By Karim Gohary
"When looking at US foreign policy, the key is to view it is through the lens of 'Grand Strategy' (the overarching strategic framework that guides foreign policy)."
This sentence started off our lecture by Steven Wright, Assistant Professor in International Affairs at Qatar University, who gave us a detailed explanation of the history of the relations between the US and the oil rich Gulf countries, starting from the Cold War up until President Obama's speech in Cairo last week.
What was interesting to me was how each US administration did whatever it saw necessary to ensure a secure Gulf region and with it a constant flow of cheap oil to the world market. But each administration seemed to deal with the issue quite differently, leading over the years to past allies becoming present enemies.
During the cold war the US strategy in the Gulf was that of a twin pillars approach, where the US supported Saudi Arabia and Iran to act as bulwarks of US interests and prevent any Soviet influence in the region. This of course changed following the Iranian revolution in 1979, which brought with it political Islam and the possibility of it spreading to other parts of the Gulf. Anything related to Iran at the time was seen as a threat to the other countries in the region and the US was seen as the way to protect them.
One year later with the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war, the US strategy immediately changed to one of strategic balancing, where by keeping the two antagonists in the region weak through a prolonged war, thus not posing a threat to the rest of the Gulf States or to US interests. Iraq was given vast amounts of weaponry and money to continue the conflict. It's quite Ironic how security was actually achieved through war. During this period military relationships between the US and GCC countries increased dramatically.
With the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, a different strategic situation emerged. The US now had a military presence on the ground, and as Wright points out, "it had enormous ramifications in terms of it leading up to the attacks on 9/11 and the growth of Sunni extremists, such as Bin Laden."
During the 1990's the US followed a policy of dual containment, keeping Iraq and Iran weak through UN sanctions and containment, at the same time ensuring continued security in the Gulf. However, according to Wright this policy was ineffective.
"It led to an enormous amount of suffering for the Iraqis because the oil for food programme, which was part of the sanctions, was a failure."
The attacks of 9/11 were a turning point in US foreign policy and led to fundamental change. The doctrine during the years of George W. Bush could be described as a strategy of political transformation.
"During the war on terror you could neatly replace every phrase of Soviet Union or communism with Al Qaeda and radical Islam, and you had the same rhetoric," Said Wright. "The US's overarching foreign policy on all regions of the world was directed with the objective of preventing the spread of militant Islam and terrorism."
The US move towards fighting terrorism led to a drastic revision in the balance of power approach in the Gulf region. The US invasion of Iraq can be linked to this.
The Neo-conservatives in the US saw that the root cause of terrorism and extremism was the lack of democracy in the Middle East and there was a need to fundamentally reform the region. As Wright stressed, "if you look at it from this perspective, the benefit of invading Iraq would be to establish a beacon of democracy in the region, which would cause a domino effect on neighboring countries and would make them reform themselves."
But as Wright later made clear the US failed to understand the complexity of regional political participation and the informal political process in the Gulf region, such as the notion of "Majlis" (a meeting between the citizen and the ruler to discuss the people's needs and problems).
"The US looked at political participation through the eyes of formal voting, elections and so on, but in the Gulf this has historically never been the case. It's always been a situation where you can have a more personal contact with the rulers."
The blindness or ineffectiveness of the Bush doctrine led US – Gulf relations to reach an all time low, coupled of course with the war in Iraq, which as described by Wright "threatened the entire Gulf region". President Obama is already trying to change this situation, his speech in Cairo on June 4 started with, "This is a new beginning," but the road ahead will surely be bumpy. As for his approach to regional security in the Gulf, well as Wright puts it, "Till now it's still unclear."