Danielle Pletka, a distinguished senior fellow and former vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), spoke to an October 28th Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about the "double game" played by Gulf countries which manage their foreign relations with the U.S. by copying Qatar's strategic approach to U.S. relations.
Pletka described Qatar as the Middle East region's "spoiler," following a two-faced policy of supporting groups that have sponsored terrorism against the U.S. while hosting the U.S. Central Command's (CENTCOM) "extremely important" al-Udeid airbase on its soil. Although Qatar's "warm" relationship with Iran also vexes America and its Gulf allies, said Pletka, Doha still "manages to walk on this balancing beam." She said this is a model that other Gulf countries are now emulating as they cool relations with Washington and question whether the U.S. has the Gulf countries' collective backs while Iran foments trouble in the region.
These questions emerged during the Obama administration when it "pivot[ed]" away from the Middle East in order to prioritize other regions. Pletka believes the "conceit" of the Obama administration was mistakenly thinking that before exiting the region, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with the Islamic Republic of Iran would contain Tehran's nuclear ambitions. She saw a continuity of the policy of distancing from Middle East upheavals under the Trump administration, but with a different strategy. By brokering the Abraham Accords, the U.S. hoped to benefit in that the Gulf states would now "turn to Israel," instead of to Washington, in order to "derive some of the protection that Israel demands for itself from Iran."
In its eagerness to resuscitate the JCPOA that Trump exited, Pletka said that the Biden administration replayed Obama's hasty withdrawal from Iraq with a chaotic exit from Afghanistan. She asserted that both Obama's and Biden's actions were "a disgrace" and signaled to our allies that the U.S. is "not going to be there" to defend our interests in the region. Although of inferior quality, Russia's purchase of drones from Iran and their deployment to Ukraine has angered the administration and stalled plans to rejoin the JCPOA.
By participating in the "Qatarization" of the Middle East, the Emiratis and Saudis have taken a page from Doha's playbook, as a response to the US effort to pivot away from the region. Their cooling of relations with the U.S., while engaging with China and Russia is an attempt to master "this art of walking the balance beam of geopolitical strategy and diplomacy." She finds it "ridiculous" that the Gulf countries believe that Moscow and Beijing may "start playing the [same] games of the Middle East" that Washington has engaged in for so long, since Beijing and Moscow have no interest in "playing one side or the other."
Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have engaged in dialogue with Tehran to defuse tensions and negotiate the stoppage of Iranian aid to the Houthis, who aim to "destabilize" the Saudi kingdom with its attacks. As they are not a party to the Abraham Accords, the Saudis are concerned that, should the kingdom face a "security challenge" from Iran, Israeli support would not materialize. Pletka said that regardless of these current efforts, "when push comes to shove," the Gulf States will have no choice but to turn back to the U.S.
In responding to questions, Pletka said that the U.S. should move its al-Udeid airbase from Qatar to "somewhere where we can trust our hosts," despite the Pentagon's preference to remain in al-Udeid because of the Qataris' payments for our "prepositioning" there. Pletka is critical as well of the State Department's short-sightedness in its lack of ambassadors in the Gulf which leaves Washington without liaisons to manage daily interactions with the region's governments. She said the problem lies with the president, the national security advisor, and the Pentagon, all of whom disregard how Iranian actions "destabilize the region" which unnerves our regional allies and partners.
By forcing the re-allocation of resources formerly poured into "expeditionary adventures in Yemen and Lebanon and Syria [and] in the West Bank," the continuing demonstrations and unrest in Iran have become costly for the regime. Additionally, Tehran and its proxy Hezbollah are being forced to fill the vacuum in Syria now that Russian forces are being withdrawn from that country and redeployed in Ukraine. Russia had been suppressing ISIS and other terror groups in Syria, many of whom are supported by Qatar. Pletka said the full impact on such regional players as Bashar al-Assad, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthis remains to be seen and should be monitored more closely.
Pletka "wholeheartedly" supports America's re-engagement in the Middle East because "trouble comes from the region" as a result of the instability there. The 9/11 attack and the rise of ISIS are not the only significant dangers the region generates. Managing existing and emerging threats requires the U.S. to be present and vigilant. The threat environment requires "maintenance" Pletka said. "We're the United States of America ... if we can't fund our defense department to deal with the threats ... then we need some new management in the White House [and] in the Pentagon."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.