By Evelyn Gordon
One of the most disturbing of many disturbing developments in the Middle East recently is the growing fear among America's traditional Arab allies that Washington's support can no longer be relied on.
Whether this fear has any valid basis is irrelevant. Last month, for instance, Reuters reported on two different conspiracy theories that are gaining currency among the Gulf states' leadership: that America is plotting with the Muslim Brotherhood to replace existing Arab monarchies, and that it wants to create a Shi'ite-led government in Bahrain as a step toward rapprochement with Iran. Needless to say, both are nonsensical. But even if one deems the premise delusional, the consequences are very real - and highly detrimental to American interests.
America's Arab allies have always relied on a U.S. defense umbrella for protection against outside threats, from Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 to Iran today. In exchange, they keep oil markets relatively stable (Saudi Arabia, for instance, boosted oil production to compensate for the shortfall caused by sanctions on Iran), cooperate closely on counterterrorism activity against anti-American groups like al Qaeda (even as they remain largely responsible for financing the spread of the extremist Islamic ideology that fosters such terrorism), avoid destabilizing military activity, and occasionally support other American policy goals (for instance, Saudi Arabia's grand mufti publicly denounced the attacks on America's consulate in Benghazi and embassy in Cairo as un-Islamic).
But the moment they think this American defense umbrella can't be relied on, their willingness to support American interests will vanish. At that point, they will either begin cozying up to powerful neighbors like Iran, engage in military adventurism of their own, or start funding anti-American terrorist groups rather than fighting them.
As former Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Dr. Dore Gold noted recently, Qatar was a bellwether in this regard: According to senior Gulf state officials, the U.S. government's 2007 National Intelligence Estimate's finding that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 made Qatar doubt America's resolve to prevent Iran's nuclearization, so it began moving closer to Tehran. By 2010, it was openly planning joint military exercises with Iran, even while continuing to host America's main airbase in the region. Indeed, the shift was so marked that other Gulf States began excluding it from meetings called to discuss concerns about Iran. Only thanks to Syria's civil war did this trend reverse: As a Sunni state, Qatar couldn't risk appearing to countenance the Iranian-backed Assad regime's slaughter of the Sunni-led opposition.
Over the past two years, however, there have been worrying signs that other Arab countries are also beginning to disregard American concerns. Iraq, for instance, defied repeated U.S. demands to bar Iran from flying weapons to Syria through its airspace, even though America is its main arms supplier. Yet seen through the prism of fear, it could hardly do otherwise: Bordered by Iran and its powerful army, lacking even an air force of its own, it can't risk antagonizing Tehran if it isn't certain America will be there to protect it.
Perhaps the most noteworthy example was Saudi Arabia's decision to send troops into Bahrain last year without even warning Washington, thereby destroying America's hopes for a negotiated solution between Bahrain's Sunni government and the Shi'ite-led opposition. Saudi Arabia is not only one of America's closest Arab allies, it has traditionally been averse to employing military force outside its borders. Yet without confidence that Washington would keep the Iranian wolf from its door, Riyadh felt it had no choice. "We don't want Iran 14 miles off our coast, and that's not going to happen," a senior Saudi official bluntly told The Washington Post. Having lived with Iranian-backed militias on two of their borders for years, Israelis can sympathize.
So far, these are minor annoyances rather than major strategic setbacks. But if this trend continues, the costs are liable to escalate.
For all these states, as cables published by WikiLeaks in 2010 made clear, the make-or-break issue is Iran's nuclear program. Saudi Arabia urged the U.S. to attack Iran and "cut off the head of the snake." Abu Dhabi's crown prince warned, "[Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad is Hitler." King Hamad of Bahrain said Iran's nuclear program "must be stopped," because "the danger of letting it go on is greater than the danger of stopping it." Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri declared that the Iraq war "was unnecessary," but "Iran is necessary." A senior Jordanian official said that military action against Iran would be "catastrophic," but he "nonetheless thought preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons would pay enough dividends to make it worth the risks."
All these countries would be delighted if sanctions and diplomacy did the trick instead. But they want Iran's nuclear program stopped, whatever it takes - and they want to be convinced that America will see to it.
Clearly, America can't sacrifice its own strategic interests just to reassure its Arab allies on this point. For instance, many of these allies believe the Assad regime's downfall would deal Iran a major blow, so they want Washington to at least let them provide the Syrian opposition with heavier weapons (as their main arms supplier, America has an effective veto), and perhaps even impose a no-fly zone. But if Washington believes America's own strategic interests argue against these moves, it obviously can't acquiesce simply to convince its allies that it's serious about stopping Iran.
Yet since a bipartisan consensus in Washington holds that Iran's nuclear program must indeed be stopped, finding some way to convey the necessary reassurance without undermining American interests shouldn't be impossible. And doing so is vital.
Many Americans are understandably weary of American involvement in the Middle East, but the region is still too important to be ignored. Reassuring America's Arab allies should therefore be a priority for whoever wins next month's presidential election.
Evelyn Gordon, JINSA Fellow, is a journalist and commentator writing in The Jerusalem Post and Commentary. For more information on the JINSA Fellowship program, click here.