MANY INSIST that had Bush been president during the nuclear talks with Iran and were the one to conclude a deal, he would have picked up the phone and called the Saudis well in advance to address their security concerns. Given Bush’s affection toward King Abdullah and sensitivity to his country’s interests, that is entirely possible.
Critics of the institutionalist argument might also say that it was Obama’s cold personality and less than positive views toward the Gulf states that mattered most. They might add that even if there were a robust, NATO-like infrastructure of consultation in the U.S.-Gulf partnership, there was no chance any American president would have shared sensitive information with his partners about an impending war, high-stakes talks, or a high-level killing (even though the Israelis were told about the latter). When it comes to vital security interests, senior partners—in this case, the United States—are expected to resort to unilateral decisions without paying much attention to the interests of their junior partners—here, the Gulf states. No amount of bureaucratic linkages will change that.
While all these counterarguments are reasonable, some can’t be proven and some miss the point. It’s impossible to know if Bush would have acted differently, and engaging in revisionist history to suit one’s conclusions would constitute intellectual malpractice. When numerous variables are at play, as is clearly the case here, it’s incredibly hard to affirm a causal relationship between the level of institutionalization in the U.S.-Gulf partnership and the success/failure of consultation on war and military operations.
But the argument here, which emphasizes process and underscores how it can influence policy, is not that institutions are more important than those other factors in explaining the strength (or weakness) of an international partnership. Rather, it is that those norms of and mechanisms for consultation are often forgotten or undervalued, especially in U.S. relations with partners in the region. The advantages of having institutions may not be readily apparent, given their slow and long-term nature, but the perils of their absence are painfully obvious. Institutions can’t magically solve all the problems of the U.S.-Gulf partnership, but they certainly can help manage them. With time, they can even help achieve a higher level of political-security integration and policy co-determination.
None of this is academic. Look no further than the example of Turkey, a NATO ally, whose relationship with the United States has suffered greatly over the past few years for reasons that aren’t limited to matters of policy disagreements. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has caused much harm by robbing his National Security Council and Ministry of Foreign Affairs of their traditional and critical functions of policy formulation and coordination with U.S. counterparts. In a sense, Erdogan is following the Gulf model, which is based on personal ties with the American president.
Contrast this with the examples of America’s relationships with South Korea and Japan. An important reason for the success of the U.S.-Japan alliance is its institutional maturation. Its Security Consultative Committee (SCC), composed of the U.S. Secretaries of State and Defense and their Japanese counterparts, paves a strategic path for the alliance. It is supported by two subcommittees: The Security Subcommittee and the Subcommittee on Defense Cooperation. The former is an Assistant Secretary-level version of the SCC, while the latter is focused on force and contingency planning. In addition to these committees, Washington and Tokyo have several frameworks for bilateral coordination and cooperation on defense and security matters affecting U.S. interests and the Japanese homeland.
The U.S.-South Korea alliance is even more impressive in terms of its institutional development. In 1969, the two countries created a consultative system known as the Security Consultative Meeting (SCM), led by the American Secretary of Defense and South Korean Minister of Defense to provide a mechanism for the two parties to issue unified guidance to their militaries. The SCM evolved into a Military Committee Meeting, which created a forum for the defense leaders to “consult on how to best implement strategic guidance received via the SCM as well as provide combined recommendations to the SCM and the respective national command authorities.” At the tenth SCM in 1977, a Combined Forces Command was formed. It is led by an American general and a Korean deputy of equal rank, and is the most integrated defense command in the world. This was followed by several other combined coordinating structures, all of which have been critical to preserve the security interests of both countries as well as the peace along the Demilitarized Zone.
Whether it’s because of culture, capacity, or willingness, the Gulf states will not be able to replicate what Japan, South Korea, and other treaty allies possess with the United States. But each relationship is unique, and whatever has worked between the United States and South Korea or Japan should not be forced on America and its Gulf partners. It’s important for the Gulf states to try to learn the lessons of successful models of consultation. But they should develop their own tailored structures that are responsive to their political, cultural, and strategic environments. They’re also starting from almost zero, so they shouldn’t cause themselves undue worries and assess their progress by making unrealistic comparisons with Seoul and Tokyo. Given how bad things are institutionally, the only way is up for the Gulf states. If and when they develop that institutional commitment, Washington will not only be a cheerleader but also an eager enabler. As tedious as it is, institutionalization can save the U.S.-Gulf partnership and help it navigate present and future storms.
Bilal Y. Saab is Senior Fellow and Director of the Defense and Security Program at the Middle East Institute. From August 2018 to September 2019, he served as senior advisor for security cooperation in the Middle East in the Pentagon’s Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy.