain why the GCC has never become the counterweight to Iran that it was meant to be, and why its efforts in Syria so far have failed to dislodge Assad.
Sources say the Qataris and their main rivals, the Saudis and the Emiratis, got along reasonably well in the actual meeting, though one Gulf official explained to me afterward that this might have been because no one wanted to create an embarrassing scene in front of Hagel.
One subsidiary goal of Hagel’s team was to stress to Gulf officials that fractious relations undermine their common purpose. The Pentagon’s top Middle East expert, Matthew Spence, told me that, “Our strong view is that the common threats these countries face are greater than the differences between them.” But it’s not clear how much relationship therapy the U.S. could, or should, do.
When I asked Hagel if he sometimes felt like the de facto chairman of the GCC, he demurred: “That overstates my role in the situation. I can play a bit of a role as a facilitator, bringing common challenges to the conversation.” He went on, “I don’t think they, as defense ministers representing sovereign nations, are unfamiliar with the regional threats and the regional complications, but I can maybe help them think about ways to have a concerted regional joint effort.”
The GCC countries are only intermittent in their commitment to unified action against Iran and the Assad regime. But they excel at worrying about the commitment of their benefactor and weapons supplier, the U.S., to their protection and to the perpetuation of their regimes. Hagel’s visit to the GCC meeting, Jordan and Israel was meant to reassure these allies that Obama hasn’t abandoned them. “You have to pay attention to these concerns and perceptions, but these narratives don’t track with reality,” Hagel said. “I don’t know if there has been a time when America has been so connected with the world.”
This may be true, but the Obama administration has done an insufficient job of making this argument. If nothing else, the inadequacies of the GCC, and the obvious threat its members face from the region’s putative hegemon, Iran, suggest that the U.S. is still -- to use the term Hillary Clinton is about to reinject into Washington’s foreign policy conversation -- the “indispensable nation.”
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