US Foreign Policy
Policy Paper

The Security Sector and Prospects for Change in the Middle East

in Program

Pre-production draft of the article in the Summer 2007 publication of Survival Magazine

For the published text, please click here.

The Middle East state system is characterized by states that have too little, or too much, security. Current international efforts to bring stability to the region focus on states with profound security deficits: Palestine, Iraq, and Lebanon. In those cases, the international community is engaged in filling the gaps through direct assistance in restructuring security institutions, training security cadres, or temporarily assuming the security burden through measures ranging from UN peace operations to military occupation.

Most of the region, however, suffers from an inverse problem: states with relatively short histories as independent entities that have consolidated their hold on territory and citizens by developing strong security institutions that have proven loyal to incumbent regimes and have thwarted prospects for social, economic and political change. Egypt and Syria are ruled by regimes that came to power through military coups; even when leaders move to civilian dress and lift martial law, the military still functions as a privileged and influential power center. In the monarchies, a different model obtains, where relatively small professional militaries are kept at arms’ length, but often the police, intelligence services and praetorian guard around the palace assume similar roles, protecting incumbent power from any sources of domestic unrest.

Security sector reform (SSR) is a process and a set of policy tools that could be helpful for both the security-deficit and the security-surplus countries. SSR is a broad and inclusive concept that looks at all security actors, from the military to police to the justice system, as well as overseers in parliament and even private sector actors that have a security role. It offers a menu of ways to modernize, improve and manage security sectors based on international norms of transparency, accountability, and the rule of law. SSR is for states that aspire to move along the continuum to democracy; it should not be confused with military modernization intended to improve combat effectiveness only. These concepts can be invoked by regimes that are non-democratic to achieve both political and security-related goals, or by fully democratic states that have incentives to improve the effectiveness of their security sectors by promoting greater transparency or by adapting new capabilities to missions.

This raises the critical question of security for whom? Any discussion of reform of security services entails some reflection on external and domestic threats, and on the underlying state-society relationships. In the Middle East, states have seen their security services as extensions of executive power, often in a very personal way, so that services are loyal to individual leaders rather than to notions of national interest or of citizenry. Security sector reform by definition assumes a political impulse towards ensuring that security is for all, the citizens as well as the state. In spirit, it aims to encourage security sector actors to become good citizens as well, and addresses the rights of security cadres while seeking to make those cadres more responsive to their own society’s needs. It seeks implicitly to spread security, from power centers to a wider center of gravity in a society or state. It may also entail expanding the security agenda to include human security issues such as environmental security, civil emergency or crisis management capabilities. This last set of issues reminds us that, the 2006 Lebanon war notwithstanding, most threats in the region derive from internal problems or transnational problems, more than traditional state-on-state conflict.

To be sure, the use of the word “reform” appeals to would-be agents of change, more than to incumbent power. Reform is a politically loaded word for many in the Arab world, inferring a judgment about political and governance deficiencies, and implying an embrace of a western set of values about political end-states. But the euphemisms and substitutes, such as defense modernization or restructuring, do not fully capture the essence of this concept, are too narrow in scope and understate its political salience.

The recent literature on SSR focuses largely on post-conflict situation or post-authoritarian situations, where a new government fully accepts the requirement of rebuilding the security sector. Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon fall neatly enough into those categories. In much of the Middle East, however, the incentives to embrace this policy program are less evident. Regimes that have enjoyed long incumbencies, in which there is little prospect for unrest among cowed populations, have little reason to change security policies in the absence of an external threat or some other disruption to continuity. One must not underestimate the capacity of relative secure regimes to resist change, even when it would strengthen their long-term prospects for regime survival and their legacies.

It is, nonetheless, worth reflecting on prospects for security sector reform in the region for two principal reasons. First, the demand for change, liberalization or democratization is real. Despite the failure to bring democracy to Iraq and the fact that in all recent elections in the area, those who have prevailed at the polls may have dubious democratic credentials or may be hostile to other aspects of the West’s reform agenda, change is occurring incrementally in the region. Intellectual and business elites, and popular movements who have never been part of the power structure, are calling for change in the way power is exercised and states are governed. The security sector should not be neglected. It should be part of this larger story. Regimes might even determine that some reform in the security sector, creating a more respectful interaction between the state and its citizenry, would help them remain in power, rather than expose them to the angry mob, as some seem to fear.

Second, the region is profoundly unstable due to several hot conflicts and their spillover effects on neighbors. It is a critical moment to ask how the stability of the region would be affected by security sector reform; could security reform measures contribute to improved effectiveness of the security sector or would it distract the state when it most needs its coercive power? These two vectors for assessing SSR – its potential contribution to democratization and its relevance to regional stability – provide the essential framework for analysis.

Security Sector Reform a la carte

Security sector reform covers a wide waterfront. It can address tactical and operational concerns within defense and security institutions, such as recruitment and training, or transparency in accounting, and it can address more political issues related to oversight of budget processes by elected bodies, and the critical issue of civilian control over the armed forces. At the strategic level, the goal is to make security actors responsible and accountable players in modern governance. [1] All states need to continually revise and reform their security policies and practices, but prosperous and democratic states have a capacity to initiate the process internally. At the international level, it entails the transfer of a security “good” from those states or international bodies that have experience and competence to willing states with requirements beyond their capacity to fill.

The theory and practice of security sector reform derive principally from post-conflict and post-authoritarian transitions, where a failed state coming out of civil war needs to rebuild its security sector from the bottom up, or where a formerly Communist state wants to revamp the top-down values and processes that drive a relatively robust security sector. Liberia, if current efforts to reform the security system continue on track, would be a success story in the former category, and Ukraine in the latter. In both cases, national level leadership has placed a priority on changing the security culture as part of remaking the pact between state and society.

No-Brainer: Security Reform for Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq

For the Middle East, the menu needs to be adapted to the particular needs of states. Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq come closest to the traditional post-conflict model, and are actively engaged, with international partners, in security sector reform.

Lebanon’s package of measures to fill the security vacuum caused by the departure of Syrian troops and to strengthen the national security forces is still in development, in the aftermath of the 2006 war. Its goals include extend the reach of the national security forces to the entire national territory, making manpower and leadership changes to remove any residual Syrian influence from key positions, and modernizing and improving the capabilities of the forces with new training and equipment.

The presence of a large UN force (UNIFIL, with 12,000 troops currently under Italian command) buys Lebanon some time and space to create new political realities, but the UN presence can, paradoxically, retard reform by providing a buffer between former combatants, thus reducing the motivation of the government in Beirut to build a more durable political consensus among all factions. Thus SSR for Lebanon must take into account the role of UNIFIL, but not be limited by the modest goals of the UN force. Its prospects for success are also limited by domestic concerns such as finding a new equilibrium in national politics vis-a-vis Hizbollah, the lack of political cohesion and will, and the competition among different security forces.

For Palestine, the most critical goal is to integrate and streamline the multiple and overly-political police forces into a coherent national force. Palestine’s security preoccupation until it achieves full sovereignty is internal order, rather than a conventional armed force capable of projecting power beyond its borders.[2] Prior to the Hamas victory of January 2006, the US Administration actively supported security sector reform, and named General Keith Dayton the US Security Coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian territories. After the suspension of U.S. aid programs, General Dayton acknowledged that “Palestinian security sector reform and performance is an important element for progress in accordance with the Roadmap, and is essential for a viable two state solution.”[3] He reported that progress in “right-sizing” and consolidating the security sector was disappointing, but expressed hope that the Fateh-dominated security forces would continue to work to improve their efficiency and effectiveness, and would find ways to keep channels open with Israel. A year later, Secretary Rice was still working on reestablishing a plan for the security forces “loyal to those who accept the Quartet principles.”[4]

In Iraq, the security requirements are daunting, to say the least. Had the Iraqi Army been kept intact in 2003, however, the security sector task for Iraq would have been closer to the post-authoritarian model, and would have focused on inculcating new values and methods to a relatively coherent set of security institutions. Instead, Iraq is struggling to manage a top-down shift in national politics and values while reconstituting once-strong security institutions in conditions of chaos, civil war and foreign occupation. It would therefore be unfair to judge the utility of security sector reform based on the Iraq case; it is and will remain an outlier in terms of its security deficit, and the poor prospects for international intervention to achieve their security objectives.

In mid-2007, U.S. and Iraqi forces regrouped to focus on security for Baghdad as a new effort to change the security dynamic for Iraq, and permit an orderly drawdown of American forces there. Early reports suggested that the Iraqi side was still not delivering its part of the bargain in terms of quantity of trained troops and performance. The most recent quarterly report to Congress on “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq” described progress in achieving numerical targets or recruits, but expressed deep concerns about an array of issues, including attrition rates, financial and equipment accountability, sectarian and political influence on the police. The report addresses civil-military relations, and the government’s commitment to reconciliation as equally important elements in achieving success in the security arena. This daunting list of micro and macro challenges runs the full gamut of the security reform agenda.[5]

A Harder Sell: Reform in Relatively Stable States

The six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council, none coming out of traumatic wars or political transitions, are also embarked in various kinds of security sector reform, although they may not use the phrase in formal declarations. High oil prices have permitted governments in the Gulf to launch ambitious new programs related to current defense needs, from counterterrorism and counterproliferation capabilities to replacing aging arsenals of weaponry and aircraft. As gradual political liberalization occurs in the region[6], other aspects of change in security-related policymaking has also taken place, such as an increased role for the parliament in Kuwait in defense budgeting and in oversight of procurement. All of these measures fall under the rubric of security sector reform.

The most important international dimension of this process is under the auspices of NATO’s Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI).[7] Officially launched at the NATO summit in 2004, ICI offers cooperation with GCC states across a gamut of issues ranging from technical assistance on counterterrorism or border security to the strategic end of the security sector reform agenda. In its early stages, NATO-GCC exchanges focused on relationship-building, and NATO is engaging publics as well as officials, to ensure broad based support for such cooperation. This aspect of NATO’s engagement is in itself a promotion of SSR values, and represents an incremental step in the region towards a more open security culture that places importance on sharing security related information with interested citizens. NATO’s initiative has already permitted regional academics to engage more openly on security topics, and to initiate collaborative work with extra-regional experts. This can be considered an early fruit of ICI.

As of spring 2007, four of the six GCC states have formally agreed to participate. NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has visited the region to discuss cooperation, offering GCC civilian and military defense experts enhanced access to NATO training centers and intergovernmental exchanges. NATO’s current focus is on a training facility that would be headquartered and hosted by a regional state, but with an important professional partnership with trainers from NATO countries. In addition, modest NATO collaboration with individual regional states proceeds, on discrete topics.

SSR: the intersection with political reform

The Middle East lags behind all regions of the world in accepted metrics of personal freedom. According to Freedom House, 13 of 19 Arab states were in the bottom, not free, category, and six were in the middle category, partly free. In the more detailed rankings of political rights and civil liberties, only four – Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and Morocco – reached mid-rankings of 4 out of 7 points; all others received only 6s and 7s, the lowest grades.[8] The need for change has also been articulated by people from the region, in the path-breaking report of the UN Development Program’s Arab Human Development Report of 2002, which succinctly identified deficits in freedom, knowledge and women’s rights as the causes of lack of development. Yet across the region, incremental change is occurring and agents of change exist in each society. There is no great wave of democratization, but there is a steady drumbeat of small successes, and some bitter setbacks, in institutions, political culture, expression and norms. The discussion of change in the security sector, therefore, occurs in the context of a confusing time of change and turmoil in the region.

Experts debate the conundrum of taking steps to strengthen security sector actors while promoting greater political freedom and openness for society as a whole. The concern is that increasing the capacity of defense forces and police through reform measures could inhibit or adversely affect the subtler, and more long-term processes of empowering individuals that are an integral part of political liberalization and democratization. In the post-9/11 world, this conundrum is felt acutely in the Middle East region, where the political class and would-be democrats see tensions and contradictions between some of the counterterrorism cooperation measures and the declared interest in supporting greater openness and individual rights. Regimes deduce that willingness to cooperate on counterterrorism will buy them good will, and therefore time, for taking a cautious approach on political change. Those who are committed to change can become discouraged by yet another security imperative taking precedence over liberalization.

The recent constitutional referendum in Egypt offers insight into the contradictions of change: the Mubarak government used its pledge to end the state of emergency in effect since 1981 and new counterterrorism requirements to offer a package of amendments that it insisted were liberalization measures. While ostensibly strengthening legislative powers, it also further restricted the rights of the Muslim Brotherhood and retained in other ways strong executive powers. Opposition groups and international experts are widely critical of the measures in terms of their contribution to democratization.[9]

Egypt, the heart of the Arab world, currently faces no external threat but suffers most from a stagnant internal political culture that has made both the intellectual and business elite on the one hand, and the traditional popular classes on the other, into perceived enemies of the state. The system around President Mubarak is worried about the part of the population that wants to get on board the globalization train, to use Tom Friedman’s image, and uses security measures to intimidate and inhibit the part of the society that could most easily be an engine of growth and integration into the global economy. It also deeply mistrusts the instincts and ambitions of the long-standing Muslim Brotherhood and newer Islamist political tendencies.

The harsh treatment of democratic aspirants, ambitious politicians, Islamists and young bloggers all convey a regime that has come to rely too heavily on security instruments, at the expense of the legitimacy and stability of the regime. In Egypt, one can make a compelling case that security sector reforms intended to lighten the grip of the security forces on the population and to back up occasional liberalization measures from the top with compatible revisions in security practices would bring more stability and prosperity to Egypt. It would not necessarily extend Mubarak’s hold on power, but it could make the transition to a post-Mubarak era more promising for all Egyptians. [10]

There is an academic argument for sequencing types of reform; some believe that regimes will only initiate political reforms in times of stability, and thus would insist on postponing changes in the security culture during times of transition. In conditions of great instability, citizens cannot focus on political developments until law and order has been restored. Although Iraqis went to the polls in December 2005 against all odds due to uncertain security conditions, it is clear that its new government and parliament cannot achieve real legitimacy until the state demonstrates it can provide basic security.

Others believe that security reform can be an additional driver for political reform, and can reinforce trends in the direction of greater openness and accountability, and that militaries themselves can be important advocates of transitions to democracy.[11]

The two processes of reform must be integrated and reinforce each other. Opening the political space requires new guidance to security actors as to how to treat citizens who are testing new boundaries. Across the region, one observes tentative openings, such as loosening regulations for access to internet or permitting blogging, which are then negated by harsh security measures. In Egypt, Iran, even Turkey, security forces often operate off of an established protocol against political opposition figures and journalists, even when political leaders are signaling a willingness to tolerate more political expression. The disconnect between political openings and the security culture that has been trained to prevent change is disheartening to reformers and to their supporters in the international community. Thus linkage and ensuring that the spirit of reform is encouraged consistently across the institutions of the state would improve prospects for peaceful change, in the interest of both leaders and the governed.

SSR and regional peace and stability

A harder question is whether promoting security reforms contributes usefully to regional peace and stability. One can legitimately ask whether measures to improve transparency in defense decision-making, to open budget processes to more public scrutiny, or to coordinate border and coastal management with neighbors, could have unintended consequences. More transparency is information for potential adversaries, open budget processes can slow down or prevent new defense procurement, and coordination with neighbors on strategic assets could help terrorists or non-state actors learn more about vulnerabilities. It is certainly true that specific security reform measures must be evaluated against these basic criteria. But one must weigh, as in all aspects of reform or managed change, the short term dislocation against the long-term benefits. Reform does not mean abandoning core concepts of secrecy and surprise when needed for defense purposes. It need not interrupt ambitious plans to upgrade and modernize arsenals and defense infrastructure. Reform has a political objective, but it must be consistent with the interests of the state and its society. It cannot be seen as throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Let us take the case of Arab Gulf security policies towards Iran. Would security reforms of the type considered under the NATO-ICI program have a salutary effect on Arab Gulf security vis a vis Iran? The Arab Gulf increasingly sees Iran as a strategic threat due to Iran’s ambitions, the advantages that accrued to Iran’s relative power in the region due to the failures in Iraq, its nuclear program, its new and unexpected successes with Shia communities across the region, and its enduring size and role in the world’s energy market. The Arab Gulf must cope with these varying challenges, and finds that its own security posture is insufficient to protect the region from all the implications of Iran’s rise. Regional efforts are also impeded by public opinion and by pan-Arab norms. [12] Yet its security cooperation activities with NATO and with other outside powers add confidence and some capability to an asymmetric situation.

  • Preparing for worst-case scenarios, Gulf Arabs are procuring new air defense systems and working on interoperability with US forces and within the GCC.
  • Enhancing capacity to participate in international sanctions and to strengthen counterterrorist capabilities, Gulf Arabs are upgrading regional coordination of border security and maritime interdiction programs.
  • Overcoming traditional reticence, Gulf Arabs have associated themselves with UN and IAEA efforts to cajole greater compliance from Iran on its nuclear program.
  • Providing political space to newly active non-government elites and opinion-makers, the region has allowed expression about environmental concerns and proposals about confidence building measures regarding Iran’s nuclear program.
  • Understanding security in a holistic way, Gulf Arabs have maintained a complex web of political and economic ties with Iran.

This multifaceted approach to Iran, and developing a more open discourse about Iran, particularly in the non-government world and at the level of the Gulf Cooperation Council, can be seen as aspects of a gradually reforming security culture. The Arab Gulf is trying to protect its enduring interests vis-a-vis a large neighbor, to be a responsible international player, and to address the security anxieties of citizens as well as incumbent regimes. Security sector reform, in spirit and in practice, would not make the difference in the event of hostilities between Iran and the international community in which Gulf Arabs would be caught, but it would strengthen the capacity of the region to manage security threats and to work political as well as military channels to achieve acceptable outcomes.


The international community has developed some new thinking about the relevance of security actors to processes of change in political culture and structures. Governments, multinational institutions, and non-government organizations are engaged in facilitating and supporting reforms in security practices around the world. Often these efforts are addressed to a very specific objective such as sealing a border from smuggling or preventing human rights abuses by police. Sometimes the programs engage at a higher policy or political level, such as when a former Communist state requests advice and support for the total overhaul of its intelligence services or new training doctrine for its armed forces. And the international community has played roles in training parliaments on their oversight responsibilities or developing more transparent budgeting processes for weapons transactions. But there are limits on how much the international community can create a demand for such activities, or create incentives on the part of leaders who face no acute threats. Sovereign states still need to take the first step in determining that reforms will serve a national purpose for security and defense, or even a leader’s purpose in cleaning up abuses and making the leader more legitimate in the eyes of the citizens.

In the end, security sector reform is a choice, and it must reflect a state of mind. It must start from a leadership conviction that change is desirable and that state-society understandings need to be updated from time to time. Not everyone is convinced that change in the politics and public policies of Middle Eastern states is desirable or inevitable; such analysis ignores the demonstrable demand from significant segments of society, and offers no remedy for the region’s decline in economic competitiveness and its deteriorating security environment. Security sector reform cannot solve many of the profound gaps in political legitimacy that lead to security deficits and to violence, but it can make an important contribution to changing behavior and attitudes about the relationship between power and people. Security actors can, in the Middle East as well as anywhere, develop new skills in understanding the rule of law, in respecting and protecting citizens, their rights and their property, and in so doing, strengthen the legitimacy of the state and its prospects for stability. It should be an integral part of the process of change that is underway, whether we understand it or not, in the region.

[1] See a report from a Stimson Center workshop, Security Sector Reform in the Gulf, Ellen Laipson, Ed., May 2006, and diverse publications from the Geneva Center for the Democratic Control of the Armed Forces, at

[2] For a useful discussion of the challenges to Palestinian security sector governance, see “The Role of the Palestinian Security Forces – Political and Legal Challenges.” The Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces and the Palestinian Institute for InternationalHumanitarian Law at Al-Quds University. Abu Dis/East Jerusalem: February 2007.

[3] Statement by US Security Coordinator Lt. General Keith W. Dayton before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, March 15, 2006.

[4] Testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs, March 21, 2007.

[5]Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq, Report to Congress in accordance with the Department of Defense Appropriations Act 2007 (Section 9010, Public Law 109-289). See also Robert Perito, Reforming the Iraqi Interior Ministry, Policy and Facilities Protection Services, U.S. Institute of Peace Briefing, February 2007. Can be found at

[6] See, for example, Political Change in the Gulf States: Beyond Cosmetic Reform? Democracy Backgrounder 05. FRIDE, Madrid, November 2006.

[7] See

[8] see Freedom House 2006 Edition, at

[9] see Amr Hamzawy, Amending Democracy out of Egypt’s Constitution, in, April 2, 2007.

[10] For excellent coverage of prospects for reform in Egypt and democracy promotion efforts of the US, see Michele Dunne, Time to Pursue Democracy in Egypt, Policy Outlook No. 30, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 2007.

[11] The cases of Korea and Taiwan are often cited; in the 1980s, military-led governments initiated a process of political change, which led to a significant overall and reform of the security sector. See also Steven A. Cook, The Unspoken Power: Civil-Military Relations and the Prospects for Reform, The Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, Analysis Paper Number 7, September 2004.

[12] See Emile El-Hokayem and Matteo Legrenzi, The ArabGulf States in the Shadow of the Iranian Nuclear Challenge, Working Paper, May 26, 2006, pp. 6-8. The paper can be found at

Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Choose Your Subscription Topics
* indicates required
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea
South Asian Voices