A few days on, the neighbor's conference in Kuwait seems to have followed the script: unsuccessful Iraqi and American pressure on the Arab states to send ambassadors and forgive debt, no noticable US-Iranian interaction on the margins (though Iranian FM Mottaki did take the opportunity to meet with Saudi FM Saud al-Faisal), some nice Arab words but no real actions to match. The really interesting developments aren't the predictable failures on those fronts, or the agreement on future meetings being highlighted by Condi Rice, but rather some potentially useful points of agreement on the Sadr question and on some intriguing subsequent interaction between Iraqis and Saudis.
The main success according to Iraqi and American officials was the agreement to hold the fourth neighbor's summit in Baghdad, and to include Iraq in relevant future GCC meetings. Hosting the meeting would indeed be a boost to whatever Iraqi government is then in office, if it comes off - though that would again likely depend on the security situation at the time. It would be much more productive if these meetings followed the suggestion of the Iraq Study Group (if I recall correctly) to establish ongoing, low-profile working groups instead of a series of high-profile photo opportunities where little gets done. But that assumes that getting something done is the point.
As for the GCC 6+2+1 formula, well, it's funny that most of the reporting has accepted Rice's spin that Iraq's potential invitation to future GCC meetings represents an important step in its integration into the region. Iran was ostentatiously invited to the last GCC meeting. What does that invitation then suggest?
The summit's general support for the government's campaign against "militias" was also potentially - but only potentially - important. It is significant that this position commanded the support of senior Arab officials such as Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal and senior Iranian officials such as Foreign Minister Mohammed Mattaki alike. As I argued before, casting this as a question of establishing Iraqi state sovereignty rather than as a campaign against Sadr has always represented the best way to spin some gold out of the last month's events. The reason that this is only potentially important is that the rhetorical agreement papers over very deep disagreements over the identity of the militias in question and about the motivations behind the Iraqi government campaign. The Iranian position towards the crackdown and towards Sadr remains particularly murky, from what I can tell. The thin consensus on the importance of establishing effective Iraqi sovereignty is something which could be built upon - but only if it could be used to persuade the Maliki team (and the US) to really pursue such a strategy rather than using it as a veil to hit their political rivals. Signs there, particularly escalating US rhetoric against Iran's role, aren't encouraging - but this is certainly something to follow.
Finally, the Saudi position, from which other GCC states will likely take their lead, can be seen in Saud al-Faisal's announcement that security concerns prevent opening an embassy in Baghdad, and in today's column by the well-connected al-Arabiya director Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed dismissing the American and Iraqi demands on debt and embassies as a side issue: security is the "first, second, and third Arab issue", he writes, and when that is solved the rest will fall into place. None of this is surprising. The real reasons, I suspect, lie in their continuing perception of Maliki as a pro-Iranian, sectarian leader and Iraqi state institutions as deeply penetrated by Iranian influence - as well as their lack of interest in doing the US any favors right now. As Ambassador Edward Gnehm, one of America's most experienced diplomats in the Arab world, told me:
Gulf Arab states reacted predictably to Secretary Rice’s blandishments urging those states to open embassies in Baghdad and to forgive Iraqi debts. Those states remain wary and concerned over Shia dominance of the Iraqi political scene, Iranian influence that they perceive follows, and doubts that the U.S. really has an end game plan for Iraq that protects their interests. Both actions are seen as means to pressure the Shia political figures to give Sunni Iraqis their “rightful” place in the power structure as well as to nudge Iraq back toward the “Arab” camp. Until they conclude that Shia political figures are ready to move on these fronts, they will not act --- and they certainly will not make the concessions to the U.S.
In that regard, perhaps the most interesting thing I've seen in the wake of the conference is what seems to be an unusually direct outreach to Saudi concerns over the last two days, with an abrupt about-face on the part of senior Iraqi officials. In Kuwait Maliki called "on all our brothers and friends and all neighbouring countries to make more effort and to strengthen security measures to prevent terrorists from infiltrating our territory through joint borders." Arabs seem to have taken this as directed at them, rather than Iran, particularly when Maliki specifically expressed his dismay with the level of Arab support for Iraq.
That seems to be the context for the remarkable interview in the Saudi paper al-Sharq al-Awsat yesterday with Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie, in which he said that "our relations with Saudi Arabia are a model of combatting terrorism"; denied that he considered the (Saudi-backed) Awakenings to be militias (only the Jaysh al-Mahdi, in all of Iraq, should be called a militia); and specified Iran as the country Maliki meant as the one destabilizing Iraq (just as al-Sharq al-Awsat's editor Tareq al-Homayed had demanded a few days ago). This unusual outreach to Saudi concerns was rewarded with an approving lead editorial in the Saudi paper al-Watan today praising the efforts of the Iraqi government - we'll see if it is rewarded with anything more. [*]
Overall, the Kuwait conference as expected did not produce much - certainly not the tangible results for which the Americans and Iraqis had hoped. The Arab neighbors in the Gulf seem perfectly content to continue sitting back, and show little interest in taking on more risk or in making a serious contribution (I find their refusal to forgive Saddam-era debt, by the way, to be absurd and unjustifiable - and to be an indictment of American influence even with its chief allies in the Gulf). But there were some points of agreement across the Gulf, Iraq and Iran upon which effective diplomacy could build, were effective diplomacy to try.
[*] In the al-Sharq al-Awsat interview, Rubaie also blamed the problems in Basra and Sadr City on forces outside Iraq's borders who want to "prevent the victory of the Republican candidate in the American elections". The interviewer asked, incredulously, if he meant "the Democrats", and Rubaie demurred, indicating that he had meant Iran. Uh huh.