For all the discussion surrounding the unpredictability of the new Trump administration, little has changed regarding Middle East policy to date. The articulated position of the United States toward the Middle East, and the Gulf in particular, has effectively regressed back to the stance prior to the incremental changes implemented by the previous administration. This is in spite of the fact that the Middle East has undergone some of the most drastic systemic changes since the First Gulf War, with the near-complete breakdown of the Mesopotamian-Levantine regional order and the emergence of Iran on the stage as a serious regional player with potentially hegemonic ambitions. Perhaps at no other point in time has U.S. Gulf policy been more due for a full examination to determine where the actual interests of the United States lie, and what commitments are necessary to guarantee them.
The Persian Gulf is a unique sphere in American foreign policy, with a relatively unchanging strategy of support for the Arab Gulf states since the Eisenhower administration and isolation of Iran since the Carter administration. Such continuity, across partisan lines, chronological periods, and fundamental alterations in the global balance of power is virtually unprecedented in American foreign policy. The Persian Gulf is one of only three regions identified to be of sufficient strategic importance to the United States to justify U.S. military expenditures under a minimalist offshore balancing strategy. The core regional interest of the United States is the maintenance of a stable oil price (and thus a stable global economy), which demands the free flow of energy through the Strait of Hormuz. Within the last two decades, the U.S. has been compelled to pursue counterterrorism as an additional national security interest, which the military bases in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are well placed to satisfy. However, U.S. national interests notably do not depend on the regional primacy of GCC countries and the promotion of their political projects.
President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia has been the clearest articulation of a Gulf policy from his administration to date. The president explicitly appeared to roll back any overtures from the previous administration to accommodating rising Iranian power on the opposite side of the Gulf, and returned the United States to the position of supporting historic partners, most notably Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the support has appeared to be even more enthusiastic than prior administrations’, with billions of dollars of military hardware sealing the rekindled relationship with Saudi Arabia. This has placed the United States squarely within the Saudi camp in the regional competition, limiting flexibility to engage with other Gulf states.
This was clearly a diplomatic coup for his hosts; the Saudis hold a clear affinity for a zero-sum conceptualization of regional politics. For them, any loss of influence on their part is inherently a boon for the Iranians, and vice versa. This dynamic has been apparent in the regional crises that have served as proxy indicators for the geopolitical clout of the two sides: Bahrain in 2011, as well as Syria and Yemen to the present day. As Iranian influence continues to permeate more countries, it is only natural that the Saudis perceive a threat. Yet, providing the Saudis carte blanche to pursue their own aims does not necessarily promote U.S. interests, as American and Saudi interests are not synonymous. Supporting a single bloc (or sub-bloc) of states in a region that has become increasingly polarized undermines the core U.S. interest of maintaining regional stability. Iran represents an indispensable partner for guaranteeing both the security of the Gulf as well as ameliorating the conflicts ravaging the wider Middle East. While engagement is undoubtedly fraught with difficulties, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action regarding the Iranian nuclear program indicated the potential for good-faith diplomacy to bear fruit.
Furthermore, the recent GCC crisis surrounding Qatar has dramatically underscored the fact that the new administration’s policy has failed to guide the GCC, let alone the entirety of the Gulf, on a path toward increased stability. Rather, by withdrawing conditionality of American support, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE have felt empowered to jeopardize the cohesiveness of the GCC as an organization for the purpose of achieving their own political goals. Thus, this policy reversion appears to have been counterproductive to the U.S. position in a relatively short period of time.
The United States need not be tied to the political agendas of the Arab Gulf states, which have become increasingly toxic to its own vital strategic concerns. A more nuanced approach is necessary, one that assures the GCC states of their external security while simultaneously providing Iran with the opportunity to positively participate in Gulf affairs, should it prove willing to make concessions. Only then will the Gulf reach a stable equilibrium in which U.S. interests are truly met. Injecting the United States further into a highly polarized environment in the absence of a necessitating rationale lacks merit and engenders further antipathy. As the strategic landscape changes both in the Gulf, the United States should not double down on a policy that remains stuck in a bygone era and renders it diplomatically hamstrung.
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Michael McCall is a graduate student in Political Studies at the American University of Beirut. He holds an MA in International Relations from Leiden University, and is an assistant editor for the Sociology of Islam Journal.