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At the end of the Gulf Cooperation Council session with leaders from member nations in Saudi Arabia President Obama declared the meetings a “success.”
However, proof of that remains to be seen.
The president traveled to the region with one main mission: reassure America’s allies in the Gulf that the U.S. remains committed and engaged to regional security and ask them to do the same.
Such assurances are necessary for leaders in a region beset with conflict and instability in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq and an ongoing and destabilizing feud between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Obama’s entreaties to Gulf leaders come at a time when the president has told the American public that the U.S. now has the “momentum” in the fight against ISIS and the Pentagon has announced additional troop deployments that will put U.S. forces closer to the fight.
Though Obama apparently wants to make sure America’s friends in this part of the world are as committed as possible to staying in that fight, those allies have reasons to feel reticent.
Many of America’s partners in the region have been concerned about the president’s overtures to Iran, especially the nuclear deal for Tehran to scale back its ambitions in exchange for sanctions relief — an accord which the Gulf nations opposed.
Obama said he pointed out to the Gulf leaders that the U.S. was not “naïve,” about Iran’s activities in the region, but at the same time he emphasized the need for diplomacy and dialogue. Iran's influence hangs heavy over Iraq.
“What I've said to them is we have to have a dual track," he told reporters, referring to his discussions with the Gulf leaders. "We have to be effective in our defenses and hold Iran to account where it is acting in ways that are contrary to international rules and norms, but we also have to have the capacity to enter into a dialogue."
By way of example, the president pointed out that America talked to Iran even though Iran continues to call the U.S., “the Great Satan.” He said that even during the Cold War, U.S. presidents, Democrats and Republicans alike, held talks with the Soviet Union.
“That’s not a sign of weakness that’s a sign of strength,” the president said.
They were comments aimed at the president’s critics stateside as well as the Gulf leaders.
The need for diplomacy was a recurrent theme during his time in Saudi Arabia — especially in discussions with the Saudis, an alliance that has recently become more strained.
Obama echoed similar remarks in a controversial interview in The Atlantic magazine last month, when he said Saudi Arabia needs to “share,” the neighborhood with its arch enemy Iran, and try to forge a “cold peace.”
The president’s comments increased tension between to the two long allies.
Obama’s remarks were widely interpreted as questioning whether the Saudis were true allies and pulling their weight in joint military operations with the U.S. In the interview, the president had called the Saudis and other allies “free riders.”
Obama sought to downplay the tension with the Saudis.
“A lot of the talk about strains had been overblown,” he told reporters. America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies “has been consistent for decades,” he added.
Obama argued that progress like cessations of hostilities in Syria and Yemen, and what he insists is significant progress in the counter terrorism campaign against ISIS, has been made possible by support from allies in this turbulent region of the world.
But work remains, the president said.
Obama said there have been “broad commitments” from the coalition fighting ISIS present at the summit. However, he is “concerned” about issues like the stability of the government in Baghdad.
Iraq’s leader Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is in the process of trying to form a new government, an extremely contentious process fueled by bitter sectarian infighting.
A process that Obama said should be watched closely in the coming weeks.
Obama has called on U.S. allies in the region to support Iraq with economic and humanitarian aid, especially in areas of the country retaken from ISIS.
The U.S. claims its coalition has recaptured 40 percent of the territory ISIS once held in Iraq and Syria. Obama recently said the coalition would take back Mosul, Iraq's second largest city by the end of the year.
The U.S. needs the Gulf nations’ help because of the president’s commitment not to put American boots on the ground.
The president said the group also focused their attention on to the situation in Syria and he sought to underscore American concerns by saying he had even called Russian President Vladimir Putin because of violations of the ceasefire that the U.S. claims have been carried out by supporters of Syria leader Bashar al-Assad.
Obama insists Assad must step down from power if there’s to be peace in Syria.
But the president has often said there’s no “military solution,” to the Syria conflict.
He continues to push America’s allies to support the on and off diplomatic process and peace talks underway there.
Time will only tell if somewhat skeptical allies in this region were swayed by Obama’s reassurances.
With time running out on his time left in the White House, Obama is determined to make his approach to foreign policy produce results in one of the most complicated and dangerous regions of the world.