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 their top political and military advisors have incorrectly referred to a slew of Middle Eastern nations with which the United States has close ties as allies. On August 5, 2015, for example, U.S. President Barack Obama delivered a speech at American University in which he said, “Iran’s defense budget is eight times smaller than the 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.”
Past administrations have not fared any better. Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and Jimmy Carter and their national security officials have erred too, on multiple occasions. And on Capitol Hill, members of Congress constantly refer to various Middle Eastern states as allies, with Israel taking the lion’s share. The American media has been guilty, too, with some of the most respected newspapers including the Washington Post and the New York Times repeatedly committing factual inaccuracies when it comes to our relations with countries in the region. As to commentaries by prominent foreign policy specialists, it’s virtually impossible to count how many times the word “ally” has been used in a Middle Eastern context (and I’ve done it, too). So, it’s across the board.
There are at least two reasons for the mistake. First, sloppiness. There’s probably nothing malicious about it. Historical and factual imprecisions, whether in speech or in writing, are nothing new. And since no one usually points out the mistake, people will probably keep making it. Second, Washington sometimes goes out of its way to reassure countries we care about and that question our commitment by calling them allies, even when it’s dangerous and technically and morally wrong to do so.
Given these two reasons and possibly others, one could make the case that the distinction between partnership and alliance is irrelevant in world politics and overly legalistic. After all, if Israel, Jordan, Egypt, or any Arab Gulf country came under attack by Iran, the United States would not need a piece of paper to intervene militarily in defense of its friends. And in many cases, it would indeed take action. The 1990-91 Gulf War was a case in point. Kuwait did not have a mutual defense treaty with the United States. Yet when Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded, Washington—along with an international coalition that it had built—stepped in forcefully and decisively.
But a defense pact—the most critical element of an inter-state alliance—is hardly an insignificant or superfluous piece of paper. It is a very serious, visible, impactful, and formal mechanism through which the United States prioritizes its relations with other nations. It represents an absolutely clear and remarkably strong message of unity to adversaries, and it provides the most robust type of security reassurance to allies. There is a reason, after all, why Russia is a little extra careful not to mess with a NATO member, yet is so confident with coercing non-NATO European countries such as Ukraine, Georgia, Sweden, and Finland.
The Kuwait experience is unlikely to repeat itself. Today’s threats are no longer tank formations crossing borders and mad dictators bent on territorial conquest. Present and future battles will be fought in the shadows and in the realm of ideas, especially in the Middle East. Furthermore, the United States has military superiority in the region that will continue to help deter conventional war in that part of the world. But a post-sanctions Iran could act in bolder and more irresponsible ways that could lead to conflict. Should a confrontation between Iran and any U.S. Middle Eastern partner occur, the United States would probably intervene, just like it did against Saddam. But it also might not, simply because it is not legally obligated to do so given the absence of a mutually binding defense treaty.
Of course, defense treaties are not blank checks that can be cashed under any circumstance (for example, the United States refused to aid Taiwan in Jinmen and Mazu in 1955, and did not come to the rescue of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954). The United States will and should always consider its own interests first. But violation could come with serious political costs at home and with reputational risks abroad. If the United States were to renege on its security commitment to any NATO ally, small or big, it would seriously jeopardize the unity and well-being of the alliance. The same goes for other U.S. allies in Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere.
At the upcoming U.S.-GCC summit in Riyadh, Obama could do future American presidents, Gulf leaders, and the U.S.-Gulf partnership a big favor by making a clean break with the past and refraining from making statements, public or private, that refer to any Gulf country as an ally. This description perpetuates a false reality of nations tied together by mutual defense treaties. Obama and his Gulf counterparts should discuss ways and timelines for upgrading their security ties. But they should recognize that, until a defense pact is signed, they aren’t allies. They are partners.