America already is well into its next presidential campaign — almost two years before the election. This campaign already has one familiar characteristic: among a raft of candidates for the Republican nomination not one has a shred of foreign policy experience. Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, already has pronounced that foreign policy doesn’t require expertise, it requires a “leader.” Apparently it is irrelevant whether the leader has the faintest idea what he is doing. Jeb Bush spent a week demonstrating that even with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight he wasn’t sure whether he would have invaded Iraq as his brother did. There is nothing unusual about this. The last time either major part nominated a non-incumbent with real foreign policy credentials was George Bush (the elder) in 1988. In 2008, the Democrats ran a total foreign policy novice named Barack Obama. The previous successful Democratic candidate had been a small state (Arkansas) governor. What is unusual is the prospect that the Democrats in 2016 will nominate a candidate with deep knowledge in this area.
This is all by way of a stage set for what happened last week when President Obama met with six Arab leaders from the Persian Gulf at the presidential retreat of Camp David. The meeting and the circumstances that gave rise to it are a textbook example of how complex and demanding foreign policy routinely is.
The impetus for the Camp David gathering came from multiple forces at work simultaneously in the Middle East. They include the following:
* An increasingly intense and violent rivalry in the region along the historic and religious fault line dividing Sunni and Shiite forms of Islam. This rivalry has been exacerbated by the shifting fortunes of the two blocs — Shiite power rising in Iraq (thanks to the U.S. removal of a Sunni autocrat, Saddam Hussein) while Shiites are under mortal threat in Syria (as the Assad regime totters). It is further exacerbated by an ongoing proxy war in Yemen between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran.
* Iran’s determined effort to master nuclear energy and weapons technology. U.S.-led nuclear negotiations with Iran are seen in Sunni capitals as setting the stage for two fearsome outcomes: Iran will retain some nuclear capability and also will normalize its relations with America, thereby freeing up Tehran to expand its regional influence unobstructed by Washington.
* The “Arab Spring,” which toppled or threatened a number of Sunni regimes in the Middle East and deeply unsettled the traditional Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf led by Saudi Arabia.
* The rise of Sunni radical jihadist (Taliban, al-Qaida and ISIS), which has become another threat to the conservative kings and emirs of the Gulf.
* The Obama administration’s determination to extract the United States from Middle East wars and turn American attention toward Asia. This impulse is given further impetus by the utter exasperation in the White House with Netanyahu’s Israel. A decades-long lynchpin of U.S. policy — a durable Israeli-Palestinian peace — now is seen as a practical impossibility for the foreseeable future.
* The remarkable resurgence of U.S. oil output that has greatly reduced America’s strategic dependence on the one product the Persian Gulf produces.
All this has left the monarchies of the Gulf suddenly feeling very vulnerable. This in turn has generated a chorus of demands led by Saudi Arabia that the United States strengthen its long-standing support foir the security of the Gulf Arabs. More specifically, the Saudis wanted an iron-clad (“NATO-like”) commitment and an assurance that Iran would not be allowed to expand its influence.
The Obama administration simply could not give that kind of guarantee with its potential for endless entanglement in regional conflicts. So the White House tried to do the next best thing. It convened the meeting at Camp David where the President put his authority behind a joint statement that declared: “The United States policy to use all elements of power to secure our core interests in the Gulf region, and to deter and confront external aggression against our allies and partners, as we did in the Gulf War, is unequivocal.” The statement also indicated that Washington would ramp up existing programs of military cooperation in the Gulf including assistance with maritime security and defense against Iranian missiles.
If the White House expected that this would earn a ringing Arab endorsement of U.S. policy toward negotiations with Iran, it was disappointed. Riyadh already has signaled its doubts by deciding its delegation to Camp David would not be led by the king (as Washington had expected) but by the crown prince. The Saudi posture at Camp David regarding the Iranian nuclear negotiations was very much wait-and-see. The more ominous statement came from Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief, who was not at Camp David. He made it clear that the kingdom would carefully monitor Iran’s nuclear program and would match it — centrifuge for centrifuge. All of the Gulf states have the financial resources to, in effect, buy a nuclear weapons capability. The prospect of Qatar, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia as nuclear weapons states is hair-raising, to put it mildly.
The White House is trying to convince these states that its effort to reach an agreement with Iran is in the best interests of everyone — including the deeply suspicious Gulf Arabs. It is not an easy sell. But strutting into the room as a “leader” won’t cut it — not even close.