The early Cold War period might be called the Age of the Treaty Organization. The United States, scrambling furiously to respond to the fact that it had become the guarantor of the “Free World,” had discovered a surprising interest in entangling alliances of all sorts and in all parts of the world. NATO, of course, was the biggest pact of them all, but in 1954 the “Manilla Pact” created the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization, SEATO, and the next year the “Baghdad Pact” gave birth to the Central Treaty Organization, CENTO, in the Middle East. In addition, bilateral treaties with Japan, South Korea and Thailand helped weave together a set of global alliances. Harry Truman’s containment policy pushed the United States to out-pact the Soviets’ Warsaw Pact.
All of these deals were historical anomalies, to put it mildly; creatures of the unique time. CENTO, in particular, was a horse designed by a committee: It included Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey and Great Britain. But not the United States; as John Foster Dulles complained, it fell victim to “the pro-Israel lobby and the difficulty of obtaining congressional approval.” The organization was thus a flop from the start, doing little to contribute to containment of the Soviets or to regional stability: CENTO failed rapidly and often. A military coup in Baghdad (ousting the king of Iraq and making the Ba’ath Party the dominant political force in the country) took Iraq out of CENTO and CENTO out of Baghdad. The alliance lurched on in Ankara until the 1979 Iran revolution.
But now the region’s Sunni states are learning the truth of the old adage that those who cannot hang together will hang separately. One of the reasons that the king of Saudi Arabia and three of his fellow Gulf potentates are boycotting Barack Obama’s Camp David summit is that the White House blew off their proposal for formal defense guarantees against Iran. Nods, winks, arms sales and Obama promises no longer cut the mustard. “We are looking [for some form of] security guarantee given the behavior of Iran in the region,” United Arab Emirates’ Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba said at an Atlantic Council event in Washington on Thursday. “In the past, we have survived with a gentleman’s agreement with the United States about security…I think we need something in writing. We need something institutionalized.” You could call it CENTO.
This reflects two profound shifts in the Gulf power dynamic: America’s withdrawal and Iran’s rise. Back in 1990, then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney had to assure the Saudis that once Kuwait had been taken back from Saddam Hussein that the United States would “go home;” Barack Obama is finally making good on that promise and the Gulfies are petrified. In desperation, they’re turning to the Turks and the Nusra Front in Syria, and tried to hire the Pakistani army to complement their air campaign in Yemen. Also, the Pakistanis have some nuclear capabilities that interest the Saudis who, after all, paid for them.
The Obama Administration, naturally, wants no part of this. Not only is it salivating for a nuclear deal with Iran, but it takes the growing regional conflict, one that is increasingly sectarian in character, as confirming its decision to “retrench” and evidence of the need for further retrenchment. In White House reckoning, the Middle East is not a geopolitical problem but an arms control opportunity.
In sum, Obama has steeply devalued the currency of American security guarantees in the region. Perhaps one of the few ways that the next president can quickly boost U.S. standing in the Middle East beyond redeploying American forces there – which, in any case, will be a challenge after the devastating defense cuts of the Obama term – will be to revisit the idea of more formal security guarantees to the region’s Sunni states. There will be huge downsides to such a move, not least in terms of tolerating repressive regimes that, with their mounting fears of Iran, are becoming more repressive. But the prospects for Arab liberalization are inevitably intertwined, as were continental European and East Asian liberalization, with the reassurance and reassertion of American power. One thing is more certain: a reimagined CENTO – which would be a pact to keep the Americans in, the Iranians down, and the Russians and Chinese out – would likely gain the support of the “pro-Israel lobby.” Maybe CENTO HQ could be in Jerusalem.