How much can the Gulf region rely on Washington?

The concept of a Middle East Strategic Alliance being explored by the Trump administration, is fine in theory but whether it will work in practice is open to question



By Arnab Neil Sengupta (Taking Stock)

Published: Thu 6 Dec 2018, 7:50 PM

Last updated: Thu 6 Dec 2018, 9:58 PM

These are not the best of times for Washington's longstanding allies in the Middle East. A new breed of American journalists who go out "looking for facts to fit the story" and Capitol Hill heavyweights who firmly believe "all politics is local" have closed ranks to take up the cudgels against allies and partners they perceive to be not on the same moral page.
The murder of a prominent journalist in Istanbul on October 2 has inadvertently served to bring into the open a one-sided elite-media offensive and created odd bedfellows out of Republican politicians and liberal political pundits. With those on the receiving end of the fire shocked by what they see as "frenzy" and "demonisation", President Donald Trump has tried to act in the best interests of all sides, using candid if inelegant prose.
However, Trump faces mounting problems of another kind, with his own erstwhile trusted campaign aides beginning to spill embarrassing secrets as they face heat from special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. There is only so much thrashing the president can cope with at a time.
To their credit, the US national security adviser, the secretary of state and the Pentagon chief have laid out compelling reasons for keeping US relations with Saudi Arabia on an even keel in contrast to the transactional rationale cited by the boss.
Learning from Trump's mistakes, they have wisely let differences among Washington's Gulf allies sort themselves out while staying focused on the challenges posed by the foreign entanglements of Russia, Iran and Turkey.
Together, John Bolton, Mike Pompeo and Jim Mattis have taken on the role of mature adults - coldly realist maybe but certainly level-headed - in a capital overflowing with media moralists and political poseurs who seem to have lost all sense of history and proportion in their eagerness to throw their weight around.
Against this backdrop, the passing away on November 30 of former president George HW Bush has served as a tragic reminder that the America of 2018 is not the same as the sole superpower of 1991, even though the current occupant of the White House has defied conventional wisdom to emerge as a strong defender of Washington's Gulf partners. With progressive groups pulling the Democratic Party in different directions and the Republican Party torn between two schools of conservatism, there is no guarantee how US foreign policy will look like even two years from now. It therefore makes sense for Washington's partners in the Middle East to invest more diplomatic and economic resources in diversification and self-reliance going forward.
Such a move will, of course, entail continued cooperation with Western powers for the latest civilian and military technologies, intelligence collection, and in matters of trade, economy, culture and education. But to expect political and media elites in Washington and London to give the benefit of the doubt to the West's allies and partners during disagreements or over all-too-human mistakes would be utterly fanciful.
Indeed, the chances of the US and its Nato allies doing effectively nothing in retaliation for the repeated use of chemical weapons by a regime against its own people are easily far higher today than those of their coming to the aid of their Arab or Kurdish partners in case of a major conflict.
Put bluntly, the sooner the images of Operation Desert Storm, waged by a US-led coalition of 35 countries in response to Iraq's 1990 invasion and annexation of Kuwait, fade from memory, the better for US partners and allies if they are to be psychologically prepared for the Middle East's new geopolitical realities.
The idea that Arab countries must choose between the US and Russia or China is a false dichotomy, of course. Just because parts of the foreign-policy and mainstream media establishments in the former have adopted a hostile attitude does not automatically make the latter more attractive allies. Key geostrategic decisions will still require to be taken and economic and security policies devised on the basis of self-interest, universal values and broad humanitarian principles.
By the same token, the concept of a Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) being explored by the Trump administration, is fine in theory but whether it will work in practice is open to question. Even if such an institution succeeds in developing a clear objective and an operational infrastructure, Washington's allies will have to be constantly on their guard against (not so) "friendly fire" for every real or imagined sin of omission and commission, on top of the usual threat of attacks by enemies closer to home.
America's demographic trends, shifting domestic political priorities and energy self-sufficiency all point to a testing time for relations between Arab Gulf oil producers and future US administrations. What's more, if recent history is any guide, the country's political pendulum looks set to swing between two opposite ideological poles every four or eight years.
Under the circumstances, US partners in general, and in the Middle East in particular, would be well advised to avoid giving by words or action any handle to those in Washington who show no goodwill where it is needed but are all too eager for grandstanding when it should be avoided.
Arnab Neil Sengupta is an independent journalist and commentator on Middle East


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