The Camp David summit between President Obama and GCC leaders wrapped without incident, despite the high-profile, last minute abstention by the King of Saudi Arabia. (And the King of Bahrain, who had better things to do—like going to see a horse show.) By all accounts it proceeded amicably, though no breakthrough announcements were made. And therein lies the rub.
Several things were said at the conclusion that should have been much bigger news than they were, and carried much more sway than they did. As the BBC reports:
US President Barack Obama has pledged to stand by his Gulf allies with military force if necessary, amid heightened tensions with Iran.
He reassured Arab leaders, after a two-day summit, that the US was committed to protecting them in a time of “extraordinary changes”. […]
“I was very explicit … that the United States will stand by our GCC partners against external attack,” Mr Obama pledged at the end of the talks. […]
The joint statement said that in the face of any aggression, the US would stand with the Arab nations “to determine urgently what action may be appropriate, using the means at our collective disposal, including the potential use of military force, for the defence of our GCC partners”.
When the President of the United States publicly declares that America will defend a group of countries in a region where multiple wars are being fought and shots have just been fired at sea, it should be major news—and it should cause our enemies to think twice. Instead, our Gulf allies, far from being reassured, seem to be scanning the statement for loopholes, and our enemies seem to yawn.
Of course, it’s worth remembering that the Arabs themselves are playing a double game, and are looking for something very specific in the assurances: as strong a guarantee as they can get that the United States would uphold their regimes. An uprising in Bahrain, for example, might credibly be described as an attempt by Iran to cause trouble; but an uprising in the UAE or Qatar would undoubtedly also be described as such. A treaty obligation would bind the United States by law to intervene to stop this kind of thing, which is why there is no way we would provide that kind of guarantee—and why the GCC leaders were on some level bound to be disappointed by what we were willing to offer.
Nevertheless, what we are seeing here in part is the cost of the Syrian “red line” affair, made visible at a later moment of need. It would be very useful to President Obama and to the country right now if POTUS’ word were taken as a solemn bond. The bare fact that the U.S., a hegemonic power, had declared itself willing to get involved in other times might have scared off a challenge from the likes of Iran. But credibility is key, and players in the Middle East (and beyond) have taken the measure of this President. Our power to deter has been greatly diminished by this administration’s earlier fumbles.