How Trump Can Heal US-Gulf Rifts
The president-elect has an opportunity, and an obligation, to reengage with Gulf Cooperation Council members.
Donald Trump’s administration will inherit a Middle East that is more unstable and fractious than ever before, with its very balance of power up in the air. While many U.S. allies reacted with shock to Trump’s election, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council welcome the chance for a new direction in American foreign policy — however unclear that may be at this point.
While GCC countries still consider the U.S. an important friend and longstanding ally, they have been ostracized and confused by the Obama administration’s policies. Take, for example, the Iran nuclear deal, negotiated largely without GCC input. For the most part, Arab and Gulf nations understood its purpose and the reasoning behind it, but they remain unconvinced by the U.S.’s ambivalence over how the agreement would be implemented and its impact on Iran’s proxies and the instability they wreak. Even when the White House attempted to convince GCC partners after the agreement, many remained skeptical due to Obama’s lack of credibility stemming from his “red line” gaffe in Syria.
Moreover, key partners in U.S. security operations such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates feel sidelined by this warming U.S. relationship with their regional rival. Riyadh, which has been particularly frustrated by human-rights criticisms and Congress’ opening the door to 9/11-related lawsuits has even begun to pivot away, recently unveiling a five-year plan for Saudi-Chinese security cooperation.
But as Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Afghanistan slip away from U.S. and allied control, Washington must reengage its longstanding partners in the region. GCC governments have been instrumental to the U.S.-led fight against extremism and terrorism: hosting American bases, funding reconstruction efforts, and joining anti-ISIS coalition operations in Iraq and Syria. Their cooperation against the Islamic State (or Daesh), Al Qaeda, Al Nusra, and other groups, regardless of outcomes within the region, will be desperately needed globally for years to come.
Many in the region believe Hillary Clinton would have largely continued Obama’s complex policy mix, which attempted to promote U.S. values while playing a relatively cautious and passive role in security and crisis management. A Trump administration seems to offer something different.
But if Donald Trump has a unique opportunity to soothe GCC qualms and reinvigorate America’s extensive and deep-rooted political, economic, and business ties with the region, the president-elect also has several statements and claims he must now clarify to his Muslim partners. He must explain his campaign rhetoric on Muslims, delineate his policy on U.S. military assistance, and detail his energy policy. These clarifications and policies will be key to the future of the U.S.-GCC relationship.
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A renewed projection of U.S. strength, emanating from Trump’s perceived strongman policies, would be welcomed by GCC nations that typically favor traditional Republican foreign-policy robustness. Bush’s unilateral, destabilizing actions and Obama’s policy of retrenchment alienated many of America’s GCC allies and prevented deeper counterterrorism engagement. An approach by the Trump administration that is clear, consistent, and encouraging of long-term cooperation and partnership with the region would be met warmly by the GCC as an opportunity for both sides to contribute more and better coordinate to counterterrorism activities.
A first step that GCC members would welcome would be for the U.S. to strengthen the Iran nuclear deal by doing more to hold Tehran to its obligations, such as expanding monitoring to all nuclear establishments including in military bases and confronting Iran on its support for insurgencies across the region. The spark that would be provided by such aggressive U.S. engagement and reassurances would encourage GCC members to take advantage of an opportune time to regain control of the spiralling security situation in the region.
Ultimately, it is in neither the U.S.’ nor the GCC’s interest to allow a vacuum in the Middle East to be filled by other powers. It will be up to the Trump administration to take advantage of these opportunities.
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