Americans haven’t been getting a lot of news about the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) “consultative” summit that took place last week in Saudi Arabia. But it presents a useful counterpoint to the news from this weekend that four of the six GCC heads of state will not be attending the upcoming summit hosted by Obama at Camp David.
The “consultative” summit is held at the deputy or cabinet level, and has not been opened to foreign dignitaries outside the GCC before. But in a break with that tradition, the summit on 5 May was attended by France’s President Francois Hollande – not just a high-ranking dignitary, but the French Republic’s head of state.
Given that the Saudis were hosting the consultative summit, it’s no surprise that King Salman made an appearance and delivered a speech. Nor is it surprising that Hollande, the other head of state present, was also invited to deliver a speech.
It may have been unprecedented that Hollande was at the summit in the first place, but that too is less than surprising in light of his concurrence with Saudi concerns about Iran. Among the leaders of the EU-3, Hollande has taken the hardest line on what would constitute an acceptable deal with Iran.
In fact, after the 5 May summit concluded, Hollande and Salman issued a joint statement expressing common concerns and requirements for any such deal:
After talks in Riyadh, Hollande and Saudi King Salman issued a joint statement, saying any nuclear deal with Iran must be “robust, lasting, verifiable, undisputed and binding.”
“The agreement must not destabilize the security and stability of the region nor threaten the security and stability of Iran’s neighbors,” the statement said. …
The statement also echoed concerns that lifting economic sanctions against Iran, and the prospective release to it of $150 billion in frozen overseas assets, would allow Iran to increase funding to its allies and proxies in the Middle East.
Hollande has backed the Saudis on Yemen – which the U.S. has also done, to some extent – and will be selling a lot more warships and planes to the GCC nations in the near future, along with other forms of defense and economic cooperation.
All of this may, on reflection, be comparatively unsurprising. But it is highly informative nevertheless, given that King Salman has now backed out of the summit with Obama, along with three other GCC heads of state. The contrast is pointed: there will therefore be no show of summit-level solidarity with Obama, and no joint statement like the one Salman issued a week ago with Francois Hollande.
Obama apologists are fooling themselves if they insist that this doesn’t matter. In international relations – and the security they’re supposed to promote – these are the things that do matter.
Of course, Salman is skipping Obama’s summit largely because of the Iran-nuclear issue. But it’s not just the nuclear issue. The problem is more basic. The Saudis, along with the other GCC nations and the rest of the Sunni Arabs, see Iran as a pervasive regional threat. The Obama administration doesn’t.
The McClatchy summary of the differences in perspective is pretty accurate:
Gulf Arabs have been perturbed by Obama’s statements in interviews published in early April, after a framework deal was reached with Iran, that have been largely interpreted in the region as signaling a reduced U.S. security commitment to the Gulf countries, a cornerstone of U.S. policy in the Middle East since Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait in 1990.
In the interviews, Obama said the U.S. would continue to protect Gulf Arab states from external aggression but would have a “difficult conversation” with its partners about the need to accommodate domestic political dissent, particularly from disenfranchised Shiite Muslim communities. Gulf monarchies often charge that Iran, which is a Shiite theocracy, has fomented unrest over Shiite populations.
At a certain point – and clearly, it’s been reached – Salman doesn’t intend to try to bridge this gap by accommodating the Obama administration. He’s not going to be a prop for Obama’s campaign to gloss over Iran’s regional aggression and get something – anything, no matter how bad – signed with Tehran.
It’s not just that there’s no point in Salman coming to the summit, when it offers no prospect of a meaningful joint statement, or even substantive concurrence on anything. Salman’s mere presence would send the wrong signal. Why should he sit still for being lectured by Obama about internal dissent, when Iran is, in fact, providing arms to Shia militias in his neighbors’ territories (in both Yemen and Iraq)?
The Emir of Bahrain, who backed out of Obama’s summit shortly after Salman did, would ask the same thing. Although there is legitimate Shia dissent in Bahrain, it’s also legitimately the case that Iran foments unrest there through Shia organizations.
The precedent-busting GCC visit of Francois Hollande is an indicator that the world is moving on from American leadership. The process has already started.
Never fear: neither France nor any other nation can do what American once did. But that only means that no one will be doing it. As I argued a month ago, the world is more wide open now – more vulnerable to predation, sudden moves, and chaos – than it has been in at least 600 years. The toothlessness of a UN without American leadership will shortly be evident to all. History will be digging deep in the coming days. And we can expect Obama to have more and more trouble getting people to attend his summits.