As President Obama summoned Arab leaders to this week’s summit at Camp David, he made it abundantly clear that he wants and is determined to get a nuclear deal with Iran. He sees the deal as a great “opportunity” that could lead to Iran becoming a “very successful regional power” and to the creation of a “new geopolitical equilibrium” in the region—one beneficial both to the United States and, he asserts, the region itself.
But somewhat inconveniently for his Camp David diplomacy, the President has also made it clear that he believes such a deal depends more or less entirely on his own views—not those of the U.S. Congress, and still less of other interested parties such as America’s traditional Middle East allies, like Israel and the GCC countries, who, after all, live closest to the consequences.
Still, Arab acquiescence at Camp David, the President realizes, would ease his chosen path. So far, our traditional allies have demurred, and early indications suggest the path to his desired outcome is steep.
While the President sees a bright day, our Arab allies fear that Obama’s proposed nuclear agreement is the harbinger of a dark night, or rather an even darker night than Iran has already brought. There may be little the Arabs can do to prevent an agreement. But they are not inclined to “go gentle” into it.
The President’s Middle East diplomacy whiffed first with Israel, leading to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s contentious address to Congress, amid much Administration sniping. Now offering the Arabs a turn in the Presidential sunshine, the President hoped at first to use a face-to-face meeting with Arab leaders to cajole—or at least pressure—them into lining up behind him. Of these, the Saudis are key; so Obama had also arranged for a more personal White House meeting with Saudi King Salman.
Salman initially accepted, but has now indicated he won’t be coming. This has widely been interpreted as a snub. Worse was to come—only two of the invited Arab leaders accepted in the end.
This is not altogether surprising. Reassuring the Saudis and others was always going to be a complicated and difficult sell. The President has long acknowledged the Iranians’ ongoing role in stoking the sectarian violence and terrorism that stem from a centuries-old Sunni-Shi‘a conflict. He claims American assurances and Iranian promises should help the Sunnis put their fears aside. So far, the Arabs aren’t buying either.
After all, no one has forgotten about Obama’s betrayal of his own “red lines” for action in Syria, widely understood in the region as both a retreat from a Presidential commitment and a concession to Iran. Not surprising, then, that the Arabs now want more from Obama than mere words. As Yousef al Otaiba, the UAE’s Ambassador to the United States, said, “I think we are looking for some form of security guarantee…. In the past, we have survived with a gentleman’s agreement with the United States about security. I think today, we need something in writing. We need something institutionalized.”
One wonders how the Arabs judge Obama’s chances of getting Congress to follow up on that guarantee. According to reports, what the President is prepared to offer is merely a letter. It is a proposal haunted by the President’s still earlier behavior—in 2009, he showed what such letters were worth when he tore up the one that President Bush had given to Israel in 2004.
Then, too, the Saudis likely wonder: just what practical measures is Obama offering to guarantee their security? When Obama describes a new equilibrium emerging in the region, he doesn’t specify what role the Saudis will have in it. Indeed, Obama proclaims the probable success of their hated enemies in Iran.
To Saudi ears, Obama speaks not as a long-term ally who will protect their interests because they are important to ours, but as a boxing-ring announcer who seems to favor the fighter in the black trunks. Iran, Obama seems to say, has the longer reach and a great punch, and it’s only to be expected that Tehran may gouge a few eyes and hit below the belt (a lot).
To add insult to injury, President Obama has been publicly insulting to his Arab invitees for over a year. He repeated these insults recently for good measure. Just a few months ago he dissed Middle East “governments that oftentimes are creaky, don’t serve their people, are repressive,” adding an even broader swipe against their culture: “you don’t have a civic tradition there.” Then he implied that our allies’ real problem was not Iran but “populations that, in some cases, are alienated, youth who are underemployed, an ideology that is destructive and nihilistic, and in some cases, just a belief that there are no legitimate political outlets for grievances.”
What was the President thinking, if his goal was to attract and reassure the Saudis and others that he holds them and their long-term interests in high regard?
But perhaps the President doesn’t feel a need to try especially hard. He understands the Arabs’ problems are great, and he may believe their cards are few. In the end, he may calculate, they will have to accept the Iranian deal, bargain for whatever American weapons they can, and fundamentally rely on us.
Perhaps, but for the present they are prepared to rage, giving little attention to Obama’s grand plans. As an Iranian proxy, the Houthis of Yemen, opened a new front on the Saudi border, the Saudis attacked with barely an hour’s notice to us. In Syria, after waiting years for American action, the Saudis are allegedly cooperating with Turkey in support of Assad’s opponents.
In short, the Saudis are confronting in a newly assertive and independent fashion what they, contra Obama, see as their primary problem: an aggressive Iran. Just how then is an American-Iranian nuclear agreement to produce the regional comity that Obama prophesies and on which he wants the Saudis to rely?
By traditional standards of American policy and diplomacy, the President’s policies would earn, at best, low marks. He has offended those he seeks to woo, and wooed those who repeatedly offend him and his would-be friends. But, convinced of his deeper insight into the region, he pushes awkwardly ahead.
Camp David will host a summit of sorts. There will be smiles, but not the kind that reach the eyes. There will likely be quiet American promises, but no quiet in the Sunni-Shi‘a fight. Any Arab blessings will be grudgingly given, and, however profound the President’s wishes, readily dishonored.
And if he indeed concludes some kind of “agreement” with Iran, Obama should expect less quiet still. The Saudis and others have already indicated that they will pursue nuclear programs of their own in the aftermath. That may ultimately lead to a very dark night indeed.