A Vision in Manama


This is a guest post written by Matthew M. Reed, a research intern with the New America Foundation/American Strategy Program.
The United States has for decades prioritized the Persian Gulf. Eisenhower did so as early as the 1950s; Carter pledged to defend it from foreign attack in 1980; Reagan’s corollary promised to thwart internal threats after the Iran-Iraq War raised alarms; and in the 1990s, Clinton aimed to handicap regional wildcards with “dual containment.” Many reasons for American involvement in the region remain compelling today.
First, the region produces 20% of America’s total oil imports and its reserves are the strategic linchpin of the global economy. Second, America will lose its monopoly on power projection when the unipolar moment draws to a close and other militaries achieve technical parity. This means other countries with modern navies could negatively influence the Gulf like never before. Finally, US leaders must account for Iranian hostilities if no future realignment or “grand bargain” is reached. Because of the value and vulnerability of resources in the Persian Gulf, not to mention the political cost of abandoning historic commitments, the US can’t simply sacrifice its position. It must remain a major player by declaring intentions and strengthening partners who share its vision.
One would assume that explicit policies or guiding logic was in place today but in September a Government Accountability Office report (10-918) concluded otherwise in September. “[The] State [Department] and DOD did not consistently document how arms transfers to Gulf countries advanced U.S. foreign policy and national security goals,” the report stated. If the GAO’s findings are correct, then a new strategic vision is sorely needed to meet current and future challenges.
The seventh annual Manama Dialogue provides the best venue for answering lingering questions and promoting American interests. Manama’s regional security conference, which begins tomorrow and lasts through Sunday, includes local heavyweights and foreign delegations. A variety of ministers will attend along with national security advisors and major military officialdom. Defense Secretary Robert Gates represented the US the last three years but Secretary of State Clinton will lead the delegation this weekend. She should use the opportunity to do something truly special, and articulate a strategic vision that offers real direction where there is only fuzzy policy.
Clinton’s remarks can and should focus on consent rather than American designs. The dramatic announcement of a new defense pact is unnecessary–it might even escalate tensions. A sense of common purpose is essential, however, as is framing new systems and programs as organic developments not imposed by Washington. In the coming days, Secretary Clinton should: confirm the Persian Gulf will remain an American priority after withdrawing from Iraq; recognize new tools and skills that partners will enjoy in the coming years–all of which are provided by the United States; stress that these new measures allow states to provide for their own security; and coordinate with friendly delegations to develop a common vocabulary.
A new (but familiar) strategic vision would hinge on safe waterways, stable markets, and isolating Iran–three conditions that enjoy support among Gulf leaders, as confirmed by the release of recent confidential State Department cables. Beyond this, it must be made clear that America’s physical profile matters little since its partners share the same vision, thus rationalizing arms sales to regional players. Defensive capabilities must be stressed above all precisely because they underscore the anxieties surrounding Iran’s nuclear program.
Authoritarian politics complicate this diplomatic thrust considerably. It is unclear whether or not Gulf leaders can explicitly endorse the United States because of domestic legitimacy concerns. Iran is consistently one of the most vocal champions of the “Arab street” these days–meaning it portrays itself as the primary sponsor of resistance to Israel and the United States–and so Arab leaders have largely avoided rhetorical contests with the Islamic Republic in recent years because it might hurt their standing at home. Because of this, American diplomats must instead seek approval of a general approach to Gulf security rather than one with an American stamp. Although the substantive differences are minor, the symbolic differences matter in those capitals upon which the US must rely for the implementation of its regional policies.
The US will not leave the Persian Gulf any time soon because so many strategic imperatives are concentrated in the region. When delegates arrive to discuss the role of the US and regional security cooperation–the focus of the conference’s first two sessions–Secretary Clinton should come ready with a strategic vision that envigorates those countries within America’s security orbit and checks those outside it. It’s time to end speculation about American resolve and call Iran’s ascendancy into question. A new vision in Manama is necessary.

— Matthew M. Reed


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