Europe should stop treating the Gulf as US backyard

Suggestions that Europe is unable to offer concrete solutions to the region's problems indicate a misunderstanding of the actual nature of the challenge. Europe cannot replace the US in the Gulf but it can certainly provide alternatives and incentives where the current US approach falls desperately short.

Author: Dr. Christian Koch
Director of International Studies
(Contact details available to registered journalist)

In 1823, US President James Monroe enunciated the Monroe Doctrine whereby the United States informed the powers of the "Old World" (i.e. Europe) that the Americas were no longer open to European colonization, and that any effort to extend European political influence into the New World would be considered by the United States "as dangerous to our peace and safety." While the Doctrine was originally intended to prevent a multitude of wars breaking out as Latin American nations broke away from European colonialism, it was ultimately seen as a function of US hegemony and right of unilateral intervention over the nations of the Western Hemisphere. Europe was told to stay out and mind its own business.

To some degree a similar situation has developed in the Gulf region, which the US has dominated as the main external power after the withdrawal of the British from the region East of Suez in 1971. Ever since, the US has instituted several policies to try and achieve security and stability in the region -- whether by relying on Saudi Arabia and Iran to protect US interests as was the case in the 1970s, by playing Iran and Iraq against each other during the 1980s to maintain a regional balance of power or by isolating both Iran and Iraq in the 1990s as part of its dual containment strategy. But none of these approaches actually brought to the region a system of security and stability. The US attempt to impose more direct control with its toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq failed to do the same.

During this entire period, Europe more or less acquiesced to US dominance of the region and restrained its relationship with the Gulf almost exclusively to the economic domain. During the coalition war to reverse the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Europe merely was a junior partner with some European states preferring to pay out their war contribution. It was a similar situation during the Iraq campaign in 2003. In addition, when some European states objected to the build-up to the invasion of Iraq in end 2002 and early 2003, the Bush administration characterized these states as "Old Europe" and then proceeded with its policy without specific UN authorization. The message was once again plain and simple -- you are either with us or against us. If Europe does not play by American rules, then Europe is not listened to in terms of establishing a regional security order in the Gulf.

What has become apparent however in the three years since the invasion of Iraq is that America does not have the answers for the stability of this vital region. Military muscle and smart missile technology have failed to change the status quo according to American plans and instead has only caused greater resentment and alienated allies. This includes the Arab Gulf states that continue to have military relationships with the US and increasingly see US policies in the region as a dead-end. When US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Saudi Arabia at the beginning of October and then met with the GCC foreign ministers in Cairo, she was received with courtesy, but her message fell on deaf ears. Politically, association with US policy is becoming too heavy a burden to carry.

This is an opportunity for Europe to step in and get involved. For one, continuation on the present path of acquiescence to the US is likely to only bring about greater calamity and further instability. Second, the region itself is looking for alternative approaches as it recognizes the shallowness of the US message. Third, Europe has what the Gulf needs: experience in overcoming historical animosity and establishing a system whereby individual states can maintain their diverse and competing cultures while working together in the pursuit of collective prosperity.

Suggestions that Europe is unable to offer concrete solutions to the region's problems indicate a misunderstanding of the actual nature of the challenge. Europe cannot replace the US in the Gulf but it can certainly provide alternatives and incentives where the current US approach falls desperately short. This is particularly the case in conflict prevention and confidence-building. As underscored by the EU action in Macedonia in 2003, conflict can be prevented if action is taken early enough. As shown by EU expansion policy as a whole, old and existing threat perception and existing mistrust can be broken down over time. The key is engagement of different parties and across different levels.

Unfortunately until now, Europe, and by this one means both the European Union as a collective unit and the European states as individual actors, treats security issues in the Gulf and the Middle East as items that are to be handled bi-laterally. The EU-3 is negotiating with Iran even as the US dictates the terms behind the curtain, Iraq is left almost solely to the US, and the Arab-Israeli conflict is seen as the responsibility of the Quartet (US, EU, Russia and the UN). In each of these cases, what is notably absent is the region itself.

During all of his negotiations with Ali Larijani, the chief negotiator of Iran on the nuclear program issue, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana has not once sought directly the position of the regional Arab Gulf states or tried to use their backing as further political leverage. This is certainly unfortunate as, to some degree, Iran continues to be under the illusion that if push comes to shove, the Arab Gulf states will refuse the United States the support to carry out strikes against Iranian nuclear installations. Tehran however should clearly understand that the Arab Gulf states categorically and completely reject a nuclear program by Iran -- militarily, strategically, and, one should not forget, environmentally. While the Arab Gulf states acknowledge that there exists a right under the obligation of the Nonproliferation Treaty to the peaceful use of nuclear energy, not one country sees the Iranian program as exactly that -- peaceful. It is a program intended to ultimately and firmly establish Iranian hegemony over the Gulf region. It is nothing more than a mechanism to bully and intimidate. Through its actions, Iran does not even attempt to overcome Arab suspicion about its intentions. Its absolute refusal to even acknowledge that the UAE might have a case on the issue of the islands of Abu Musa and the Tunbs in the strategic Strait of Hormuz is one case in point. Its announcement that in case of conflict with the US, Iran will strike US interests in the region -- i.e. on Arab Gulf soil -- is another. If the issue comes down to a choice between an Iranian nuclear program and suffering from the potential Iranian retaliation in case of a military strike, the Arab Gulf will go with the second option. While one can handle a few retaliatory or terrorist strikes, living in the shadow of an Iranian nuclear bomb is not an option.

This does not mean that the Arab Gulf has signed up to the military option. Far from it, the two options listed above do not really represent a choice. This is where Europe comes in once again to encourage regional dialogue and an exchange of views. The EU's priority is to resolve conflict while the main US preoccupation is with winning the conflict. But if the region as a whole is not involved in any of the discussions, then it becomes impossible to establish an alternative approach other than eventual conflict. Security in the Gulf is too important for it to be left exclusively as the domain of the United States. Europe should know this by now.

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Published: 10 Oct 2006


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