The US Balance-of-Power Strategy in the Gulf is Collapsing. But It Never Had a Chance Anyway

Saudi soldiers fire artillery toward three armed vehicles approaching the Saudi border with Yemen in Jazan, Saudi Arabia, on April 20, 2015.

AP / Hasan Jamali

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Saudi soldiers fire artillery toward three armed vehicles approaching the Saudi border with Yemen in Jazan, Saudi Arabia, on April 20, 2015.

The Qatar dispute deals a death blow to Trump Administration dreams of an Arab NATO arrayed against Iran.

The ongoing dispute between Qatar and the rest of Arab Gulf Cooperation Council represents perhaps the greatest internal threat to the group since it was created as a bulwark against Shi’a radicalism in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian revolution. The split all but eliminates any prospect that the United States could forge a regional – let alone an international – coalition to contain and roll back what many consider Iran’s growing regional clout.

The Trump administration can be forgiven for its lofty ambition to recreate a regional coalition of Arab Sunni states to stand against Shi’a Persian Iran, a concept some have dubbed “Arab NATO.” After all, U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has long been grounded in traditional balance-of-power politics. President Truman was determined to quickly recognize Israel after it declared independence in May 1948 in no small measure to lure Israelis into an Anglo-American camp as a balance against the regional influence of the Soviet Union. President Eisenhower supported the creation of the Baghdad Pact that organized Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, and Great Britain into an anti-communist alliance. President Nixon pursued a “Twin Pillars” policy that relied on Saudi Arabia and Iran to serve as regional American allies to defend against both external and internal threats to the region. President Reagan extended American political and intelligence support to Saddam Hussein as Iraq battled revolutionary Iran from 1980 to 1988. President H.W. Bush marshalled a vast global political and military coalition to restore Kuwait’s sovereignty after Iraq’s invasion in August 1990 in order to deny Saddam’s ability to dominate the region. Later, President Clinton declared his “dual containment” policy designed to directly balance against ‘bad actors’ in both Baghdad and Tehran.

President Obama veered from this U.S. policy preference for playing the zero-sum game of balance-of-power politics in the Middle East. Instead, he irritated America’s traditional Sunni Arab allies by telling them that they would need to find a way to “share” the neighborhood with Iran. Then he committed his greatest sin, at least in the view of the Arab Gulf states, by reaching a deal with Iran that, although it severely limited Tehran’s nuclear program, appeared to suggest Washington was open to abandoning its decades-long regional strategy aimed at containing Iran.

So it is not especially surprising that President Trump, who expressly criticized the Iran nuclear deal and charged Obama with abandoning our traditional allies in the region, would seek to reverse course. Indeed, during his first foreign visit to an Arab-Islamic Summit in Saudi Arabia, President Trump outlined a wholesale return to US regional policies grounded in traditional balance-of-power politics. He urged the Sunni Arab countries to forge an alliance that would “work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism, and pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they deserve.”

Unfortunately, for the Trump administration the heated Saudi-Qatari dispute is having the counterproductive effect of increasing opportunities for Iranian influence rather than curbing them. Indeed, Iran has willingly stepped into the storm created by the Saudi-led siege of Qatar by championing a diplomatic resolution, providing tons of food to Qatar, and allowing Doha access to its sea and air corridors for civilian and military traffic.

Some critics have laid the blame for such a failed policy primarily at President Trump’s doorstep. Nonetheless, any U.S. policy grounded in balance-of-power politics in the Middle East was bound to fail for the following reasons:

Instability and uncertainty: Balance-of-power-politics calculations depend on a relatively stable international and regional security environment. The bipolar competition between the U.S. and USSR during the Cold War made such assessments relatively easy. Adding the economic or military power of a state to one side of the ledger meant measureable gains for one side and comparable losses for the other. However, today’s nonpolar or disordered world greatly complicates such calculations. Moreover, the combination of the Arab uprisings that ousted long-time pro-Western autocrats in Tunis, Cairo, and Yemen coupled with the ongoing civil wars raging in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen signal the dawn of a new era in the Middle East likely to be characterized by tremendous uncertainties – uncertainties that will make any balance-of-power calculations tenuous and transient at best.

Problematic allies: The most obvious candidates to provide a foundation for U.S. policies aimed at containing Iranian regional ambitions are themselves tremendously flawed and weak partners. Saudi Arabia is an important counterterrorism partner but its spread of an intolerant version of Wahhabi Islam provides much of the theological fuel for today’s violent radical Islamic terrorist groups. Meanwhile, Egypt’s role as the first Arab country to sign a peace agreement with Israel has made it a linchpin in regional stability for decades, but the combination of its repressive military leadership with high levels of unemployment, poverty, and corruption are a combustible mix that could explode anytime. Finally, as Gen. David Petraeus told Congress in 2010, Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian territories “limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the [region] and weakens the legitimacy of moderate [Arab] regimes.”

Reckless driving: As observed by MIT’s Barry Posen, allies that are (overly) confident of American support can feel emboldened to pursue policies that are counterproductive to U.S. interests. The most obvious example of this in the region today is Saudi Arabia’s inconclusive war in Yemen that has both created the world’s greatest humanitarian disaster and allowed for the resurgence of Al-Qa’eda and its affiliates in the Arabian Peninsula.

Rising sectarianism: Finally, any effort to forge an alliance expressly grounded in Sunni Arab identities can only exacerbate rather than alleviate the heightened sectarian tensions fueling regional conflict. These tensions are exploited by insurgent and terrorist groups to bolster their recruiting ranks among the disenfranchised Sunni communities in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. Moreover, an obviously pro-Sunni anti-Shi’a alliance will likely intensify Iranian security concerns, reinforce the position of hardliners in Iran, and create incentives for even more aggressive Iranian actions to preserve whatever regional influence it retains.

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