In an interview about the Persian Gulf, the U.S. national security advisor explained that America’s commitment to the region “rests on our willingness to use our power…and there should be no doubt about that willingness.” Therefore, the advisor said, “The trend is toward increased American military presence in the region, toward greater utilization of available facilities, [and] towards a regional security framework including also the U.S.”
It wasn’t Susan Rice previewing the president’s message for the upcoming Camp David summit of Gulf leaders. Those are the words of Zbigniew Brzezinski, 35 years ago. He was describing what became known as the Carter Doctrine: the U.S. has a vital security interest in a stable Persian Gulf and will defend the region with force if necessary. At the time, the region was looking for reassurance as the Soviets loomed and Iran spiraled into Islamic revolution. Now, the region again looks for reassurance, this time because of the possible nuclear deal and the fears of an Iran unbridled from crippling sanctions.
Brzezinski’s statement reminds us of the longstanding U.S. security commitment to the region. But more than that, it provides historical context to the Obama administration’s approach to greater Gulf security, reminds us of its enduring challenges, and highlights the opportunity that the Camp David summit brings. In many ways, the administration has been preparing for this moment since President Barack Obama took office. No matter whether the Iran nuclear negotiations succeed or fail (and they are not over yet), the U.S. has set out to revitalize Gulf security.
There are three legs to this strategic stool: military presence, capabilities, and improving regional cooperation. The strategy starts with presence. The U.S. military maintains a robust force posture in the region that allows it to respond to crises, deter aggression, and reassure our allies. This includes maintaining 35,000 U.S. military personnel in and around the Persian Gulf, along with prepositioning heavy armor, artillery, and the most sophisticated missile defense and air and naval assets. This has not been easy to maintain, but it has been done even as the U.S. has ended combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, worked to rebalance to Asia, increased our military exercise and rotational presence in Europe, and grappled with sequestration and budget woes here at home.
Beyond the U.S. military itself, the Obama administration has sought to improve the defense capabilities of our Gulf partners and shift the regional military balance away from Iran. Since 2007, the Pentagon has approved arms sales worth more than $85 billion to the GCC states, nearly as much as in the previous 15 years. In 2011, the administration completed one of the largest arms deals in U.S. history, a sale of F-15 fighter jets to Saudi Arabia. In 2013, the U.S. announced the $11 billion-plus sale of the most modern standoff weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Last year, the U.S. and Qatar signed an $11 billion deal for Patriot missile batteries, Apache helicopters, and Javelin anti-tank missiles.
In addition to maintaining a robust U.S. presence and building up our partners’ capabilities, the U.S. has been working to enable the Gulf states to work more closely together. Compared to the two other strategic arenas of vital importance to the U.S.—Europe and Asia—the Middle East lacks a common security mechanism. While there are many reasons for this (particularly in a region characterized by mutual suspicion and fierce independence), there are steps that should be taken to improve regional cooperation.
Last May, then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel helped organize a meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, with his Gulf defense minister partners. Hosted by then-Crown Prince and now King Salman of Saudi Arabia, the event helped lay the policy foundation for next week’s Camp David meeting. U.S. and Middle East officials discussed ways to improve the Gulf partners’ ability to work together on future threats, including maritime, cyber, and air and missile defense. As a small step to try to get the GCC to work more closely together and to expand its security cooperation with the U.S. in a more coordinated way, the U.S. decided to allow the GCC to receive U.S. defense capabilities as a single organization, enabling GCC member states to pool resources and make common investments.
So it is in these three areas—presence, capabilities and regional cooperation—where the Camp David summit presents an historic opportunity. First, the U.S. must maintain a robust force posture in the region and Camp David will be a moment to commit publicly to doing so in the future. Because even if a nuclear Iran remains in check, the U.S. and its partners must deter Iran and be prepared to deal with all the other threats it poses—from its support of proxies to conventional proliferation. And we also must stay prepared for the worst—that the Iran nuclear deal falls apart and the military option becomes necessary.
Second, the United States should continue to seek ways to increase the capabilities of our Gulf partners while maintaining our commitment to Israel’s “qualitative military edge.” Although it is unlikely Camp David will produce any blockbuster weapons deals, the U.S. can affirm its commitment to maintaining the Gulf partners’ capability edge against Iran, perhaps establishing a roadmap to doing so. And it’s important to remember that the United States is not the only player in this game; the French are especially active in selling arms to Gulf nataions. Just this week, President François Holland traveled to Doha, Qatar, to sign a $7 billion deal for Rafale fighter jets, then stopped in Saudi Arabia to meet with GCC leaders.
Finally—and most importantly—the U.S. needs to continue to help create the architecture for regional security cooperation. The Camp David meeting of the U.S. and GCC leaders should be more than occasional, they should at least be biennial, akin to what the U.S. does with its Asian and European partners. These should be supplemented by regular meetings of the foreign and defense ministers (which last year’s defense ministerial was intended to start). The two sides also need to follow through on the proposals that they have already made. For example, since last year’s announcement to allow the GCC to procure U.S. defense capabilities as an organization, not a single foreign military sale has been presented. That has to change.
Some Gulf partners, such as the Emiratis, are interested in a binding security commitment. While a legally binding mutual defense treaty is a bridge too far, the U.S. should use Camp David to restate its commitment to use all means necessary to defend the Gulf, harkening back to the Carter Doctrine. In 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talked about extending a “defense umbrella” to the Gulf states.
To augment this commitment, the two sides could agree to establish a consultative mechanism in the event an urgent security threat emerges. This could be modeled on NATO’s “Article 4” process, which allows countries to convene the alliance when they feel threatened, as Turkey did in 2013 and Poland did last year. Additionally, the U.S. and GCC leaders should explore whether to extend the U.S. nuclear deterrent to cover the Gulf—which would both deter Iran and reassure our Gulf partners so they don’t want their own nuclear weapons.
(See also: What Did Saudi Arabia Achieve in Yemen?)
It’s this latter project—building more flexible framework for regional security in the Middle East—that Brzezinski identified as a core task more than three decades ago. In a secret memo to President Jimmy Carter in January 1980, Brzezinski asserted that a regional security framework “will have to avoid excessive formality, adapt to the realities of intra-regional conflicts, and facilitate varieties of participation by concerned friends both in the region and in the other two central strategic zones: Western Europe and the Far East.” Thirty-five years later, with the U.S. defense presence robust and capabilities of our regional Gulf partners much improved, the Camp David summit is an important step toward achieving that ambitious goal.