The What Cooperation Council?

The Gulf Cooperation Council surprised virtually everyone yesterday by announcing that it would begin membership talks with Jordan and Morocco.  While actual membership is likely a long way off, the announcement signals a new alliance in the region which conspicuously omits Egyp, along with more obvious candidates for GCC membership such as Yemen and Iraq.  This expanded GCC would of course no longer really be an organization of states in the Gulf. Nor would it be a club for small, rich oil producing states. Instead, it seems to be evolving into a club for Sunni Arab monarchs -- the institutional home of the counter-revolution, directed against not only Iran but also against the forces for change in the region.  Where the United States fits in that new conception remains distinctly unclear.

There has been widespread disbelief and a lot of jokes since the news broke of the invitations to Jordan and Morocco. It isn't only that Jordan and Morocco are rather conspicuously not in the Gulf.  It's also that they don't fit the profile of rich petro-states which has defined the identity of the GCC. If they actually do become members  -- which is far from a certainty, given the wide gap between an invitation to apply and acceptance -- it would profoundly change the character of the organization.  Jordan and Morocco have virtually nothing in common economically, culturally, or (of course) geographically with the GCC states.  They have different security challenges, different demographics, and different domestic problems.  Their inclusion would significantly erode the major commonalities which kept the GCC together over the years. 

The two things which Jordan and Morocco do have in common with the GCC states, of course, are a Sunni monarchy and a pro-Western alignment. The creation of a Sunni King's club would bring the region back even more viscerally than before into the classical Arab Cold War of the 1950s and 1960, when conservative monarchies faced off against pan-Arabist republics.  Neither Jordan nor Morocco really faces the same sectarian Sunni-Shi'a issues as do most of the Gulf states, however, despite King Abdullah of Jordan's "Shi'a Crescent" ramblings of the mid-2000s and his enthusiasm to be part of any pro-U.S. and anti-Iranian alliance available.  Iran simply doesn't loom as large for Morocco as it does for, say, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia.  The real point here would seem to be a promise of GCC, or more specifically Saudi, assistance to those non-Gulf monarchies in order to prevent them from going too far in meeting popular demands for reform.  Such a Sunni King's Club would be a counter-revolutionary institution, one which would work directly against hopes for change in the Arab world.  

The exclusions are in many ways more important than the inclusions.  Yemen has been left standing at the doorstep of the GCC for many years, despite the advantage of actually being a Gulf state. The GCC initiative to transition Ali Abdullah Saleh from power has stalled, and most Yemenis seem to be pretty suspicious of Saudi intentions in that regard anyway.  It isn't clear whether a post-Saleh Yemen would be considered for an expanded GCC, but it doesn't seem likely. 

The two more important exclusions are Iraq and Egypt.  Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq has been mooted as a possible candidate for inclusion in the GCC.  It's a wealthy oil producer in the Gulf region, so there is a surface plausibility.  GCC membership, by this argument, might embed Iraq in an institutional structure which firmly rooted it in a pro-U.S. and anti-Iranian camp, while dramatically increasing the size and power of the GCC alliance.  But its exclusion from this round isn't that surprising.  The Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, remain deeply hostile towards and suspicious of the Shi'a dominated Iraqi government in general and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki specifically.  They have never been comfortable with its new democratic forms.  And an Iraq inside the GCC would pose a real challenge to Saudi expectations of dominating the alliance.  So the GCC not inviting Iraq to apply is hardly a surprise -- but not inviting it while inviting other, less plausible, candidates will only further drive a wedge between Baghdad and the Arab Gulf states with potentially dangerous results.

And then there's Egypt. Saudi anger at the fall of Hosni Mubarak has been palpable. It has clearly been furious over the new Egypt's softer line on Iran, and high-level Saudis were conspicuously absent from the Hamas-Fatah signing ceremony in Cairo.  Obviously, there is no rational economic or cultural reason to invite Egypt to join the GCC.... but neither is there any such logic to inviting Jordan and Morocco.  The exclusion feels pointed and direct: the new revolutionary Egypt is not part of the Sunni King's Club, while the expanded GCC will directly compete with the Arab League even if it gets a new Egyptian Secretary-General. This is a dangerous message at a time when Egypt's foreign policy orientation is very much a work in progress.  The new Egypt is likely to be far more responsive to public opinion, as has already been evident in its decisions to open the border with Gaza and broker Palestinian reconicilation.  If it comes to identify Saudi Arabia as an adversary, rather than as a slightly less close ally, then this will have major repercussions for regional politics and for the U.S. alliance structure. 

It is far too soon to expect anything tangible to emerge from this proposed GCC expansion. It may very well go the way of other short-lived alliances -- remember the Damascus Declaration?  And it is hard to see how Jordan or Morocco would fit into any kind of economic integration schemes such as those the GCC has intermittently discussed.  But as a signal of emerging trends in regional politics, even the declaration of intent is quite significant.  It could push Iraq and Egypt in other directions. It could intensify the lines of regional conflict both between revolution and counter-revolution, and between Sunni and Shi'a, while inhibiting serious efforts at reform which might ameliorate either.  And it could put the new GCC, particularly Saudi Arabia, into ever more open conflict with the United States over the future of Arab reforms and priorities.  

Marc Lynch

How John Boehner Could Really Help Iraq

Speaker of the House John Boehner recently returned from Iraq with the message that he would support keeping some U.S. troops in Iraq after December 2011.  While this surely reflects what he heard from the American officials he saw in Baghdad, it distracts attention from a more important question about the future U.S. relationship with Iraq in the primary area where Rep. Boehner could actually help:   halting short-sighted plans to slash the State Department budget which could cripple the civilian mission to Iraq at an exceptionally delicate transitional moment.

Rep. Boehner can not control whether Iraq requests a new SOFA to allow troops to stay. In fact, keeping a small number of U.S. troops in Iraq is not the most important issue for the future American role in Iraq, and the trends in Iraqi politics make it increasingly unlikely that the long-expected request to renegotiate the Status of Forces Agreement will be forthcoming regardless of what Americans want.  But Congress does have a decisive role in determining whether to support and fund the civilian mission in Iraq.    Rep. Boehner can do virtually nothing about whether or not Iraqis decide to request a renegotiation of the SOFA, but he can work to ensure that Congress funds the civilian part of American foreign policy which are so urgently needed at this historical moment. He should.  

It is understandable why the question of whether U.S. troops will stay in Iraq dominates what remains of the debate about Iraq, but it really shouldn't. I don't think that a few thousand U.S. troops remaining in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government would be that big a deal -- the removal of 140,000 troops would satisfy the Obama campaign's commitment to withdraw, and the clear commitment to that withdrawal has already had the necessary effect on reshaping Iraqi politics.  The Pentagon has long thought that a small residual force would be a safety blanket against a resurgence of civil war, provide necessary logistical support and training, and signal continued U.S. commitment. There's just a world of difference between a few thousand American trainers and the kind of eternal, large-scale troop presence which used to be proposed.

The U.S. assumption that eventually Iraqi politicians would step up and ask for an extension always seemed to ignore the importance of the political obstacles posed by hostile public opinion. Whatever private support for a longer-term U.S. role exists among Iraqi politicians (and I've heard a fair amount of it), that never extended to public discourse or public opinion. Electoral incentives and the importance of public opinion meant that virtually no politicians have been willing to publicly support revisiting the SOFA -- an important lesson to those trying to understand the likely effects of the changes in Egypt and the region on their foreign policy.  The growing power of public opinion and protest movements certainly won't make Iraqi politicans any more willing to broach such a controversial subject.

If the SOFA is not renegotiated, and no other workaround is found, then the U.S. will have to withdraw all of its troops from Iraq by December 31, 2011 just as promised. Frankly, I don't think that the presence of U.S. troops is really a decisive strategic factor anymore. Iraqi security forces have long-since taken the lead role, and despite the ongoing assassinations and explosions and general violence there have been few signs of a return to civil war dynamics.  Similarly, as expected, the Iraqi political system has eventually found its own balance as it has adapted to the declining American role -- not an especially attractive political balance,with many enduring issues surrounding the centralization of power and inefficient services and power-sharing and unfilled top government jobs and more, but reasonably robust (I keep hearing Iraqis jokingly brag about how they now have the most stable politics in the region). 

Iraq is slowly evolving into a position to be a player in regional politics, rather than an arena where others wage their proxy wars.  Whether that Iraq becomes an effective, independent partner of the United States or develops an alliance with Iran, and how Iraq relates to its Arab neighbors, are among the most crucial variables shaping the the future regional order in the Middle East -- as important as consolidating Egyptian democracy or the Iranian nuclear program.  There will be powerful forces pulling Iraq towards Iran, including not only religious ties but also economic interests and personal relationships.  Rising sectarianism across the region fueled by the Saudi crackdown in Bahrain risks pushing it ever further from the Arab states in the Gulf; it is alarming to see Allawi's Saudi-backed Iraqiyya list denouncing Kuwait as "an enemy of the Iraqi people and its new democratic system".  

As it becomes more of an independent actor, Iraq's foreign policy, like that of the new Egypt or of Erdogan's Turkey, will be strategic and interest-based but also responsive to public opinion.  The U.S. needs to build enduring relationships and engage across all sectors of political society if it hopes to deal effectively with this new Iraq.  The civilian side of the U.S. foreign policy machine has never been more important across the entire Middle East: understanding and engaging newly empowered publics, building connections with emergent civil society movements, partnering on economic development projects,supporting police training and rule of law development.  And that requires thinking past the military mission and devoting adequate resources to the civilian sector --- something which Secretary Gates and the U.S. military clearly understand, but which Congress still seemingly does not. If Rep. Boehner wants to help Iraq and the U.S. engagement in the broader Middle East, this is where he should turn his attention.

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