The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, like other countries, were not expecting the United States presidential election to usher in Donald Trump as the next President. We remember that iron-clad commitment of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, made in Riyadh, to trusted GCC allies. But the victory of Trump, with all the apprehension it warrants, constitutes a surprise for the region, considering Trump’s tough talk and bombastic threats and warnings, not to mention his twitter storms that keep raging with misplaced machismo.
The GCC leadership and public find Trump and the hawks in his administration, especially Secretary of Defence General James Mattis — a veteran who had served in our region and knows the region and Iran pretty well. The tough talks and warnings by Trump and his administration are seen as a welcome departure from the hands-off approach to regional politics and cozying up to Iran by the erstwhile administration of former US president Barack Obama — even looking the other way over Tehran’s meddling in the affairs of GCC and other Arab countries. What was unnerving was the Obama administration tolerating Iran’s unabashed and shameless bragging about ‘controlling’ four Arab capitals, spreading sectarianism in the name of fighting terrorism and Takfiris, including Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), which Obama’s Iran policy helped incubate. Iran’s pursuit to resurrect its empire, with Baghdad as its capital, under Obama’s acquiescence and watch, constitutes an existential threat to the Arab world’s well-being. No wonder nobody in our region misses Obama’s presidency, with the exception of Iran and its proxies who relished his stay in the White House.
Clearly, the Trump administration has inherited what he describes as Obama’s foreign policy “mess”. No wonder the so-called Obama doctrine caused much apprehension and contributed to the imbalance of power, which escalated the Cold War rivalry from the Arabian Gulf to the Mediterranean. On top of that, Iran and Daesh are fanning the flame of sectarianism, manifesting itself in the free-for-all killings and maimings in the name of Islam.
What the GCC states want from the Trump administration is for it go beyond rhetoric and reassure the bloc of the close bond and the strategic relationship between the two allies. Just as Trump has personally reassured Chinese President Xi Jinping that the US will remain committed to the “One China” policy, as has been the case, for over more than four decades.
It is true that Trump has spoken to most GCC leaders, in his early days in the White House, and has put “Iran on notice” and warned the Mullahs in Iran “Not to play with fire” — even slapping sanctions on individuals and entities related to Iran’s ballistic missiles and its terrorism-related activities, with US Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of Defence James Mattis citing Iran as the number one state-sponsor of terrorism. The Trump administration has also castigated Iran over its links with Al Houthi rebels in Yemen and the targeting of a Saudi Arabian frigate in the Red Sea last January. Washington has even deployed the USS Cole, a destroyer, to patrol the Red Sea as a confidence-building measure for US allies and to put Tehran and Al Houthis on notice.
Trump argued in his first speech before a joint session of the US Congress on February 28: “As promised, I directed the Department of Defence to develop a plan to demolish and destroy [Daesh] — a network of lawless savages. Trump Vows Teamwork with ‘Allies in the Muslim World’ to ‘Demolish and Destroy and eradicate [Daesh] ... the terrorist group that has slaughtered Muslims and Christians and men, women and children of all faiths and all beliefs. We will work with our allies, including our friends and allies in the Muslim world; to extinguish this vile enemy from our planet ...”
The new US position towards the region and GCC needs to be grounded in reality and a comprehensive plan of action is needed from the Trump administration to emphasise the mutual strategic partnership between the US and its Gulf allies. High-profile visits by the US secretaries of defence and state, along with the joint chiefs-of-staff and CIA director are in order. Continuing the annual Summit between the US president and the GCC heads of states, which was launched under Obama in 2015, has to be back on the agenda to discuss mutual goals and interests. And more importantly, to clarify the objectives of the Trump administration, as both the US Secretary of Defence, General James Mattis, and the US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, have done, with their maiden overseas visits in their new roles to Japan and South Korea and the European Union and Nato allies.
In addition, it is incumbent upon the US leadership to echo former secretary of state Hillary Clinton statement in March 2012 at the inaugural US-GCC Strategic Cooperation Forum (SCF), when she declared forcefully, in the inaugural session of the SCF, in Riyadh: “I underscore the rock-solid commitment of the United States to the people and nations of the Gulf. And I thank my colleagues for the GCC’s many positive contributions to regional and global security, particularly the GCC’s leadership in bringing about a peaceful transition within Yemen.”
Therefore, a more concrete and unwavering commitment must be articulated by the Trump administration towards the GCC partners after the bloc lost its trust in the Obama administration’s approach and strategy. If all the tough talk and rhetoric by the Trump administration does not translate into a comprehensive strategy to address the GCC states’ concerns, defeat Daesh and contain Iran, then America will squander yet another opportunity to win the trust of the Arab world. Worse still, a third Intifada (uprising) is lurking on the horizon as a consequence of the indifference towards the plight of Palestinians and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.
Given such a tenuous scenario, things can really spiral out of control and that is what the new dispensation in Washington ought to keep in mind.
Professor Abdullah AlShayji is a professor of Political Science and the former chairman of the Political Science Department, Kuwait University. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@docshayji.