The word “ally” is used far too casually in Washington’s Middle East lexicon. It’s time to break this bad habit, because the truth is that with the exception of Turkey—a NATO member—the United States does not share a single alliance with any Middle Eastern country. As the U.S.-GCC summit in Riyadh approaches, understanding what really constitutes an alliance couldn’t be more important.
All this is not to say that the United States shouldn’t have alliances in the region. But the objective reality is that it doesn’t. That Washington so frequently mischaracterizes its bonds with Middle Eastern capitals does great disservice to them, to their own expectations from the United States, and to U.S. policies toward the region. It also unnecessarily aggravates nations with which the United States has real alliances.
In U.S. public policy debates, the words “partnership” and “alliance” are used interchangeably. But the difference between the two is real. If two or more countries are allies and thus share a mutual defense treaty, it means that one is legally committed to the security of the other and vice versa. In short, it would contribute to the defense of the other if the other were attacked. Such a treaty generally comes with permanent standing headquarters, diplomatic missions, and a range of supporting infrastructure and processes. And in the United States, a mutual defense pact requires Senate ratification and consent. The most prominent example of an alliance is NATO.
If two or more countries share a security partnership, they are not typically obligated to defend one another if either comes under attack. In most, if not all, cases, partners do not sign mutual defense pacts, although they do engage in various forms of security cooperation. Such relationships do not come with massive infrastructure. The most prominent examples here are the United States’ security partnerships with the Gulf Cooperation Council States.
Despite the clear distinction, for decades, U.S. presidents and combined budget of our Gulf allies.” His secretary of defense, Ash Carter, also specifically called Arab Gulf nations allies on three recent, separate occasions: in January of this year in remarks at the World Economic Forum in Davos; on November 6, 2015, in an article by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic; and then en route to Tel Aviv on July 19, 2015 (in fact, four times during that same speech). Secretary of State John Kerry made the same mistake on January 24, 2016, at the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, saying, “we have as…clear an alliance…with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as we ever had.”
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