|No American can criticize Arab states without first acknowledging that the United States has made a host of mistakes of its own in dealing with nations like Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. The fact remains, however, that the word “Arab” has come to be a synonym for disunity, dysfunctional, and self-destructive. Regardless of issuing of one ambitious “Arab” plan for new coalitions after another, the reality is failed internal leadership and development, pointless feuding between Arab states, and an inability to cooperate and coordinate when common action is most needed.
The most immediate example is the series of efforts by Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE to isolate, embargo, and boycott Qatar. Some 100 days have passed since they issued some 13 broad, categorical, and poorly defined demands that Qatar change its behavior. These demands may or may not have been reduced to six equally badly phrased and vague statements, but this is unclear. There have been some faltering steps towards negotiation, and President Trump (after helping to trigger the embargo) has made a serious effort at mediation. So far, however, the crisis continues, along with references to “mad dogs” in the Arab League, and new sets of mutual accusations.
The end result has done little more than revive the long history of self-destructive divisiveness among the Arab states. Once again, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are bickering with Qatar. Egypt is putting repression and counterterrorism before stability and development. Bahrain is reviving its own tensions with Qatar while deepening its internal divisions between Sunni and Shi’ite. Qatar is turning to Iran, Oman, and Turkey. Oman is increasing ties to Iran, increasing its tensions with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and—at least to some extent—quietly allowing support to Saleh and the Houthi in Yemen to flow through Oman.
There has been some progress. Qatar has quietly taken steps to restrict the flow of private money to extremist organizations, the key problem that U.S. had with its behavior—although it should be noted that the U.S. Treasury and intelligence community had long made many of the same complaints about Kuwait’s tolerance of individuals and organizations that help fund extremism. Qatar has not publicly expressed any willingness to negotiate over Al Jazeera, its support of the Muslim Brotherhood, and its support for Hamas, but many Qataris privately seem willing to at least discuss the issues involved. Moreover, these are areas where a rigid unwillingness on the part of Qatar’s neighbors to liberalize regional media, and talk to the more moderate elements in Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, may well do more harm than good.
Qatar also, however, has shown only limited willingness to openly negotiate. Qatar joined Saudi Arabia in a pointless confrontation over who first agreed to negotiate in response to President Trump’s efforts to bring them together. Perhaps out of sheer necessity, Qatar seems to have concentrated more on being able to decouple from its economic and political links to Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, than on finding ways to negotiate a compromise.
In fairness, however, Qatar has had to focus on keeping its economy going, finding as many outside security guarantees as possible, and finding new air and shipping routes. Unfortunately for Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, it seems to have been so successful that the net effect of their boycott and embargo may well be to show Qatar it doesn’t urgently need them.
And this is the critical problem: Divisiveness has always proved easier to achieve than unity. The end result is that Arab world has developed its own peculiar approach to game theory. It seems to love playing games where every player loses regardless of who is playing and what moves they make: It is locked into what might be termed “N-player, constant common loss, games.”
Consider the history of Lebanon, Nasser’s near-constant history of major strategic mistakes, the failure to negotiate with Israel when the Arab world had the most leverage, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the failure to engage Iraq after it was all too clear the U.S. had no clear plan for the aftermath of its invasion, multi-state efforts to turn Assad’s failure to reform into an unstable civil war, the competition for influence in Libya, trying to deal with extremism through counterterrorism (and sometimes repression) rather than reform, and invading Yemen with no real plan and no real coalition.
This latest round offers Iran, Turkey, and the Hezbollah even more opportunity to exploit the divisions and fracture lines in the Arab world, and Iran’s many previous successes in exploiting Arab divisiveness have shown that it scarcely takes any form of Persian genius to exploit gratuitous Arab divisiveness and stupidity. Threatening and isolating Qatar is a gift no outside power can reject.
This version of the N-player, constant common loss game virtually paralyzes Arab coordination in trying to limit Iran’s influence in Lebanon, Syria, and Iran. It blocks any serious effort to deal with the GCC’s lack of effective, coordinated maritime and air defense, need for integrated theater missile defense, and need for a policy that both confronts Iran with the most effective possible series of deterrents and an incentive to Iran to pursue a more moderate course and concentrate on its development.
It further weakens Saudi Arabia’s ability to concentrate on its 2030 reform plan—the most important single step towards reform, stability, and real world counterterrorism in the region. It deflects attention from Egypt’s critical needs to focus on its people’s needs even more than internal security. It makes finding any way out of war in Yemen even more difficult, and blocks any cohesive Arab Gulf effort to help the other poorer and less stable states in the Arab world.
There is only so much the U.S. can do in the face of these decisions and divisions. President Trump, Secretary Tillerson, Secretary Mattis, and the National Security Advisor are all attempting to find some way to mediate and get Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE to negotiate with Qatar—concentrating—as they should on Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. They are making it clear that the United States has absolutely no reason to take sides in an “N-player, constant common loss, game.” They are showing that the U.S. can only take one side in this crisis—supporting necessary common measures to deter Iran, help fight extremism and terrorism, and build regional stability.
There are serious limits, however, to what the U.S. can do. The U.S. faces the same lack of magic wands that it faces in most crises involving its allies and strategic partners: the limits to its ability to exercise influence does not mean intervention is a better alternative. There may, however, be one step the U.S. can take that will have an impact. This crisis makes it even more important to eliminate the uncertainties in the U.S. strategic posture in the Gulf and the Middle East. This lack of clear, decisive commitment adds to the legacy of U.S. mistake in Iraq, the uncertainties as to what will happen in Syria and Iraq, and the impact of Russian and Iranian intervention.
This may well be the time for President Trump to clearly articulate that the U.S. will not leave the Middle East and the Gulf, and will provide lasting security guarantees to its Arab partners and Israel. It may be premature to talk about extended deterrence in any formal way, but it may well be time to lay the groundwork for a future guarantee if the JCPOA fails.
Guaranteeing aid against Iran and to all of the regional efforts to fight extremism and terrorism—and promising to provide a continuing train and advisory, naval, and air presence are all important reassurances after the uncertainties of the Obama Administration and the previous Presidential Campaign.
But, such guarantees should have two very important characteristics. First, it should be clear that they only apply if the Arab Gulf states cooperate and do not pose threats to each other. It should be made absolutely clear that the U.S. will not support any action by any Arab partner against another, nor support any Arab state that tolerates the support of extremism and terrorism.
Second, the U.S. should make it clear that it sees the civil side of counterterrorism and counter-extremism as being as important as the military security side. The U.S. should signal that it sees steps like the Saudi 2030 plan as far more important in the long run than Gulf arms buys, and that every security partner—particularly Egypt—needs to focus just as much—or more—on development and meeting its people’s needs. The best military-to-military relationship in the world is only half the story.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is a bipartisan, nonprofit organization founded in 1962 and headquartered in Washington, D.C. It seeks to advance global security and prosperity by providing strategic insights and policy solutions to decisionmakers.