President Obama and Arab leaders Thursday agreed to several tactical steps toward strengthening Middle East security but stopped short of a bold new agreement to confront the region’s chaos.
WASHINGTON — President Obama and Arab leaders Thursday agreed to several tactical steps toward strengthening Middle East security but stopped short of a bold new agreement to confront the region’s chaos.
The summit at the Camp David presidential retreat, which had been scheduled with high hopes, drew to a bureaucratic close as the six Persian Gulf leaders left only with general agreements that the United States will expand joint military exercises and otherwise collaborate more fully on shared interests.
In a joint statement, the leaders announced a commitment to closer relations on security and other issues. Obama assured leaders that the United States will protect the Gulf states, but the commitment essentially restates promises he made before and lacks the binding force of a treaty.
“I was very explicit that the United States will stand by our … partners against external attacks,” Obama said. “We want to make sure that this is not just a photo-op but a concrete series of steps.”
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The United States will maintain its large security presence in the region while urging the countries to act more like a coalition, with cooperative defense systems that will make them more effective.
Amid the boiling chaos of the region, the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had hoped for more. When the summit was announced a few weeks ago, some analysts even predicted it could be a historic point in the relationship of allies who have been trying to preserve stability in the region for decades.
As the leaders met with Obama in the woodsy presidential retreat, though, various conflicts simmered back home. A top member of the Iranian parliament called Saudi King Salman a traitor to Islam for his airstrikes against an Iran-backed militia that has taken over much of Yemen. The Saudis, in turn, accused the Yemeni rebels of violating a humanitarian cease-fire.
Meanwhile, five Iranian boats fired warning shots at a Singaporean cargo ship, drawing yet another nation into the rising maritime tensions in the Persian Gulf. The cargo vessel escaped into the territorial waters of the UAE.
Over time, the summit could come to look more significant if the two sides follow through with steps to tighten cooperation against threats from Iran and terrorist groups, said Brian Katulis, a Mideast specialist at the Center for American Progress, a think tank with close ties to the Obama administration.
“Expectations have gotten so low,” he said, but the agreements, in areas of cyberwarfare, counterterrorism, maritime operations, missile defense and border security, could still have some effect. The United States pledged to fast-track arms transfers, for example.
White House officials insisted Thursday that strengthening the Gulf alliance is the proper role of the United States while also offering the best hope for greater security.
In a slight signal of support, the White House offered to consider declaring the Gulf states to be “major non-NATO allies,” a designation that would make it easier for them to obtain U.S. weapons. The Gulf partners would share the designation with Japan, Australia, Israel and others.
In addition, Obama signaled that the United States is willing to participate in more joint military exercises, but none that would amount to the major strengthening of U.S. defense commitments that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies had sought.
Obama also came nowhere near suggesting a nuclear commitment to their security. That may have done little to assuage the concerns of leaders worried about the increasingly aggressive actions of their rising regional antagonist, Iran, and its proxies.