WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama sets out this week on his first in a series of international farewell tours, a sometimes wistful tradition for presidents in legacy mode. But in a reminder of this president’s uneven ties to allies, Obama’s first stop will involve more damage control than nostalgia, more friction than fondness.
When Obama lands in Riyadh on Wednesday for a Persian Gulf summit, he’ll be met by leaders roiled by his recent public complaints about global “free riders” and harboring deep distrust of his dealings with Iran and his posture in Syria. Before heading on to what will likely be valedictory visits to Great Britain and Germany, the White House will be tasked with providing some measure of reassurance to a set of allies that remain critical of U.S. counterterrorism goals — even as they increasingly look to his successor.
“I think the trip is to reassure Arab allies that the United States is there for the long run and not cutting and running,” said David Ottaway, a Middle East expert at the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank.
Obama has appeared to be more in the mood for frank talk than hand-holding.
In an interview published in the Atlantic magazine this month, the president broadly blasted allies who don’t pull their weight and too often look to the U.S. to provide security. Even more eyebrow-raising in Riyadh, the president argued that the Saudis and Iran “need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace” — an insult to the Saudis who view Tehran as a bitter, destabilizing foe.
The president’s comments reflect the firm belief that “ultimately there’s not a military resolution to the challenges in the region,” deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said.
Obama’s first meeting with the Gulf Cooperation Council last year at Camp David was focused on addressing these worries as the U.S. tried to build support for its nuclear deal with Iran. His recent comments ensure that reassuring them about Iran will remain a major piece of the follow up meeting this week with the group, which includes Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Oman.
In talks leading to the summit, officials from the United States and Persian Gulf states have discussed ways the U.S. can back up that reassurance, including help with new counterterrorism, military, missile defense and cybersecurity capabilities. The U.S. recently pledged $139 million in humanitarian aid for Yemen, where the Saudis are embroiled in a proxy war in with Iran.
The Saudis have long pushed, with no success, for more aggressive U.S. military action to counter Iran in Syria and Iraq, a position that sets up tense talks between Saudi King Salman and Obama over shaky prospects for negotiations about the political future in Syria. The U.S. and the Saudis are divided over what to do if the talks fall apart. Saudi Arabia and several gulf states maintain President Bashar Assad must go, under military threat, if necessary, while the U.S. backs a transition plan that would allow Assad to remain in power for months.