By Omer Taspinar
May 13, 2015
It has often been said that American foreign policy is about crisis management and damage control. As a result, Washington seldom spends enough time on long-term strategy. Events have a way of shaping policies. These dynamics are particularly valid for American foreign policy in the Middle East where attempts at damage control can easily turn into crisis management.
In one such attempt at damage control, President Barack Obama will be hosting a special summit with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partners at Camp David on May 14.
Although it is too early to speak of a crisis in US-Saudi relations, there is plenty of evidence that damage control is not working as intended. This was clear when King Salman, the new Saudi King who took power in January, announced that he will not be attending the Camp David summit, sending the crown prince in his stead. In fact, only two GCC heads of state — from Kuwait and Qatar — will attend. This is quite an embarrassment for the Obama administration since the whole point of the summit was a symbolic show of solidarity and friendship between the US President and the Saudi King.
Why is the Saudi king angry with Washington? The short answer is that America is perceived to be disengaging from the Arab world while it is simultaneously engaging with Iran. Washington's reluctance to get seriously involved in fighting the Syrian regime, its disastrous support for the wrong policies in Baghdad and its willingness to cut a nuclear deal with Iran are simply too much to digest for the Arab Gulf. Given this perception that America favors engagement with Shiite centers of power while it is distancing itself from the Sunni countries, the Saudi King was expecting more than symbolism and nice words at Camp David.
But it soon became clear that the Obama administration was unwilling to declare either a new US-GCC defense pact or blanket security assurances at Camp David. In an interview with the New York Times' Tom Friedman, President Obama even had the audacity to point out the obvious fact that the most challenging threat the Arab Gulf is facing is within its own borders, with growing domestic social, economic, and political problems. This was clearly not what the Saudi King wanted to hear from an American president cutting a nuclear deal with Iran.
Maybe it is time for both Washington and its Arab Gulf allies to face reality and stop pretending that crisis management or damage control can change the fundamental dynamics on the ground. As Jeremy Shapiro of the Brookings Institution argues in a recent Foreign Policy piece, "The relationship (between Washington and the Arab Gulf) has been based on a hard-nosed bargain: ‘The United States will protect you against external threats to your security and you will support America's goals and interests in the region and help stabilize global energy markets.' Over time, this bargain has allowed the Arab states to foist their regional security responsibilities onto the United States — and then blame America when things go wrong. Regardless of the rhetoric from both sides, the Arab states get the better end of the bargain. And they need it more than the United States does. This is particularly true now that the global energy market has diversified and is less subject to volatile price spikes."
Whether Saudi Arabia likes it or not, this old bargain is expiring. Obama or the next American president will not issue the equivalent of a new Carter Doctrine to the Arab Gulf. Washington is determined to slowly disengage from the region. Growing energy independence in the United States combined with Middle East fatigue in American public opinion are insurmountable forces. Saudi Arabia needs to adapt to this new American reality and lower its expectations. The time wasted with crisis management and damage control could be better used devising a new strategy.