As crown princes and other leaders of Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf meet this week with President Obama, the first thing to keep in mind as background to this encounter is a truth that the president spoke last month in an interview with Tom Friedman of the New York Times. The president observed that the biggest threats those Arab countries face “may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries” based on “populations that, in some cases, are alienated, youth that are underemployed, an ideology that is destructive and nihilistic, and in some cases, just a belief that there are no legitimate political outlets for grievances.” Of course that's not an observation that the rulers of those countries want to hear, and the president acknowledged that talking about such things is “a tough conversation to have” with those regimes, “but it's one that we have to have.” Sound foreign policy for our own country requires dealing in truths, even ones that make our interlocutors uncomfortable.
The president would have been on sound ground to make his point even more forcefully than he did. There will be no Iranian flotilla carrying an invasion force against the gulf. Anything remotely resembling such a fanciful scenario would be obvious folly for Iran and, even if were to occur, would be met with a forceful U.S.-led response with or without any explicit security guarantees from Washington. Nor does it require any instigation from the outside for the danger of internal unrest and instability to arise from the anachronistic, undemocratic political systems, coupled with narrowly based economies and sometimes sectarian-riven social structures, that prevail in these countries. The most serious instability that has occurred in the last few years in the immediate neighborhood of the Gulf Arab countries, in Bahrain and Yemen, was internally initiated and not instigated by any outside power, be it Iran or anyone else.
The next thing to ask about the gathering at Camp David is what these Arab regimes would, or even could, do if they return home displeased. The answer is: not much at all. Those regimes need the United States more than the United States needs them. They are highly reliant on U.S. help just to enable their military forces to operate their advanced weapons. They are even more reliant on the tacit blessing that the world's most powerful democracy confers on them every day by not making much of an issue of their undemocratic nature, notwithstanding how much talk one has heard in Washington, especially under the previous administration, about spreading democratic values in the Middle East. Moreover, the Gulf states are not in position today to express any displeasure by trying to wield oil as a weapon, 1970s style; Saudi Arabia has its own reasons right now not only to keep oil flowing but to keep prices low.
Administration policymakers surely are smart enough to realize all this, but they feel obligated to play a political game that involves catering to the Gulf Arabs' expressed anxieties, no matter how opportunistic those expressions may be—hence this week's meeting. The game is played mostly within Washington; it is a matter of the administration having to keep the Gulf Arabs from complaining too loudly about reaching an agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program, lest the administration's domestic opponents amplify their accusations that the administration is selling “allies” down the river (or down the gulf) by making a deal with Tehran. The nuclear agreement actually does no such thing. The Gulf Arabs have reached their own rapprochements with Iran in the past, and they are smart enough to realize that an agreement that restricts the Iranian program and precludes an Iranian nuclear weapon is better for their own security than the alternative of no agreement and no restrictions.
Although some coddling of the Gulf Arabs may be worth it if this helps reduce the chance that the Iran agreement will be killed in the U.S. Congress, it would be a mistake to extend new security guarantees or similar commitments that would risk entangling the United States more deeply in the Arabs' own peculiar quarrels. Those quarrels involve religion, ethnicity, and intra-regional rivalries where the United States does not have an interest in taking sides, and that give rise to fights in which the United States does not have a dog.
The United States unfortunately has already gotten itself involved in a very local, very messy, and very multi-dimensional fight in Yemen—involvement that would be incomprehensible except as a kind of compensatory stroking of Saudi Arabia. If one looked for a more direct U.S. interest in the Yemeni fight it would involve long-distance terrorist threats from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—but AQAP is on the opposite side of the Yemeni fight from the people the U.S.-backed Saudi military intervention is going after.
There are good reasons for the United States to maintain cordial and even close relations with the Gulf Arab countries, notwithstanding their political systems and values that are so antithetical to our own. But such relations should be part of an independent and flexible U.S. policy in the Middle East that does not involve getting dragged into other people's pet quarrels and does not involve getting held hostage to the Gulf Arabs' own expressions of displeasure or discomfort.
An additional complication in trying to please such “allies” is that pleasing one can annoy another. More arms sales to the Gulf Arabs has gotten talked about, but that quickly runs into the assumption that whatever any Arab state gets in the way of armaments must be kept inferior to whatever Israel gets. Israel illustrates better than any other case the futility of trying to buy cooperation from a complaining “ally” with not just arms aid but other supportive measures. The extraordinary largesse, political and material, that the United States bestows on Israel does not buy such cooperation—certainly not regarding the nuclear agreement on Iran, where the Israeli government vigorously opposes U.S. foreign policy and attempts to sabotage it at every turn. The Gulf Arabs are too polite to imitate Israel in blatantly poking sticks in their benefactor's eyes. But expect from them a more restrained “what have you done for me lately” posture.