President Obama and Arab leaders on Thursday agreed to several tactical steps toward strengthening Middle East security but stopped short of a bold new agreement to confront the region’s chaos.
The summit at the Camp David presidential retreat, which had been scheduled with high hopes, drew to a bureaucratic close as the six Persian Gulf leaders left only with general agreements that the U.S. will expand joint military exercises and otherwise collaborate more fully on shared interests.
In a joint statement, the leaders announced a commitment to closer relations on security and other issues. Obama assured leaders that the U.S. will protect the gulf states, but the commitment essentially restates promises he made before and lacks the binding force of a treaty.
“I am reaffirming our ironclad commitment to the security of our gulf partners,” Obama said. “In the event of such aggression or the threat of such aggression, the United States stands ready to work with our GCC partners to urgently determine what actions may be appropriate, using the means at our collective disposal, including the potential use of military force for the defense of our GCC partners. And let me underscore -- the United States keeps our commitments.”
“Our relationship is a two-way street,” Obama said. “We all have responsibilities.”
The U.S. will maintain its large security presence in the region while urging the countries to act more like a coalition, with cooperative defense systems that will make them more effective.
Amid the boiling chaos of the region, the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates had hoped for more. When the summit was announced a few weeks ago, some analysts even predicted it could be a historic pivot point in the relationship of allies who have been trying to preserve stability in the region for decades.
As the leaders met with Obama in the woodsy presidential retreat, though, various conflicts simmered back home. A top member of the Iranian parliament called Saudi King Salman a traitor to Islam for his nation's airstrikes against an Iran-backed militia that has taken over much of Yemen. The Saudis, in turn, accused the Yemeni rebels of violating a humanitarian cease-fire.
In an acknowledgment that the U.S. has a stake in such military actions, a joint statement from the leaders after the summit says that the gulf leaders will consult with the U.S. when planning to take military action beyond their borders, a sign that Obama raised objections to the way the Saudis embarked on that campaign in Yemen with no notice.
Over time, the summit could come to look more significant if the two sides follow through with steps to tighten cooperation against threats from Iran and terrorist groups, said Brian Katulis, a Mideast specialist at the Center for American Progress, a think tank with close ties to the Obama administration.
“Expectations have gotten so low,” he said, but the agreements, in areas of cyberwarfare, counter-terrorism, maritime operations, missile defense and border security, could still have some effect. The U.S. pledged to fast-track arms transfers, for example.
White House officials insisted Thursday that strengthening the gulf alliance is the proper role of the U.S. while also offering the best hope for greater security.
In a slight signal of support, the U.S. offered to consider declaring the gulf states to be “major non-NATO allies,” a designation that would make it easier for them to obtain American weapons. The gulf partners will share the designation with Japan, Australia, Israel and others.
In addition, Obama signaled that the U.S. is willing to participate in more joint military exercises, but none that would amount to the major strengthening of U.S. defense commitments that Saudi Arabia and other gulf allies had sought.
Obama also came nowhere near suggesting a nuclear commitment to their security. That may have done little to assuage the concerns of leaders worried about the increasingly aggressive actions of their rising regional antagonist, Iran, and its proxies.
During their morning working session, Obama defended his decision to engage in talks with Iran to try to limit its nuclear program. Obama briefed the leaders on the talks between Iran and six world powers, scheduled to continue through June as negotiators try to work out the details of a general framework reached this spring.
White House officials insist that the gulf leaders’ real concern is not about the nuclear talks but about whether the U.S. is still intent on working with them to counter Iran’s other destabilizing actions in the region.
Aides say Obama reassured the leaders that the nuclear talks will only benefit nervous neighbors because they could result in the removal of the nuclear threat from future conflict.
Deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes insisted that the gulf states have never given U.S. officials any indication that they would begin their own nuclear weapons programs if Iran receives an international blessing for its nuclear activities.
The ongoing nuclear talks don’t mean that the U.S. will condone Iran’s aggressive moves or become too cozy with the Islamic Republic, Rhodes told reporters.
“It’s a transaction on the nuclear issue,” he said. “This is not a broader rapprochement.”
Whether the negotiators reach a nuclear deal with Iran or not, Obama said, “we're still going to face a range of threats across the region, including its destabilizing activities, as well as the threat from terrorist groups. So we're going to work together to address these threats and much of the enhanced security cooperation that I have outlined will allow us to do precisely that.
“But I want to be very clear,” he said. “The purpose of security cooperation is not to perpetuate any long-term confrontation with Iran or even to marginalize Iran.”
The White House also publicly warned against an arms race in the region, a possibility as Iran’s neighbors grow increasingly anxious that the nuclear talks will fail and Iran will weaponize its nuclear program in the next few years.
“We don’t want to see a nuclear arms race in what is already the most volatile region in the world,” Rhodes said.
U.S officials persuaded the gulf leaders to accept language in the joint statement suggesting they would accept a nuclear deal with Iran, provided it is a “comprehensive, verifiable deal that fully addresses” concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. Privately, however, the Arab leaders are likely to remain deeply worried about the prospect of a deal.
Likewise, the Gulf leaders accepted a call for “inclusive governance” and minority rights, phrases that hold different meaning in autocratic systems than they do in the United States.
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