My case for a new approach to U.S. policy in the Gulf
On February 23, 2021, I spoke to the Council on Foreign Relations and made the case for a new approach to U.S. policy in the Gulf. We’ve followed the same script in the region for decades, but our policy toward the Gulf states no longer aligns with our interests and values. I hope you’ll take a minute to read the full text of the speech below.
There are probably a lot of legitimate reasons why the government of the United Arab Emirates would make a $180 million investment in a children’s hospital on the other side of the world. And, frankly, as hospitals across the country are facing financial challenges, Children’s National here in D.C. is really in no position to look too far into the rationale for such generosity. Maybe the investment was to serve the Emirati citizens who live in and around the capital. Maybe it was to create a partnership with a top pediatric hospital that could end up in better health care in the Emirates. But maybe, the reason doesn’t really matter. Maybe what actually matters is the fact that this $180 million investment was barely noticed because it is a drop in the bucket compared to the investments that Gulf states, like the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, make in American companies, American think tanks, and American philanthropies, in and around Washington, D.C.
Listen, we all know it. Much of this town runs on Gulf money. It’s an open secret. And I lead with this, not to shame individuals or institutions who are taking these investments, but to use this reality as a mechanism to frame the answer to the question that I want to ask today.
And the question is this: Why, after three decades of tumult and change in the Middle East — including the end of the Cold War, the end of American dependence on Gulf oil, the beginning of the Internet age, and the birth of modern terrorist networks — is our policy toward the Gulf virtually unmoved since 1980? Why are we still stuck in the Carter era, when nothing else in the world or the Middle East looks like it did forty years ago?
In his State of the Union speech in 1980, which came in the wake of the 1970s oil shocks, President Carter described in really grave terms the risk of losing access to Middle Eastern oil. He said: ‘Any attempt by an outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America,’ and he said that it would be repelled through American military force. That was of course the Carter Doctrine, and it’s remained a defining feature of U.S. policy towards the Middle East ever since.
And you can understand why Carter takes this line in 1980. Back then, the United States relied heavily on oil imports to power its economy, and of those oil imports which were the majority of our oil, 29 percent of those came from the Persian Gulf. And frankly, two decades later little had changed. By the turn of the millennia, in 2001, the United States was still importing 29 percent of its oil from the Gulf.
But it’s not 1980 anymore. It’s not 2001 anymore. Today, the United States produces as much oil as it gets from abroad, and of the portion that we get from abroad, only 13 percent of that comes from Gulf countries. The United States now imports, for instance, more oil from Mexico than we do from Saudi Arabia.
And that’s not all that’s changed. Twenty years ago, America was attacked by a group of extremists fueled by a corruption of Islam, enabled by an intolerant, conservative brand of the religion, funded by and through the Gulf.
The weapons we sell to the Gulf used to be, for all intents and purposes, I mean, really museum pieces. They were used to build clout and influence, but they were rarely actually used. Not anymore. The weapons we send to the Gulf are now used to bomb civilians in places like Yemen or transferred to extremist militia groups.
And proxy wars have exploded all over the region, pitting Iran against the Gulf, or the Gulf against Turkey, or sometimes even the Gulf against itself.
So much has changed, except for our policy toward the region.
So let me pause here and state for the record that I believe in a strong U.S. relationship with Gulf nations. And also let me acknowledge that there’s a lot of risk in making generalizations that sort of lump together countries that make up the GCC. They are all different; the United States has different bilateral relationships with each, different interests with respect to each nation.
And let me also make clear that there is a lot of good that comes from the Gulf. Just to give you a few examples. Bahrain and the UAE’s decision to establish formal ties to Israel is a clear sign of the positive influence these countries can exert. Kuwait and Oman play a powerful role in mediating regional conflicts. Gulf countries have been generous donors to UN humanitarian aid appeals. The United States’ counterterrorism partnerships, they are flawed but they are real — they are still crucial as these governments often have information that we can’t glean ourselves. And we’re always broadening our people-to-people ties. You know, for instance, we have got tens of thousands of students from the Gulf that study at U.S. colleges and universities.
So let me be clear — what I am proposing is that our policy just catch up with times, not that we pull away from the Gulf. No, what I want is a more substantive and stable link between the United States and the GCC that actually aligns with the interests of both partners.
Because, right now our relationship is mutually destructive. There is, I would argue, a kind of central design flaw in the United States’ current approach to the Gulf. Think of it this way: the two top GCC priorities for the relationship — one, sustaining U.S. military assistance to fight these regional proxy wars and two, maintaining U.S. silence on Gulf domestic political repression — will, in the long run, collapse the region into inter-regime and intra-regime conflict. And that’s bad for everybody.
So the first step here, I think, is for the United States to disengage from the GCC’s proxy wars with Iran. Now, the Iranian government is our adversary, but the festering series of hot and cold conflicts in the region — we’ll talk about Yemen and Iraq and Lebanon and Syria — they have simply served to strengthen Iran’s influence in the region. They have created just catastrophic levels of human suffering throughout the region. A pullback from U.S. intervention in places like Syria and Yemen, there’s no doubt that’s gonna cause a lot of commotion and consternation in the Gulf. But by now the enormous costs of this false belief that the United States military can change political realities on the ground in the region, it should be pretty clear. Because the most significant effect of recent U.S. Middle East military adventurism has been to fuel perpetual wars that allow extremist groups and anti-American sentiment to just grow and grow and grow.
Second, I think it’s time for us to challenge this belief, which is kind of, just baked into the DNA of the foreign policy consensus in Washington today, that the U.S. can’t defend our interests in the Gulf without massive bases scattered throughout the region. Let’s just remember that before the Gulf War, the United States was able to protect its interests in the region without billion-dollar bases in Bahrain, or Kuwait, in Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, and without billions in annual arms sales to these same nations. It’s crazy how Washington acts like this massive military presence is now mandatory, even though it didn’t exist until the creation of the post-9/11 security state. And U.S. bases are costly — not just in monetary terms. Sure, they draw focus away from important other theaters like Asia and Africa. But they also create a lot of pressure on the United States to ignore serious human rights abuses by our hosts, and they stand out as military targets and propaganda targets for Iran, Al Qaeda, and ISIS and other extremists organizations.
Finally, let me talk about our other military partnerships: we should continue to sell military equipment to our partners in the Gulf, but we should make sure that these really are truly defensive arms. Today, too many of our weapons are used irresponsibly, sometimes in violation of international law. Other sales, such as the recently announced Reaper armed drone sales to UAE, they are just likely to fuel a regional arms race that runs counter to our national security interests. Now, we should be willing to maybe increase the level of truly defensive arms that we’re willing to provide, like the THAAD missile-defense technology system, but we should make sure that what we’re selling is truly defensive.
Now, I understand that if Washington does all these things, Saudi Arabia and the UAE predominantly are gonna complain that the United States is abandoning them and empowering Iran. And the Biden administration’s task and Congress’s task will be to convince our Gulf partners that there is an alternative to this never-ending military contest and political contest with Tehran. A regional security dialogue that includes all parties can replace this arms race and this set of proxy wars. I know this may sound like utopian fantasy, but I don’t think it is. I see the early shoots of this dialogue that have been showing for years. I think Yemen can be a testing ground for this concept, but only if U.S. leadership is willing to create a structure for détente. And although the United States, we shouldn’t give the UAE or Saudis veto power over whether or not we get back into the JCPOA, if we’re in this regional dialogue, it binds the Gulf countries closer to all of the decisions the United States makes and would give GCC countries a lot more input on our policy in the region. And here’s how I think we need to talk about this.
We need to make clear that de-escalation with Iran should be really appealing to Gulf nations. The moral and the financial cost of these wars is huge. The future is not going to run on oil. Declining petro revenues means that Gulf nations are soon going to need to make some hard choices between investing in domestic, economic reforms or in fighting wars in foreign countries. Constant conflict is gonna be unaffordable pretty soon.
And here is where human rights comes into the conversation. The massive wake of Donald Trump and January 6th makes it clear that the United States is going to have some difficult work ahead of us to rebuild our global brand. But there’s no way that happens without ending Washington’s hear-no-evil, see-no-evil approach in the Gulf.
But like with regional de-escalation, the Gulf should see the merits of political reform. If the Gulf really wants to attract international investment, which leaders like Mohammed bin Salman talk about constantly, it’s got to address the ongoing brutal crackdown on political dissent and a lack of rule of law. Outside investors are just never going to make a big play in the Gulf while political space is so limited. And the longstanding social bargain in places like Saudi Arabia of ‘no taxation, but no representation either’ — I just don’t think it can last. As population growth outstrips oil revenues, royal families are not gonna be able to afford that payoff. Once subsidies go down but repression remains, a disastrous storm of unrest is going to brew there.
So listen, I’ve been arguing for years that U.S. foreign policy has become really dangerously anachronistic. I sort of think of it as an instrument that’s tuned to play a song that the orchestra no longer performs. And I make that critique very broadly, and I’m making the case to develop a new foreign policy toolkit to meet the actual challenges that confront the United States today. But U.S. policy is maybe most dangerously out of tune in the Gulf, and President Biden and his team have a chance to change this, but only if they and we in Congress are willing to step outside this forty-year-old policy sclerosis toward the Middle East, and start asking some really, really hard questions about whether our policy is actually aligned at all with our interests and the interests of our partners in the region anymore.