President Barrack Obama's visit to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit this week should have been more than just another bland photo-op that it was in much of the Arab press, including, tellingly, the lack of live coverage on Saudi state television. Gone are the poetic pleas for unity that graced the president's 2009 Cairo speech. America's Arab allies have hard questions for him. Perhaps the most difficult issue was Obama's nuclear deal with Iran. Arab leaders see the hand of Iran everywhere that there is blood and burning buildings: in Yemen's bitter civil war, in Iraq's costly struggle for survival with Isis, in Syrian dictator Bashir al-Assad's brutal war against his own people that have taken more than 300,000 lives and displaced some 3 million people. In Libya, Iran backs murderous militias and Islamic radicals while in Bahrain and in Saudi Arabia's oil producing region, it is encouraging Shiite uprisings against Sunni leaders. Add to that, Iran's ambitious nuclear program and its long-range missile building efforts. American and European leaders shocked Arab rulers with its deal with Iran, whereby the Islamic Republic is poised to receive billions of dollars in income frozen following the 1979 American hostage crisis and to see virtually all sanctions lifted. Seen through Arab eyes, their aggressive Persian neighbor is about to become richer, more powerful and more dangerous. Therefore, the subject of defending America's Arab allies from a hegemonic Iran dominated both public and private talks with President Obama. Islamic radicalism was the summit's other urgent topic. Obama's counterterrorism efforts have also been faulted by Arab leaders, who say the once rapid tempo of exchanging both human intelligence and signals intelligence, like phone intercepts and satellite images, has slowed at the very time in which the danger is rising. Addressing both problems, President Obama needed better answers than the usual ones offered by his subordinates in the administration. One thing that Obama could have suggested is a Marshall Plan for Iraq and its war-torn neighbors. Investment and philanthropy are essential to guiding the transition of Syria and Iraq to peace. A senior American official has acknowledged this reality, saying it will take both will and wallet to right the course of the region. If the president had said say something similar, it would be a meaningful olive branch.
Arab leaders have been baffled by what they see is a sudden reversal of U.S. policy over the past few years--from containing Iran to placating it and then, to boot, lecturing them as the American president did in Riyadh, that "none of our nations has an interest in conflict with Iran." It is as if the U.S. has gone from trying to fence in a lion to trying to befriend it, without the consent of those who live nearest to the lion's lair.
The agreement with Iran is only the visible part of the iceberg. Much more lies beneath the waves. The U.S. has been maddeningly unclear on its position on Iran's proxy war in Yemen or its attempts to destabilize Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. As a result of the poorly explained shift in U.S. policy, the American-Arab alliance is fraying and faltering. Some Arab leaders murmur that the partnership is a Cold War relic that has outlived its usefulness while others wonder what would happen if Arab nations started selling their considerable supply of U.S. Treasuries. Neither ending the alliance nor selling America's debt would be good for the United States or the world. Obama needed to speak clearly about America's strategic goals--and the safeguards for Arab lands--if he wants to stop the rift from widening. Here the president could adopt something from America's oldest Arab ally, Morocco. Consider the kingdom's struggle against Iran and extremism. Uniquely,Morocco's king also enjoys the title "Commander of the Faithful," which allows him to set curriculums at religious schools, discourage the preaching of extremism and to actively promote moderating influences (including providing religious leadership roles for women). With U.S. encouragement, this model could be adopted by other Arab monarchies. Morocco's king also had unusually strong words that Obama's team would be wise to study. "Arab Spring," the king said, has become"a calamitous autumn."Iran-backed radicals seek to topple even prosperous monarchies, including Morocco and the Gulf. The Gulf Arab states, Jordan and Morocco, the king urged, must unify against the forces of anarchy or each of them could fall. "Things are quite clear and require no further analysis. They [extremists] want to destabilize the few countries which have managed to safeguard their security, stability and political systems." In short, Arab rulers see rising threats while the U.S. seems complacent and puts it hopes in its agreements with Iran. This divide must be bridged. The king pointed to the controversial remarks of the U.N. Secretary General, where he seemed to take sides against Morocco in a 50-year battle by separatists to carve out a new imaginary country called Western Sahara out of southern Morocco. The king linked uprisings in the Eastern end of the Arab world (Bahrain, Syria, Iraq) with attempts to divide his kingdom in the Western end of the Arab world. This month, the U.N. Security Council takes up the issue and diplomats are expecting the usual feud. This time, it may be very different. Arab nations, as Morocco's king recently said, are increasingly seeing every attempt to divide their countries as a shared threat. Time is running out to save America's alliance with the Arab monarchies. Obama could begin by saying that the U.S. will not tolerate any nation to be divided against its will, that it will not allow any terror group or international body to split states, that it will support a unified front against Iran's nuclear ambitions and support for violent extremism and that it will help finance the rebuilding of the Arab land it once smashed, Iraq. The price of doing nothing is an Arab world that drifts into alliance with Russia and China. Military and trade ties are already increasing between them. Once that happens, a friendship that was born in the days of Franklin Roosevelt will fade and, with it, much of the remaining stability of the world.