Obama aides downplay expectations for summit with Arab leaders

Obama's summit goal: a balance of power in Mideast to ensure stability and continuing flow of oil

President Obama's team is carefully ratcheting down expectations for his summit with Persian Gulf leaders Thursday as the three crown princes, two emirs and one deputy prime minister coming to the U.S. make it abundantly clear that they will not be neatly managed.

Obama originally invited the leaders of six gulf states to Camp David with hopes of inspiring devotion to his Middle East policy, in which America's partners in the region take responsibility for their own security and shed their constant expectation that the U.S. will swoop in during a crisis.

To that end, U.S. officials will be offering new arms and soothing promises. Much of the new weaponry is aimed at having the gulf states — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates, collectively called the Gulf Cooperation Council — defend themselves rather than have the United States do it for them.

"The ability of any country in the region to defend against a missile threat pales in comparison to the ability of the GCC as a whole, as a collective, to defend against this threat if their systems were better integrated," Colin Kahl, national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, told reporters.

But Obama appears to have run up against the constraints of his policy of limited U.S. engagement in the Middle East. If he wants to yield responsibility to the gulf states for their own security, their leaders have signaled, he'll have to live with the decisions they make. And they have shown recently that their priorities diverge from the president's.

Already, a Saudi-led coalition has been conducting airstrikes on Houthi rebels in Yemen, an intense campaign condemned as a breach of international humanitarian law by the United Nations.

A five-day humanitarian cease-fire that took effect at 11 p.m. Tuesday appeared to be largely holding, though Saudi Arabia and Houthi rebels traded accusations of violations Wednesday.

Aid agencies hope to use the truce to send in food, fuel and other supplies for civilians caught in the fighting. But they warn the break won't be enough to reach the millions in need of help.

Meanwhile, members of the Saudi royal family have also criticized the Obama administration's negotiations with Iran in an effort to rein in its nuclear program. Obama had hoped to allay gulf nations' concerns about the talks with Iran, but some top officials won't be present to hear it.

The heads of four of the six Arab states, including Saudi King Salman, declined to attend the summit, in what many analysts took as a sign of displeasure with the administration's closeness with Iran and disengagement from the Middle East despite the spread of civil unrest.

Expectations for the summit rose sharply a few weeks ago when it was scheduled for Camp David, home to the 1978 accords that led to a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their part in the negotiations, convened by President Carter in the wooded hills of Catoctin Mountain Park in Maryland.

Those expectations have died down considerably, not least because of the absence of the Arab leaders. Advisors to the president have downplayed the idea that the U.S. will more deeply commit military might to protect the region.

Obama doesn't want a role as the primary protector against Iran and other threats. Instead, he is seeking a balance of power in the region that will guarantee stability and ensure the continuing flow of oil.

The president also has grave concerns about letting the U.S. get drawn too deeply into another Middle East conflict, said one senior advisor, and he would rather "formalize" the security arrangement to emphasize the idea of building the capacity of the nations to stand up against external aggression.

"The conversations I want to have with the gulf countries is, first and foremost, how do they build more effective defense capabilities?" Obama said recently in an interview with the New York Times.

Unlike past summits, traditionally aimed at reassurance, this one will involve "less hand-holding and more tough talk," said Jeremy Shapiro, a former Obama administration official who is now with Brookings Institution.

Obama is trying to deal with a long-standing "free rider" problem in which the gulf nations could complain about their anxieties about their security and Washington would feel compelled to respond, Shapiro said. They had leverage over American presidents because of U.S. dependence on the gulf states to protect against volatility in the oil markets.

But the gulf states' role has been diminished by the growing oil production in the United States and elsewhere. And the American opening to Iran, though fragile and possibly short-lived, offers Washington leverage to insist that the Arab countries do more for themselves.

"The U.S. has a new ability to recast the old bargain, and to insist on more from the Saudis and the others," said Shapiro.

One of the questions Obama will raise is what more the U.S. can do with gulf partners to share early warning systems and to integrate air and missile defenses, senior White House officials said.

U.S. officials will offer to help the gulf states with missile defense, cyber warfare and maritime and counter-terrorism protection. The Pentagon has been offering for several years to help build a better missile defense shield, but squabbling among the countries has gotten in the way.

In the planning meetings, U.S. negotiators steered away from the idea that gulf leaders would come to Camp David "with a shopping list," said Rob Malley, National Security Council coordinator for the region.

"Some of them wanted a formal treaty, and that's something we told them weeks ago was not possible," Malley said. "I think, whether they were disappointed or not, they got it. They understood that."

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