Jonathan Eyal, Europe Correspondent In London

Walt Disney diplomacy at US-Arab summit

US President Barack Obama's Middle East policy is headed for failure. Here's why.

There is an unwritten rule of diplomacy that the longer a document produced by an international summit is, the less important are its contents.

That's certainly the case with the communique issued at the end of the recent summit  between US President Barack Obama and leaders of the Arab Gulf countries. The document runs into many pages of closely-typed text and annexes full of promises to "reaffirm and deepen the strong partnership and cooperation" between the participating nations, without actually saying anything in particular.

If the flop of the latest US- Arab summit was just a case of a single missed opportunity, no further comment would have been required. But the failure of the US effort to relaunch Washington's relationship with the pro-Western Arab governments of the Middle East is an unmitigated policy disaster, one which will cast a permanent shadow over the record of the Obama administration, and haunt anyone who succeeds the president in the years to come.

Obama officials are right to claim that, regardless of what the United States does, Gulf rulers are either bound to complain, or find fault with the policy.

Decades ago, Gulf kings and sheikhs pleaded with the US to defeat Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. But the moment US forces did precisely that, the same Gulf leaders complained that America went too far.

If the US gets too involved in the Middle East, local leaders worry about being seen as America's puppets; if the US takes a backseat, the same leaders complain that they are being left in the lurch.

Trying to fashion US policy to conform with Arab expectations is, therefore, a fool's errand, an effort which would neither please America's Middle Eastern allies, nor satisfy US policymakers.

Still, the current gap between the Obama administration and the Middle Eastern governments is both unprecedented and extraordinary.

Iran deal or delusion?

WHAT the Gulf states fear most is that in the aftermath of a nuclear agreement with Iran - something officials in Washington are rushing to complete by June this year - the US will accept Iran's claims to become a dominant regional power in the Middle East and abandon its Arab partners. The US dismisses these fears as nonsense. But almost everything Iran did over the past few years indicates that the Iranians are bent on imposing their dominance over the region.

Iranian paramilitary forces and "volunteers" are fighting in Syria, in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Hizbollah, an Iranian-sponsored Lebanese militia, is now also operating across borders in the Middle East. Meanwhile, Bahrain is facing a domestic rebellion which the Iranians did not start, but one which they are now certainly supporting. And then, there are the Houthi rebels in Yemen, also supported and supplied by Iran. It seems the higher the chance of an Iranian-US deal, the more the Iranians are undermining America's Arab allies.

However, what worries Arab governments most is that instead of facing these facts, the Obama administration has created its own parallel universe, its own "virtual reality" in the region, in order to justify its current policies. According to the narrative sponsored by the Obama administration and pushed by US Secretary of State John Kerry, Iran's rulers are supposedly split between "conservatives" and "reformers", with the reformers now having the upper hand and likely to be boosted by the conclusion of a nuclear deal.

The Obama administration also claims that a deal which allows Iran to keep a nuclear enrichment capability - despite the fact that dozens of United Nations Security Council resolutions deny Iran that option - is still an agreement which will prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

And, finally, US officials genuinely appear to believe that when Iran eventually regains control over its estimated US$100 billion (S$132 billion) of assets frozen in foreign bank accounts as a result of the sanctions, the Iranians will devote this cash to investments to boost their economy.

There is not a shred of evidence for any of this, and quite a lot of proof that precisely the opposite appears to be happening, namely that Iran will use the deal in order to proclaim victory in the showdown with the West, and deploy its extra cash in order to boost its military capabilities - the only big-ticket spending item announced to date by Iran is the potential purchase of sophisticated anti-aircraft missile systems from Russia.

Still, the Obama administration's instinct for self-delusion about Iran knows no bounds. And to make matters worse, the White House treats the security concerns of its allies not as genuine sentiments which have to be addressed, but as irrational fears which may require compassion, but otherwise need not be taken seriously. President Obama devoted two days out of his busy schedule last week to the summit with Gulf leaders, a huge period of time in which lavish American hospitality was on offer.

Yet, all of it was merely intended to persuade the Arabs that they had no reason to worry about a deal with Iran. Nobody in Washington had the slightest intention of addressing Arab fears in a practical manner; President Obama rejected demands to provide America's Middle East allies with a fresh security guarantee against Iran.

Instead, the Arabs were simply expected to remain in "listening mode", eat their food, and smile for the benefit of the cameras at the Camp David retreat. This was the Walt Disney version of diplomacy, offering nothing but a brief entertainment respite from realities.

Gulf leaders' snub

UNSURPRISINGLY, most Gulf leaders decided that they had no interest in taking part in such a photo opportunity. And their anger showed through the impolite manner of their no-show announcements: the Saudi king cancelled his attendance days before the summit was scheduled without offering any plausible explanation, while Bahrain's king pleaded "prior commitments" which, as it subsequently turned out, meant that he was attending a horse race in Britain. Seldom before has an American president been snubbed in such a public way by America's own allies.

Does it all matter? Mr Obama's supporters claim that last week's diplomatic fiasco is irrelevant, since Gulf rulers have nowhere to turn to, so they will continue to bow to America's priorities.

Others, such as Frederic Wehrey, a Gulf expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, go further by arguing that Mr Obama's refusal to offer the Gulf allies a fresh security guarantee is appropriate. "I don't think the US should feel compelled to bend over backwards," he says, arguing that the human rights record of Gulf states justifies American reticence.

But these self-serving justifications are misplaced, for the failure of Mr Obama's Gulf summit will end up having profound consequences. The first impact is psychological: Arab leaders feel let down by the US, and are now desperately looking to diversify their security links. There may be no immediate substitute to US power, but there are plenty of countries - including China and India - willing to sell Arab states plenty of military technology.

The failure to obtain a US security guarantee will also accelerate the quest of some Arab countries to acquire their own nuclear capability, or at least embark on the ladder of developing such a capability in the future. And the only way that key Arab countries will be dissuaded from going down this route will be by obtaining a US security guarantee.

So, paradoxically, what Mr Obama refuses to grant now will be offered to the Gulf Arabs on a plate in a year or two from now, largely in order to prevent a broader nuclear arms race in the Middle East. The only difference is that the security guarantees which the US will have to offer in the future will be more extensive than the ones which could have been offered today.

It may be already too late for President Obama to restore America's damaged reputation in the Middle East. But it is by now virtually certain that, regardless of who succeeds him, the next US president will have to devote his or her first few months in office regaining US influence in the region.

President Obama has clearly staked his entire foreign policy record on cutting deals in the Middle East. Sadly, however, his efforts will be recorded by history as a failure, in precisely the region of his choice.

jonathan.eyal@gmail.com