Hagel’s Meeting with GCC Defense Ministers: How to Measure Results

In a significant policy speech in Manama in December, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was in full reassurance mode, letting our Gulf allies know that the United States was committed to their security and would maintain a strong military presence in the Gulf for a long time to come. He suggested that within six months’ time he meet with the collected Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) defense ministers to pursue consultations. That is what he did today in Riyadh. So what?

The Meeting is the Message 
As strange as it seems, given the overwhelming US contribution to Gulf security, getting all six GCC defense ministers into the same room with their US counterpart was no simple task. It has not happened since 2008. In the interim, there was a failed US attempt to have GCC defense and foreign ministers meet collectively with the Secretaries of State and Defense. This was a bridge too far for stodgy stove-piped Gulf bureaucracies and never happened. As such, Pentagon planners’ goals for this meeting boiled down to one: making sure it happened. It did and that is no small feat. It responds well to a deep desire among our nervous Gulf friends: they want predictable consistent leadership from the United States and, in this case, they got it. Hagel made a proposal, his senior staff worked very hard to make it happen. The GCC partners were summoned and they came.

On the plane to Riyadh, Hagel told reporters that he planned to focus on “reinforcing capabilities of our GCC partners” on missile defense, cyber security, and air and maritime security. No announcements on these specific files came out of the GCC meeting, and certainly nothing new emerged on internal GCC cooperation in these areas. As much as the United States talks about a multilateral GCC approach, the current focus is on bilateral deals—selling major defense systems to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Although Hagel also proposed in December that the United States would sell defense items to the GCC as an organization, this was meant to encourage GCC thinking about that idea, not actually selling anything to an organization that has no current mandate or capability to procure defense goods.

The Reassurance Thing
In previewing his meeting with GCC ministers, Hagel noted the need to “continue to reassure our partners” of the US commitment to their defense. Presumably, his session with his counterparts provided some element of reassurance, but the time has likely come to start to view reassurance from both sides of the equation. That is, if the United States is going to leave 35,000 troops in and around the Gulf for the foreseeable future, if it is going to deploy advanced aircraft to the region and forty ships to the area, then what are our partners going to contribute? What kind of reassurance do we need from them? First, it is time they took seriously the notion of integration in their efforts to defend themselves. The failure to make progress on this file reflects some fundamental differences in the GCC, and not just the recent Saudi-Qatar feud. Among the six states, there is widely shared fear of Saudi dominance, different levels and styles of political development, and strong individual national identities that countries want to preserve. Without a concerted effort to integrate specific defense capabilities, these differences will prevail over what appear to US planners as simply practical measures of collective security.

The United States has been calling for a regional approach not only because it makes strategic sense but, just as importantly, because the United States should not have to bear the major burden for Gulf defense indefinitely. GCC defense capabilities not only need more integration, they need to be more capable. Officers need to be responsible and empowered. The demand for the latest new aircraft or missile system needs to be balanced, for example, against the ability to actually deploy forces and equipment effectively over sustained periods, not just the ability to pay. Some GCC states are individually moving in this direction, but the process is painfully slow and certainly not being coordinated on a region-wide basis. A parade, no matter how big, does not make an army.

Also in the vein of “mutual reassurance,” the United States should not be bashful about conducting a robust dialogue with our Gulf allies about the political evolution of their societies. A major ally needs to be well informed about the internal dynamics of states that depend on it for their safety in the world. That is a security principle that our friends in the Gulf do not buy into very well, but one that is not going away. Virtually no one in Washington expects or demands rapid progressive change in the Gulf, but there is a nearly universal consensus that a reliable ally is one that has effective, transparent systems to respond to the political, social, and economic wishes of its citizens. It is not just about military or economic links. Since the Iraq debacle, Americans are questioning US engagement in the Middle East, as well they should. They need reassurance that those countries to which we essentially pledge the lives of our armed forces are reliable partners. Reassurance is a two-way street.

Richard LeBaron is a resident senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and the Brent Scowcroft Center focusing on the Gulf region.

Related Experts: Richard LeBaron

Image: Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel poses for a group photo with fellow defense ministers at the Gulf Cooperation Council Defense Ministerial in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia May 14, 2014. Hagel spoke about regional threats and challenges including Iran and Syria and the importance of maintaining close cooperation on these and other issues in the region. (Photo: US Dept. of Defense/Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo)