THIS YEAR, the partnership between the United States and the oil-rich Arab monarchies of the Gulf celebrates its seventy-fifth anniversary. Launched in a secret meeting between American president Franklin D. Roosevelt and Saudi king Abdulaziz Ibn Saud aboard the USS Quincy on February 14, 1945, this relationship is one of the oldest in the world. In an ever-changing international system where friends often turn into foes and vice versa, this is a remarkable achievement. Even full-fledged military alliances, which typically include collective defense commitments where all members pledge to each other’s defense against external threats, have an average age of fifteen years.
The partnership has endured because it is based on political-strategic understandings (even if some are secret and/or informal), shared security interests, and strong economic ties. It is supported by a large and lasting U.S. military presence on Gulf territory meant to offer protection, and by the regular transfer by Washington of modern and lethal arms to Gulf governments, the size of which is unmatched among any other set of allies and partners in the world. It has survived several crises in its lifetime, the most critical of which is 9/11.
Yet for all its resilience, the U.S.-Gulf partnership has underperformed since the second term of the George W. Bush presidency in the critical area of security coordination. During three major crises, each happening under a different U.S. administration, the partnership failed to effectively address the security concerns of the Gulf states. While no partnership is perfect, such major and persistent breakdowns in coordination among longstanding security partners are uncommon, and can be deadly if left unresolved.
U.S. domestic politics, shifting American strategic priorities, policy divergences, the nonexistence of a formal U.S. security commitment, and operational considerations all played a role. But on their own, they cannot fully explain why security problems in the partnership have persisted for over a decade. There is another important but overlooked factor: the lack of institutionalization of the partnership, characterized by the absence of norms, mechanisms, and procedures for consultation between Washington and Gulf capitals on vital matters of national security. This normative and bureaucratic deficit is old, and it has contributed to the fraying of the U.S.-Gulf partnership.
IN 2002, President George W. Bush was consumed with preparations for war against Iraq. When he learned during that summer that Iran had been building a clandestine nuclear program, he didn’t have the bandwidth to go after Tehran and instead had to settle for economic sanctions against its regime.
Even though Bush remained opposed to an attack against Iran throughout his time in office, he became more open to the idea in his second term, in part due to pressure by Israel and senior members of his own cabinet, led by anti-Iran hawks Vice President Dick Cheney and Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs John Bolton. In his memoirs, Bush admits that he, “directed the Pentagon to study what would be necessary for a strike.” “This would be,” he added, “to stop the bomb clock, at least temporarily.” Yet at no point during that tense period did the Bush administration consult with Gulf partners and jointly prepare for war and the day after.
Most diplomatically active among the Gulf states at the time were the Emiratis, who were shuttling nonstop between Washington, London, and Brussels, desperately trying to obtain information that could help them interpret Washington’s intentions vis-à-vis Iran. All of the Gulf states, especially the smaller ones that lack strategic depth, are vulnerable to missile attacks by Iran—the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ suspected assault on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities on September 14, 2019 is the latest proof of that. As such, any extensive military exchange between the United States and Iran in the region would constitute an existential threat to them should Iran attack them in retaliation, like Saddam Hussein did against Israel and Saudi Arabia during the 1990–91 Gulf War.
Yet despite repeated attempts by Gulf leaders to seek greater transparency from and work together with the Bush administration, U.S. officials kept their Iran cards very close to their chest, which resulted in a crisis of trust in the partnership and fears in the Gulf of a war for which they were ill-prepared.
Those concerns continued during the Obama presidency. Not only did Israel threaten to act alone against Iran, but also its decisionmakers, led by Likud party chief and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, lobbied Washington hard to bomb Iran. Nevertheless, determined to pursue an entirely different approach toward Tehran that favored negotiations and a broader rapprochement with its leadership, Obama resisted all Israeli pressure tactics and rebuffed their demands for U.S. military action. Obama’s diplomatic initiative, coordinated with European allies, culminated in 2015 in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—his signature foreign policy achievement.
OBAMA CAME to office with a fundamentally different worldview from Bush, eager to reengage with the world and put an end to his predecessor’s preventive war doctrine and penchant for unilateralism. In the Middle East, Obama sought “a new beginning,” as he described it in his speech in Cairo on June 4, 2009—one based on “mutual interest and mutual respect.” His offer of historic reconciliation wasn’t limited to old Arab and Muslim friends; it extended to longtime adversaries, including Iran.
It was shortly after he was elected president in November 2008 that Obama decided to pursue a path of dialogue with the Iranians. He had a meeting with his most senior intelligence advisors in which they briefed him, among other things, about the status of Iran’s nuclear program, predicting that Tehran would obtain and test a nuclear device in the period between 2010 and 2015. A few days later, as author Bob Woodward recounts in his book Obama’s Wars, Obama confirmed to Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, his intention to engage with Iran.
Years of intense diplomatic talks between American and Iranian officials ultimately led to an agreement, endorsed by Russia, Germany, China, France, and the United Kingdom, to restrict Iran’s nuclear program and put in place robust monitoring mechanisms to make sure Tehran wouldn’t cheat and race to the bomb. The accord was considered a diplomatic success, having removed the specter of war. But it was limited: it contained Iran’s nuclear program, though it didn’t eliminate it. The JCPOA’s imposed restrictions were also set to expire a few years later, some as early as 2025, prompting critics to argue that the deal provided Iran with a patient pathway to possibly acquiring nuclear weapons.
For the Gulf states, the problem was not that the American and Iranian sides reached a deal. Rather, it was the fact that Washington had often secretly negotiated with Tehran likely without ever consulting with them. Washington periodically briefed Gulf officials about the status of the nuclear talks, but never coordinated with them or sought their input. That the Gulf states learned after the deal was signed that it didn’t even address their number-one concern—Iran’s expansionist and sectarian drive in the region—made things worse.
A deal of such colossal significance naturally had strategic implications for the security interests of the Gulf states and all other U.S. partners in the region. And yet, Obama decided to hold the talks with Iran in confidentiality and limit them strictly to the nuclear issue.
Obama tried to repair relations with the Gulf states by holding a summit in Camp David in May 2015 and attending another in Riyadh in April 2016. But the wounds were too deep and the trust was effectively broken. It didn’t help that Obama, throughout his presidency, berated the Gulf states for their zero-sum approach toward Iran and lack of societal reform—comments which Iran often exploited. The Gulf states were taken aback by Obama’s general aloofness. They also were flabbergasted by his tolerance of Iran’s aggression in the region and impatience for their complaints about Tehran’s behavior. Nevertheless, they believed they could manage all that. But what they couldn’t understand nor stomach was how their supposedly closest and oldest partner in the world could tilt toward their top adversary and negotiate away their future while keeping them in the dark.
IF BUSH’S consideration of bombing Iran in his second term and Obama’s nuclear deal with Tehran were problematic for the Gulf states, President Donald Trump’s targeted killing on January 4, 2020, of Qassem Soleimani—Tehran’s de facto viceroy in the region and perhaps the second most important Iranian official after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei—was even more alarming.
To be sure, Gulf leaders will not miss or shed tears over Soleimani. No one had caused more angst and harm to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain—the trio of Gulf Cooperation Council states who largely see eye-to-eye on matters pertaining to Iran—than the powerful general. It is probably the Bahrainis who are most pleased to see him gone, given his role in coordinating a network of radical Bahraini militants on the island-nation and masterminding a wave of domestic terrorism against the government since 2011.
But there are real fears of blowback in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Manama—which explains why the Gulf states didn’t publicly celebrate Soleimani’s death and even tried to calm tensions through official statements calling for “wisdom and political solutions” and restraint to prevent the “unbearable consequences” of further escalation. Shortly after Tehran retaliated on January 8, 2020, by firing missiles against American troops in Iraq, Iran’s leadership threatened to strike the Emiratis (and the Israelis) if the Americans responded. That Trump opted to hold fire and declare, “All is well!” allowed Gulf leaders to breathe a huge sigh of relief.
But this halt in violence between Iran and the United States might be temporary. With the two countries seemingly on a collision course, it might be only a matter of time before another military crisis erupts and shots are fired. Whenever that happens, it is likely, if the latest action-reaction cycle by Washington and Tehran is any indication, that a serious conflict would occur in the region. That scenario is precisely what the states in the region dread the most, though it is the most probable for two reasons. First, Iran much prefers to avoid a large-scale military conflict with the United States, given the massive disparity in conventional firepower favoring the American side. Therefore, Iran will probably continue to challenge U.S. interests indirectly and go after Washington’s more vulnerable regional partners as it has done for years and especially in recent months. Second, Trump could not have telegraphed more clearly and repeatedly his intentions toward Iran (although those could always change): he will only use force against Iran if American lives are lost or perceived to be at serious risk. It’s worth recalling that it was shortly after Iran’s Iraqi allies killed an American contractor on December 27, 2019 and tried to storm the U.S. embassy in Baghdad that Trump decided to act and approve the hit against Soleimani.
But as worried as the Gulf states are about the aftermath of Soleimani’s death, they also are furious with Washington because they found themselves in an all-too-familiar position: not being consulted about an American decision that could have gone terribly wrong. The New York Times reported that “Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler [Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman], was so alarmed [about the strike] he dispatched his brother to Washington for a meeting with [Trump].” Once again, the Gulf states were kept in the dark, along with European allies, about monumental U.S. plans.
WHAT EXPLAINS Washington’s failure to coordinate with its Gulf partners during these three major security crises and possibly others? That these happened under three different administrations suggests that this is more of a trend, and one that has gotten worse over time. Some of the more obvious factors that have contributed to this include U.S. domestic politics, evolving American priorities, policy differences, the absence of a defense pact between Washington and the Gulf states, and operational considerations.
Until 9/11, America’s relations with the Gulf states did not elicit much concern among the American people, with a couple of notable exceptions: in June 1967, when Saudi Arabia (along with Kuwait, Iraq, Libya, and Algeria) banned oil shipments to the United States in response to its backing of Israel’s war that same summer against Egypt, Jordan, and Syria; then again in 1973, when Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries imposed an oil embargo against the United States in retaliation for its military support of Israel’s Yom Kippur War; and in 1990–91, when the United States expelled Saddam’s forces from Kuwait and defended Saudi Arabia. If the United States could maintain a steady stream of oil imports from the Gulf and Americans could fuel their cars cheaply, the U.S.-Gulf partnership was not a topic of discussion outside the nation’s capital. But after 9/11, the American public’s interest in the Gulf states, and particularly the Saudis, changed dramatically. That many of the new U.S. perspectives were ignorant and Islamophobic—lumping all Middle Easterners and Muslims in one basket—didn’t matter and couldn’t alter the reality that U.S.-Gulf relations would never be the same.
These negative public attitudes would worsen over time, forcing U.S. officials and lawmakers to take note. In February 2020, a Gallup poll found that 65 percent of Americans held an unfavorable opinion of Saudi Arabia. Crown Prince Mohammed didn’t do U.S.-Saudi relations or his country any favors by causing a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen; blockading Qatar, a country in which the United States has the biggest military base in the Middle East; and allegedly ordering the grisly murder of Saudi national and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey. These domestic views would ultimately find expression in Congress, whose members, from both parties, have sought on multiple occasions to sanction Saudi Arabia and forbid the U.S. government from selling it weapons.
This increasingly toxic domestic context has led American decisionmakers and public elites, either consciously or subconsciously, to create some distance from the Gulf states. Contrast this with the case of Israel, for example. Given how deeply rooted America’s relationship with Israel is and how popular it has been consistently among the majority of the American people, U.S. officials have treated that relationship with the utmost care and urgency, which helps to explain why security coordination between the American and Israeli governments has generally been strong.
Beyond domestic politics, the United States, at least since the Obama administration, has sought to reduce its military involvement in the Middle East (although regional circumstances have yet to permit that goal). The Trump administration has effectively deprioritized counterterrorism and elevated the objective of competing with China and Russia on the global stage. While Washington’s precise strategy is still a work in progress, the new emphasis on great power competition rests on a remarkably firm bipartisan political consensus. Likewise, it is informed by a lasting mood among most Americans to withdraw U.S. troops from the Middle East.
America’s much-reduced reliance on Middle Eastern oil due to a revolution in domestic production and Saudi Arabia’s latest oil price war with Russia are two other significant factors. On April 2, prompted by a half-dozen Republican senators, Trump threatened to pull out all American soldiers and equipment stationed on Saudi oil (after removing earlier two Patriot missile batteries guarding Saudi facilities) if Crown Prince Mohammed didn’t stop waging “economic warfare” on the United States by massively increasing oil output. The Saudis committed to rebalancing the oil markets, but their priority of market share increase at the expense of U.S. producers will continue to be a point of serious contention in the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
Yet even if the domestic and strategic environments in the United States were more conducive, the United States had significant disagreements over policy with its Gulf partners during the previously mentioned crises, which might provide clues as to why security coordination fell through the cracks. Bush had a good personal relationship with then Saudi king Abdullah, but dismissed the latter’s advice to avoid war with Iraq and focus instead on Iran, which the Saudi monarch described as a snake whose head had to be cut off, according to leaked diplomatic cables.
Obama believed that relations between Iran and the Gulf states have been strained for so long in part because some Gulf states are internally repressive toward their Shia communities and unwilling to “share the neighborhood” with Iran, as he told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. The immediate U.S. national interest, as Obama saw it, demanded that he address first and foremost the challenge of a nuclear Iran. If Tehran were to acquire nuclear-tipped missiles that could reach the U.S. homeland, which currently it doesn’t have, it would represent a clear and present danger. The Gulf states’ immediate concerns, however, were and remain Iran’s hostility in the region. That threat perceptions and priorities regarding Iran differed, and that the two sides clashed over the meaning of and responses to the 2011 Arab uprisings, might explain why Obama didn’t keep his Gulf partners in the loop on strategic regional affairs.
Trump has been both a blessing and a curse for the Gulf states. Unlike Obama’s, his administration shares the same diagnosis of the Iran challenge and sees it in its totality—including Tehran’s nuclear aspirations, ballistic missile development, and political violence across the region. Trump’s policy, however, leaves much to be desired. While the Saudis, Emiratis and Bahrainis couldn’t be more pleased with Trump’s relentless campaign to shut down Iran’s economy to prevent its Revolutionary Guards from funding their proxy networks and sowing further chaos in the region, they have serious qualms about Trump’s sporadic and incoherent overtures toward Tehran that oftentimes omit Gulf security interests. One day he threatens to obliterate Iran and its cultural sites, the next he promises it prosperity and membership in the community of nations.
Even when Trump addresses Gulf leaders, he swings from deference and admiration to neglect and disparagement. For instance, on September 15, 2019, shortly after Iran’s attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure, Trump said that the United States was ready to respond but “[is] waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!” This prompted fury in Washington and accusations by Democrats of the president placing the security interests of Saudi Arabia above those of the United States. A couple of months earlier, Trump gave a strong endorsement of Crown Prince Mohammed, calling him “a friend of mine” and saying he’s done “a spectacular job,” despite the young leader’s reckless behavior at home and abroad.
But it was not too long before that, in October 2018, when Trump mentioned in a public speech in Mississippi that Saudi king Salman wouldn’t last “two weeks” in power without U.S. military support. Adding to the list of insults are the numerous instances when Trump publicly boasted of his exploitation of Saudi wealth. On one occasion, he held up charts next to Crown Prince Mohammed in a meeting in the Oval Office, showing Saudi purchases of U.S. military equipment, which must have offended or embarrassed his Saudi guest.
With Trump, the Gulf states tend to get lost between these two extremes, often left wondering what the American president’s real views and intentions are. Could he also dump them for a new and not necessarily better deal with Iran? The day after he approved the strike against Soleimani, Trump gave a speech that was music to the ears of his Gulf partners. He said that “the Iranian regime’s aggression in the region, including the use of proxy fighters to destabilize its neighbors, must end, and it must end now.” But if Iran avoids killing more Americans, to what extent can the Gulf states rely on Trump to protect them? If recent U.S. actions are any indication, the answer is not very much. This reality is not lost on the Gulf states.
That Trump’s casus belli is U.S.-centric is not necessarily unique to his administration, however. Even though the U.S.-Gulf partnership is old, it has never been clear if, when, and how Washington would intervene militarily to protect its Gulf partners from danger. Indeed, there’s nothing formal linking the United States to these countries since no defense pact à la NATO exists among them (and even if there were, it still wouldn’t guarantee U.S. military action).
Every American president since Franklin Roosevelt has committed to ensuring the safety and security of the Gulf states given the impact of their massive oil and gas reserves on the international energy market. Even Obama, who lacked any affinity with them, affirmed that “the policy of the United States is to use all elements of our power to secure our core interests in the Gulf region, and to deter and confront external aggression against our allies and our partners.” When Iraq invaded Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia in 1991, Washington assembled the most powerful coalition in history to evict Saddam’s army and protect the House of Saud.
But when Iran, for example, allegedly blew up the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in a terrorist attack in June 1996, killing nineteen U.S. Air Force personnel and injuring five hundred others, President Bill Clinton came close to retaliating but ultimately pursued a diplomatic rapprochement. In 2011, when it became evident that Iran was supplying arms and money to local saboteurs in Bahrain’s popular uprising, thus risking the stability of the Al Khalifa monarchy and the security of the Saudis next door, Obama didn’t lift a finger. In September 2019, after Iran attacked two of Saudi Arabia’s oil installations with eighteen drones and three cruise missiles, Trump did nothing, shocking the world and especially the Saudis over the lack of U.S. response.
These examples and many others suggest that there is nothing automatic or predictable about America’s approach toward the security of its Gulf partners. Each era in U.S. foreign policy is obviously different, and each administration, while all committed to the U.S. national interest above all else, had different threat perceptions, policies, priorities, and ways to balance risk and reward. But what makes Trump’s approach exceptional, and possibly dangerous, is not that he absorbed Iran’s brazen and unprecedented assault against Saudi Arabia last fall and many other belligerent acts in the waters of the Gulf—Obama could have done the same—but that he has publicly and repeatedly communicated to the adversary what, precisely, would trigger a U.S. military response, leaving no doubt in Tehran’s mind what is and is not permissible. It is this Iranian doubt about U.S. intentions, however, that serves U.S. deterrence and is often the difference between war and peace.
Last but not least, there could be practical reasons why Washington opted not to coordinate and divulge sensitive information to its Gulf partners during these three crises, although these might be compounded by policy divergences between the two sides. When it comes to high-level negotiations or military operations against high-value targets, it is always of utmost importance to maintain diplomatic and operational secrecy to reduce the chances of leaks and thus increase the chances of success. Washington might have determined that its Gulf partners would have been unable to protect secrets, or worse, they would have deliberately shared them with friends and possibly even with Iran for no other purpose but to help prevent war and more generally safeguard their own security interests.
THERE IS something more straightforward, though no less consequential, that has ailed the U.S.-Gulf partnership for a long time and might help explain the lack of security coordination during critical junctures. The partnership is not supported by institutions, thus denying U.S. and Gulf officials at both higher and lower levels the opportunity to more effectively consult on strategic matters. Personal ties between American presidents and Gulf monarchs have been the primary driver of the partnership. These are immensely valuable, but are hardly sufficient.
This bureaucratic factor should neither be overstated nor written off. The mere existence of such consultative mechanisms does not guarantee better coordination. It all starts with willingness—and if either side seems averse, for whatever reason, it simply won’t work. Additionally, the problems between the two sides might be too large for any institutional apparatus to fix. That said, if these wide-ranging channels of communication do not exist, the parties will have a much harder time managing their differences and finding common ground.
Institutions, be they national or international, can be defined as “persistent and connected sets of rules (formal and informal) that prescribe behavioral roles, constrain activity, and shape expectations.” They provide a platform where officials can regularly interact, and through a process of continuous socialization, shape each other’s views and preferences in ways that could strengthen the sense of common purpose and prevent problems from emerging in the first place. NATO is an excellent example of an alliance that has various norms, arrangements, and committees that enable a “habit for consultation” to “reach as wide an area of agreement as possible in the formulation of policies.” Co-determination of policies, made possible by frequent consultation, is what NATO members often preach and enjoy. It’s certainly not perfect, and America’s 2003 Iraq War and killing of Soleimani are two examples of the failure of the consultative process in the transatlantic alliance. But more often than not, NATO’s institutions have been instrumental to its success.
It’s not as if the Gulf states have no joint committees whatsoever with the United States to consult on policy issues. It’s that these are too few, too weak, and informal. The Trump administration’s own attempt at institutionalizing the U.S.-Gulf partnership is the Middle East Strategic Alliance, or MESA. Created in May 2017, it seeks to collectively counter Iran and other regional threats, though all parties to MESA insist that this is not an anti-Iran initiative. MESA has security, political, and economic/energy pillars and joint committees to tackle various challenges, including maritime security, air and missile defense integration, and violent extremism. Under the Obama administration, American and Gulf officials had joint committees on similar topics as well, all created following the summits of Camp David and Riyadh.
That these mechanisms operated under conditions of mistrust (with Obama) and uncertainty (with Trump) at the top level certainly undermined their usefulness. In addition, the Gulf states are anything but united, which limits effective consultation and collective action both amongst themselves and with the United States. But especially damaging is the fact that none of these committees has been formalized or empowered. Top American and Gulf leaders are alone in discussing major issues in summits (much to the chagrin of the American side). Institutions are not just about norms and meeting rooms: they’re about people, and if they’re not empowered to decide and negotiate, it won’t make a difference.
On a bilateral level, which is the preferred way of the Gulf states of doing business with Washington, the record of institutionalization is slightly better but still lacking. For example, the U.S.-Saudi relationship, considered the most important and influential among the Gulf states, has a noticeable institutional deficit. There are several organizations—including the United States Military Training Mission to Saudi Arabia, the U.S. Army Office of the Program Manager–Saudi Arabian National Guard, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Saudi Arabia—that address defense and security matters, but only tactically.
U.S. Central Command also has its own mechanisms of training and cooperation with the Saudi military. But Riyadh and Washington, amazingly, have not had a regular, high-level forum that discusses strategic issues since the G.W. Bush administration due to political turbulence in the relationship. Some of the other Gulf partners, including Qatar and the UAE, do. But these do not get into much necessary policy detail, or have sub-committees that allow its working-level members, at least on the Gulf side, to do just that. Capacity is another huge obstacle in the Gulf. Even if Gulf leaders are able to truly delegate power and permit their lower-level staff to act with a higher degree of authority and flexibility and form institutional bonds with their American counterparts, there simply aren’t enough diplomats, officers, and advisors in their foreign and defense ministries—and even fewer ones who are competent.
MANY INSIST that had Bush been president during the nuclear talks with Iran and were the one to conclude a deal, he would have picked up the phone and called the Saudis well in advance to address their security concerns. Given Bush’s affection toward King Abdullah and sensitivity to his country’s interests, that is entirely possible.
Critics of the institutionalist argument might also say that it was Obama’s cold personality and less than positive views toward the Gulf states that mattered most. They might add that even if there were a robust, NATO-like infrastructure of consultation in the U.S.-Gulf partnership, there was no chance any American president would have shared sensitive information with his partners about an impending war, high-stakes talks, or a high-level killing (even though the Israelis were told about the latter). When it comes to vital security interests, senior partners—in this case, the United States—are expected to resort to unilateral decisions without paying much attention to the interests of their junior partners—here, the Gulf states. No amount of bureaucratic linkages will change that.
While all these counterarguments are reasonable, some can’t be proven and some miss the point. It’s impossible to know if Bush would have acted differently, and engaging in revisionist history to suit one’s conclusions would constitute intellectual malpractice. When numerous variables are at play, as is clearly the case here, it’s incredibly hard to affirm a causal relationship between the level of institutionalization in the U.S.-Gulf partnership and the success/failure of consultation on war and military operations.
But the argument here, which emphasizes process and underscores how it can influence policy, is not that institutions are more important than those other factors in explaining the strength (or weakness) of an international partnership. Rather, it is that those norms of and mechanisms for consultation are often forgotten or undervalued, especially in U.S. relations with partners in the region. The advantages of having institutions may not be readily apparent, given their slow and long-term nature, but the perils of their absence are painfully obvious. Institutions can’t magically solve all the problems of the U.S.-Gulf partnership, but they certainly can help manage them. With time, they can even help achieve a higher level of political-security integration and policy co-determination.
None of this is academic. Look no further than the example of Turkey, a NATO ally, whose relationship with the United States has suffered greatly over the past few years for reasons that aren’t limited to matters of policy disagreements. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has caused much harm by robbing his National Security Council and Ministry of Foreign Affairs of their traditional and critical functions of policy formulation and coordination with U.S. counterparts. In a sense, Erdogan is following the Gulf model, which is based on personal ties with the American president.
Contrast this with the examples of America’s relationships with South Korea and Japan. An important reason for the success of the U.S.-Japan alliance is its institutional maturation. Its Security Consultative Committee (SCC), composed of the U.S. Secretaries of State and Defense and their Japanese counterparts, paves a strategic path for the alliance. It is supported by two subcommittees: The Security Subcommittee and the Subcommittee on Defense Cooperation. The former is an Assistant Secretary-level version of the SCC, while the latter is focused on force and contingency planning. In addition to these committees, Washington and Tokyo have several frameworks for bilateral coordination and cooperation on defense and security matters affecting U.S. interests and the Japanese homeland.
The U.S.-South Korea alliance is even more impressive in terms of its institutional development. In 1969, the two countries created a consultative system known as the Security Consultative Meeting (SCM), led by the American Secretary of Defense and South Korean Minister of Defense to provide a mechanism for the two parties to issue unified guidance to their militaries. The SCM evolved into a Military Committee Meeting, which created a forum for the defense leaders to “consult on how to best implement strategic guidance received via the SCM as well as provide combined recommendations to the SCM and the respective national command authorities.” At the tenth SCM in 1977, a Combined Forces Command was formed. It is led by an American general and a Korean deputy of equal rank, and is the most integrated defense command in the world. This was followed by several other combined coordinating structures, all of which have been critical to preserve the security interests of both countries as well as the peace along the Demilitarized Zone.
Whether it’s because of culture, capacity, or willingness, the Gulf states will not be able to replicate what Japan, South Korea, and other treaty allies possess with the United States. But each relationship is unique, and whatever has worked between the United States and South Korea or Japan should not be forced on America and its Gulf partners. It’s important for the Gulf states to try to learn the lessons of successful models of consultation. But they should develop their own tailored structures that are responsive to their political, cultural, and strategic environments. They’re also starting from almost zero, so they shouldn’t cause themselves undue worries and assess their progress by making unrealistic comparisons with Seoul and Tokyo. Given how bad things are institutionally, the only way is up for the Gulf states. If and when they develop that institutional commitment, Washington will not only be a cheerleader but also an eager enabler. As tedious as it is, institutionalization can save the U.S.-Gulf partnership and help it navigate present and future storms.
Bilal Y. Saab is Senior Fellow and Director of the Defense and Security Program at the Middle East Institute. From August 2018 to September 2019, he served as senior advisor for security cooperation in the Middle East in the Pentagon’s Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy.