Reassurance, A Two-Way Street

US President Barack Obama leaves The Hague in the Netherlands at the conclusion of a  Nuclear Security Summit.  (POOL/BART MAAT) US President Barack Obama leaves The Hague in the Netherlands at the conclusion of a Nuclear Security Summit. (POOL/BART MAAT)

US President Barack Obama leaves The Hague in the Netherlands at the conclusion of a Nuclear Security Summit. (POOL/BART MAAT)

This week, US President Barack Obama is visiting three European states and Saudi Arabia. What was originally planned as a more or less routine trip has taken on new urgency with the Russian seizure of Crimea and the growth of uncertainty not just about the long-term intentions of Russian President Vladimir Putin, but also the strength and credibility of the US president in meeting this and other challenges.

This trip has been billed as being about reassurance, but until Putin’s intervention, that had more to do with the Middle East than Europe. Especially important has been the need felt in Washington to reassure partners and allies in the Middle East that the US would not sell out its interests in its renewed dealings with Iran and, in the longer term, that the US has no intention of “cozying up” to Tehran at the expense either of Israel or partners in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia is the chosen stop on Obama’s trip for this purpose, given the Kingdom’s importance both in the region and in the global energy market, although Obama is also meeting Prince Mohamed Bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, in The Hague on Tuesday this week.

Putin’s seizure of Crimea, worries that he might have more plans to acquire territory, and the difficulty of devising a response with more than symbolic impact (given that, at least for now, any military response has been ruled out) have all heightened concerns about the staying power of the United States. In particular, there are concerns in parts of the Middle East that the departure of coalition forces from Iraq and the winding down of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan presage a broader US retreat from the region and, in general, a lessening of US commitment to shared security concerns.

The history of US responses to threats to its security suggest that these concerns are nonsense, as many countries—from Germany to Japan, and from the Soviet Union to Iraq—have learned to their cost. But countries facing potential threats may not be so sure, and hence “reassurance” is the name of the game, and Obama will say the right things and will visibly reconnect the US to the concerns of its regional partners and allies. He will also seek to show that what is happening in Ukraine will have no impact on US commitments in the Middle East. If anything, what Putin has done will lead the United States to be even more resolute, in order that no one make any misjudgments about US intentions and staying power.

However, “reassurance” cuts both ways, and it is incumbent on Obama to make this point. It must be clearly understood that what the US is doing in the P5+1 negotiations with Iran (where the future Russian role is still unclear) is very much in everyone’s interests, especially those countries that worry about the possibility that Iran will either acquire nuclear weapons or proceed to a point where it is only ‘the turn of a screwdriver away’ from acquiring them. The US is not acting out of weakness, or to accommodate or appease the leadership in Tehran, but to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran without resorting to war.

The US government is not convinced that it is receiving the support it needs from some of the very same countries that are most concerned about Iran. This is particularly true with regard to Israel, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has worked diligently to complicate Obama’s diplomatic efforts. Something similar, though less obvious, can be said about some of the Gulf states. Thus the US president should be seeking to create reciprocal reassurances: that the US will work to protect the interests of its regional partners and allies, while they on the other hand must not make his job more difficult.

Obama should also be seeking another set of reassurances relating to Syria. The US and its Western allies clearly have an interest in bringing the slaughter in Syria to an end, with an outcome that includes the departure of President Bashar Al-Assad. At the same time, the United States does not want to see the Syrian conflict spread, nor to see Al-Qaeda and its ilk emerge stronger. Countering Islamist terrorism remains very much on the US agenda, as it does for all European and friendly Middle East states. Here, the United States seeks Saudi Arabia’s contribution, over and above a declaration that any citizen of the Kingdom who engages in terrorism in Syria will be prosecuted, in stemming the flow of money and arms, from whatever source, to terrorists in Syria. The US will also ask Saudi Arabia to join efforts to help foster an end to the war that will also protect the rights and interests of all sects and groups in Syria.

From the US perspective, this is not too much to ask, as the US continues to honor its commitments, buttressed by US self-interest, to promote security and stability in the region. Reassurance, yes, but it has to be a two-way street.

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.

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