An Arabic version of this commentary appeared in Al-Hayat on August 20, 2005.
NATO is picking up the pace of its engagement in the Middle East, putting aside any lingering doubts about “out of area” missions. This new activism can contribute to regional stability and can add security sector reform to the reform agenda in the region. To succeed, however, regional players will have to get comfortable with a NATO role, and will have to demonstrate a willingness to open up security policies to greater scrutiny.
One year ago, NATO announced at its summit in Istanbul a new initiative towards the Middle East region, with an initial focus on the six countries of the Arabian peninsula which comprise the Gulf Cooperation Council. In its Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI), NATO offers a rich menu of options for training and collaboration, on topics ranging from counterterrorism to greater transparency in defense budgeting and decision making. This initiative is also an effort to transform its relations in the nearby Mediterranean countries from a decade-long “dialogue,” which often got bogged down in Arab-Israeli discontent, to a more dynamic and practical partnership.
NATO is driven by the post-Cold War need to define new missions for the alliance. Building on its success with the former Soviet states, NATO has become more confident about its ability to offer practical security assistance to countries beyond traditional Europe. Today, NATO is deployed in Afghanistan, is training troops in Iraq, and in May responded to a request from the African Union to help logistically with the AU’s expanding commitment in Darfur, Sudan.
The new interest in the Middle East also represents NATO’s desire to align its priorities with those of Washington, the G-8, the EU and other groupings that collectively represent western power. It is the Bush Administration’s energy for “transforming” the Middle East that has persuaded NATO to move more actively into the sometimes stormy waters of the Gulf. NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has promoted this new relationship. In a recent speech he said “…the willingness to look at NATO in a new way is clearly there. And that must include a fresh look at how NATO can contribute to Middle East security.” For the Gulf states, this means not identifying a particular threat (certain large neighbors are not named in NATO communiqués) and not insisting on a common plan for all Gulf countries. This means that one state may choose to work on maritime surveillance skills, while another may want to work on land borders, or integration of security services.
In theory, NATO’s offer to the Gulf states could also be an important contribution to democratization trends. NATO offers help to partnership countries on ensuring civilian control of the armed forces, transparency and oversight of defense spending, and other forms of accountability that are virtually unheard of in the Gulf region, with the exception of Kuwait, and perhaps, the new Iraq. Most Gulf states will not be ready any time soon to invite the alliance into the inner sanctums where defense policies and budgets are decided, but NATO should keep talking about it.
Some may worry that helping military and other security services modernize and professionalize works at cross purposes to the core values of democracy, with its emphasis on individual expression and freedom. NATO’s experience in the former Soviet Union suggests that NATO technocrats are willing to proceed with security cooperation in an apolitical manner, with no judgment about a particular partner’s democratic credentials. But that may be changing, and the Secretary General is personally committed to viewing cooperation between NATO and partners as part of a process to share and inculcate values, not just technical expertise.
The region is still learning about this new initiative. Four of the Gulf states – Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates – have officially indicated their desire to participate. Regional elites are responding positively so far, in part because a NATO role could be a means to reduce, at least cosmetically, the American footprint in these small states. NATO is working hard on the public diplomacy dimension, to encourage a conversation between government and influential citizens, so that any decision to invite NATO in will have the support of the governed.
Cooperation with peaceful states on shared concerns such as terrorism, proliferation, smuggling, and environmental degradation should not be too controversial, but for the region, many questions remain. Will NATO’s roles in Afghanistan and Iraq associate the alliance too much with unpopular American policies? Can the small Gulf states cope with one more large institutional actor? And no one should expect NATO to have magic solutions to the region’s fundamental security vulnerabilities: insecure regimes of questionable legitimacy, the existential Arab-Israeli dispute, and socio-economic imbalances that could disrupt even the best intentioned initiatives. NATO has done the right thing – for itself and for the region – but one should have realistic expectations. This is a supporting role, not a transforming one.