Lack of Media Context Skews View of Obama's Gulf Arab Summit

05/16/2015 02:12 pm ET | Updated May 16, 2015

You'd think that more than 40 years of fixation on the Middle East, often to the exclusion of more important areas of the world, would at least enable sophisticated media coverage of Middle Eastern politics as it impacts American politics. But no. Maybe that's a reason why we're so bogged down in the region.

Putative Republican presidential frontrunner Jeb Bush -- who stumbled so marvelously this past week with conflicting answers on the obvious question of whether he'd have invaded Iraq like his brother did -- isn't the only one who doesn't get the context of things. He's just really easy to write about.

President Barack Obama just held an unprecedented and more than a little odd summit at the Camp David presidential retreat with what was initially billed as the top leadership of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). That's the six mostly oil-rich Arab nations around what is traditionally called the Persian Gulf (which the Gulf Arabs and the US Navy call the Arabian Gulf): Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The news media storyline, which mostly matched that of the Saudis and the American right-wing, was that Obama was forced into this after veering away from the long American tradition of staunchly, er, following the Gulf Arab lead against a threatening Iran.

There is no such tradition, but you wouldn't know that from what context there was in the media coverage.

In fact, the second term of George W. Bush's presidency featured a new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, in which the Islamic Republic's nuclear program was, rather magically, dramatically downgraded.

But the unreported reality goes much farther back than that.

In September 1980, with Iran in seeming disarray in the wake of the overthrow of the Shah by forces following radical fundamentalist Ayatollah Khomeini, Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein launched an invasion of Iran. He thought it would lead to a relatively easy victory over the new Shiite Islamic Republic. What he got instead, as his forces shockingly bogged down, was a brutal eight-year war which ended as a draw.

When war broke out, leaders of Kuwait, the small super-rich oil sheikdom at the top of the Gulf, dangerously close to both Iran and Iraq, were, as the saying goes, deeply concerned. They were privately supporting Iraq, something that would later become blatantly obvious with shipping of Iraqi supplies and billions in financial assistance for Saddam's regime. They were also pro-American. But US leaders immediately made it clear that they would provide no protection from potential Iranian attacks on Kuwait's port facilities, which are crucial in the Gulf, or for Kuwaiti shipping, which carried a great deal of oil.

As Kuwait had a teeny-tiny navy, this was a very big problem. A school friend from Kuwait asked me to write a memo on what steps Kuwait might take in the absence of help from the US Navy under the Carter administration. I had a few ideas on how Kuwait could develop the ability to use small, fast naval craft and barges-turned-into floating bases to keep ports and nearby shipping lanes safe from mines and other forms of attack, as well as a thought or two about developing an offensive capability against nearby Iranian facilities. There was to be no nautical Lawrence of Arabia, however. Even scoping out the top of the Gulf near Iran and the Shatt al-Arab, where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers join between Iran and Iraq to flow into the Gulf, proved radioactive with the Iran hostage crisis still underway.

Even after Iran handed back the hostages taken in the 1979 seizure of the US embassy -- which, amusingly, happened just as soon as Ronald Reagan was inaugurated -- the US still would not guarantee the security of Kuwaiti shipping and port facilities. So it wasn't just about the supposedly liberal Carter, or the American hostages.

In the event, Iran did not attack the Kuwaitis. Not because the US blocked it, but because Iran became persuaded that it would be bad for Iranian business. So much for the idea pushed by Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and right-wing Republicans that the ayatollahs are irrational.

Then, with the war dragging on, and after Iraq attacked Iranian shipping, Iran started attacking Kuwaiti shipping. Kuwait and other Gulf Arab states asked Reagan for help. And Reagan said ... no. So Kuwait then went to Moscow, which agreed to reflag Kuwaiti tankers under the flag of the Soviet Union, guaranteeing a Russian military response to any Iranian attack.

That finally got Reagan off the dime. The US agreed to reflag Kuwaiti tankers and ended up fighting a limited and successful naval war with Iran.

Reagan was not only so cautious about Iran that it took Gulf Arabs forming an alliance with the Soviet Union in the midst of the Cold War in order to get him to follow through on the supposed alliance, it also turned out that he and his administration were playing a wild game of footsie with the Iranians as part of a scheme to bring down the socialist government of tiny Nicaragua.

All this, part of what became the Iran/Contra scandal, should have been powerful material for a sophisticated Democratic presidential nominee in 1988 against Reagan's vice president, George Bush I. He helped try to cover up the scandal. But presidential frontrunner Gary Hart was knocked out of the race by a sex scandal spoon fed to the media just as the Iran/Contra hearings were getting underway. And eventual nominee Michael Dukakis hadn't a clue about such things. He was strictly a domestic politics guy.

The Obama-Gulf Arab Summit at Camp David was thus not at all about a concerted effort to get a deviating president back in line with supposedly longstanding US policy. It was about Obama giving some complaining allies the opportunity to blow off steam amidst some presidential splendor.

Accordingly, new Saudi King Salman announced just two days after the White House confirmed his attendance that he would not be coming. Saudi Arabia was not the only GCC member not to be represented by a head of state. In the end, only Kuwait and Qatar, which are less aligned with the Saudis than most of the others, were represented by their heads of state, Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, and Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, respectively.

The Saudi excuse, by the way, was that Salman had to attend to other matters, notably the very leaky ceasefire in its war with Iranian-linked Houthi rebels who overthrew the government of Yemen. Saudi air strikes have been much criticized for hitting civilians.

Nothing major emerged from the summit. The communique, as you can see at the link, is mostly boilerplate about joint exercises, beneficial negotiation with Iran on its nuclear program, and so on. No new US aggressiveness against Iran, no US nuclear shield for Gulf Arab states.

If the Bushes and Reagan didn't live up to the non-existent tradition, why should Obama?

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