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Debate
Should the Middle East be NATO's new central front?
     Will Marshal  VERSUS   Peter Rudolf



Will Marshall is director of the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington DC.



Peter Rudolf is an analyst with the Berlin-based Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik specialising in transatlantic relations.

                 YES

NO            

Dear Peter,

Since the 9/11 terror attacks, opinion in the United States has been congealing around the proposition that the Greater Middle East is to the 21st century what Europe was to the 20th century - the world's prime crucible of conflict.

Of course, there are other hot spots; North Korea is especially worrisome. But the Greater Middle East, stretching from Morocco to Pakistan, is far and away the most likely nexus of the dangers we fear most today: nihilistic terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, rogue dictators and failed states.

This view seems to be gaining ground in Europe. At February's Munich Conference on Security Policy, for example, Joschka Fischer described the Middle East as "the epicentre of the greatest threat to our regional and global security at the dawn of this century: destructive jihadist terrorism with its totalitarian ideology".

NATO should be rededicated to defending our common security interests against the new totalitarianism brewing in the Greater Middle East

If Americans and Europeans are indeed moving toward a common definition of the new threats we face, it follows that NATO, the institutional cornerstone of the transatlantic Alliance, should reorient itself to confront those threats.

What's the alternative? The Alliance has been running on fumes since the Soviet Union unravelled. NATO enlargement has given the appearance of purposeful activity, but it has had more to do with consolidating the West's Cold War gains than with defining a new mission for the Alliance. The question remains, what is NATO for? Especially after the rupture over Iraq, the transatlantic partners had better agree on an answer, and soon, or else find themselves moving inexorably down divergent paths.

I think the answer is pretty straightforward: NATO should be rededicated to defending our common security interests and liberal values against the new totalitarianism brewing in the Greater Middle East. This is not exclusively a military challenge. Over the long haul, success requires changing the conditions - harsh political repression, economic stagnation and pervasive fears of cultural decline - that breed fanaticism and violence in the region. In the United States, both President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry, the Democratic challenger for the White House, have called for a broad strategy of modernising the region, through expanded trade, increased aid tied to governance reforms and vigorous support for human rights, the rule of law and independent civic groups. Fischer calls this strategy "positive globalisation", but it amounts to the same thing.

But if military power by itself can't defeat the new totalitarian threat, neither is victory likely without the credible threat of force. After all, al Qaida has already attacked three NATO Allies: Spain and Turkey as well as the United States. To defend the "transatlantic homeland" against further terrorist attacks, NATO must develop the capacity to detect and disrupt terror cells and deprive terrorists of safe havens. This of course is the justification for NATO's precedent-shattering intervention in faraway Afghanistan.

In fact, in organising the 6,500-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul, NATO has already crossed the Rubicon and begun its strategic reorientation toward the Greater Middle East. The challenge now is for NATO to become a more aggressive and effective peacemaker. That means moving out of the capital, disarming warlords and militias and bringing them under the central government's authority, and cooperating more closely with the 10,000 Americans who are fighting Taliban and al-Qaida remnants along the Pakistan border.

Just as the United States cannot afford to fail in Iraq, NATO cannot afford to fail in Afghanistan. It's essential that our European partners beef up ISAF with more troops and equipment and start extending security and stability to other parts of the country, especially the restive Pathan regions in the south. In fact, Afghanistan could be the catalyst Europe needs to hasten development of its new Rapid Deployment Force as well as the lift and logistical capacity necessary to project power at long distances.

A better-focused and equipped NATO could also reinforce more vigorous international diplomacy aimed at stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the region. Would Europe have succeeded in getting Iran to open its nuclear programmes to international inspection without a vivid demonstration of US military power next door? It seems unlikely. The same is true of Libya's decision to renounce WMD and Pakistan's belated crackdown on A.Q. Khan's nuclear bazaar. But beyond improving its ability to project force in the region, NATO should work out arrangements with countries in the region, modelled on the Partnership for Peace programme with former Soviet bloc countries, aimed at boosting security cooperation, transparency and confidence-building measures throughout the region. And yes, NATO should develop the capacities that will allow it to strike pre-emptively at nuclear facilities in countries that flout international non-proliferation norms.

In addition, it's not inconceivable that NATO could take a more active part in stemming conflicts and reinforcing political settlements in the region. For example, it could reinforce efforts to stop civil strife in Sudan by posting forces to protect non-Arabs in the south from slaughter. It could provide security guarantees to facilitate a negotiated, two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A new Palestinian state would need help in disarming Hamas and other terrorist groups, while Israel would need reassurance that it would not have to bear the burden of protecting its citizens alone. And NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer's openness to a NATO mission in Iraq bodes well both for bolstering a new Iraqi government and for rebuilding Alliance unity.

Obviously, all this would require dramatic changes in European military budgets, the decision-making structure of an expanded NATO, and, above all, the outlook of Europeans themselves. Whereas security during the Cold War meant deterring a Soviet attack on Western Europe, security in the age of terror and jihad requires a more active and preventive approach. Are Europeans ready to trade present risks for future safety? I don't know, but I hope they will ponder the key lesson Americans learned from 9/11: ignoring gathering threats doesn't make you any safer.

Yours,
...top...
Will


Dear Will,

I may sound like an old-fashioned "realist", but I believe that the management of great-power relations remains the basic international challenge. If there is a region with the potential for a great-power conflict escalating into (nuclear) war it is East Asia. The rise of China will surely pose difficult questions for both American policy-makers and their European counterparts. I don't wish to downplay the fact that Islamist terrorism currently poses the most serious transnational threat. I only want to question the assumption that the Greater Middle East may be to the 21st century what Europe and Asia were to the 20th century.

On the other hand, I am too much influenced by liberal international relations thinking to believe that NATO will inevitably disintegrate as a security institution unless it has an overarching mission in terms of addressing common threats. Such a development, which you seem to expect, would entail a profound shift in strategic preferences within the core members of NATO. So dramatic a change in the domestic coalitions and ideas that favour the preservation of NATO as a security institution with multiple functions would surely only become possible, were the cost of NATO membership to become unacceptably high. Perhaps we should be more concerned about over-stretching the Alliance than about the absence of a unifying mission and a new central front.

Yes, there is a common threat. However, leaving political rhetoric aside, it is a threat of much greater importance to the United States as a "Middle Eastern power" than it is to Europe. That said, the threat posed by Islamist terrorism is, as you pointed out, not exclusively a military challenge. Indeed, I would argue that it is not primarily a military challenge at all. The real question seems to me: what functional contribution can NATO make to a broad strategy of addressing threats by transnational Islamist terrorists and of coping with security risks posed by the proliferation of nuclear weapons? So broad a strategy should avoid grouping different challenges and risks into one monolithic threat, as appears to be the case in the current US foreign policy debate.

The focus on the Greater Middle East should not be seen as Alliance therapy. In the absence of a analysis of engagement in the Greater Middle East - one that is based upon strategic priorities and takes into account finite resources and capabilities - your long list of things the Alliance might get involved in could easily lead to over-stretch. NATO remains too important an institution for its existence to be jeopardised by an overly ambitious and costly engagement in the Middle East.

We should be more concerned about over-stretching the Alliance than about the absence of a unifying mission and a new central front

It has almost become a cliché to say that the West cannot afford to fail in Iraq and Afghanistan. But one should be careful about putting NATO's prestige and credibility on the line. What does failure mean? It is certainly desirable that both countries develop into stable democracies. But this cannot be a yardstick for measuring success and failure in terms of an "exit strategy". Preventing Afghanistan from again disintegrating into a haven for transnational terrorism is a more limited and realistic goal. Resources are finite and the readiness to incur costs limited - even in the United States. Official rhetoric and actual policies do not match. Deeds speak louder than words when it comes to assessing vital interests. Few NATO member states relish the idea of taking on warlords all over the country, which is presumably what you would expect from European Alliance forces.

You are right to say that your vision requires "dramatic changes" on the European side, including higher military budgets and a different strategic outlook. Yet these changes are no more likely than the required change on the US side that you failed to mention: a willingness to treat European states somewhat better than junior partners whose only option is to jump on the US bandwagon or to risk a confrontation with the dominant partner. The reasons that the United States is eager to share the burden of being a Middle Eastern power are clear. But burden-sharing among Allies involves shared decision-making. But while the tone of US foreign policy might become more amenable under a different President, accepting greater European influence in the Middle East will not come easy to Washington irrespective of who is in the White House.

Pre-emptive strikes "at nuclear facilities that flout international non-proliferation norms" might become necessary at some point. But would any US president be willing to try and build consensus within NATO for such a policy? NATO legitimisation for such a policy is no doubt a major political incentive for entering into such delicate negotiations, but the cost of trying to reach agreement on action against, say, Iran, might prove prohibitively high.

If the United States is successful in fighting the insurgency in Iraq and the political situation there begins to improve and evolve in a positive direction, involving NATO would be politically attractive but of comparatively modest military value. If, however, the situation does not improve, the guerrilla campaign gathers momentum and Iraq disintegrates in civil war, any NATO forces deployed there would have to expect to face combat missions. This is not an attractive scenario, given public sentiment in most member states and it would surely be a recipe for transatlantic strife.

The Greater Middle East is emerging as the focal region of European-US policy coordination. But Greater Middle East initiatives will lead nowhere unless the US administration re-engages in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Pushing for economic modernisation and political liberalisation might in the very long run contribute to drying out the reservoir for new terrorists. In the process, however, we must expect a lot of instability and this may pose even greater challenges and dilemmas for the West. If NATO can contribute to managing those challenges, it should be used to this end. If, for example, military partnerships along the lines of the Partnership for Peace can help socialise Middle Eastern military officers in democratic norms, such initiatives would no doubt bolster the overall strategic approach.

But NATO as a security institution with a growing membership cannot be expected to develop into the central forum for transatlantic policy coordination on the Greater Middle East. Such coordination would surely be easier within functional and smaller groupings involving the European Union as an important actor.

Yours,
...top...
Peter


Dear Peter,

With images of the horrendous carnage of Madrid fresh in my mind, it's hard to take seriously the idea that "the management of great-power relations" is more important than confronting the new terrorism of mass murder, as well as the dreadful prospect that terrorists could get their hands on mass destruction weapons. The one challenge seems abstract, academic; the other is exploding in our faces.

In any case, the United States has been managing its great-power relationship with China since the Korean War and will go on doing so even as we confront terrorism and jihadi fanaticism. I don't believe China's growing geopolitical weight poses a potential threat to America or Europe. The threat, if there is one, arises from the ideology and ambitions of China's leaders, and the habitual tendency of despotic regimes to conjure up external "threats" to justify their repressive rule. If the liberalising forces now transforming China aren't suppressed and continue to seep from the economic into the political realm, Sino-US relations are likely to get better, not worse. That's why, for the present, I'm more worried about Russia's relapse into authoritarianism than the prospect of war with China.

But let's get to the crux of our disagreement. You say NATO is too important for "its existence to be jeopardised by an overly ambitious and costly engagement in the Middle East." Important for what? Does NATO now exist simply for the sake of existing, or does it have a strategic purpose? If the Alliance now confronts challenges of such overriding importance that it cannot commit more resources to stabilising Afghanistan, I would like to know what they are. Without a real mission to counter real threats, NATO risks becoming the institutional equivalent of a child's security blanket - something that comforts but doesn't actually ward off dangers.

NATO could provide security guarantees to facilitate a negotiated, two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Incidentally, contrary to your suggestion I did not say that NATO's mission in Afghanistan should be to establish a democratic government. Rather it is to help the central government pacify the country so that it doesn't dissolve into chaos and once again become a haven for terrorists. Yes, that will probably require taking on some warlords, an idea you say few European countries would relish. And yet it needs to be done if the mission is to be accomplished. There's no danger of overreach in this instance: Wealthy Europe obviously has ample human and material resources to help the government of an impoverished, backward country extend its writ beyond Kabul and, while you're at it, help US forces destroy Taliban and al-Qaida remnants along the Pakistan border. This is a question of will, not resources.

Finally, you are right that a new transatlantic project aimed at modernising the Greater Middle East will require a new attitude in the United States as well as in Europe. But Europeans can't have it both ways: If they don't want the United States to treat them like "junior partners", they've got to carry a senior partner's load. That means spending more on defence, developing the new capabilities of high-tech warfare and, probably hardest of all, being willing to use force when our mutual security interests demand it. I recognise that these are big, politically difficult steps. Many European leaders apparently don't believe the threats arising from the Greater Middle East justify taking them. Maybe they are right, but what happened in Madrid argues powerfully against complacency.

Yours,
...top...
Will


Dear Will,

Let's leave aside the issue of whether the peaceful management of great-power relations and the avoidance of catastrophic greater-power conflict will remain as great a challenge in this century as it was in the last. I only wish that I could share your liberal optimism about the end of great-power rivalry. What I question is the emerging assumption in the US foreign policy debate that the Middle East will become the predominant conflict region of this century - not the fact that we are confronted with a mortal, transnational terrorist threat of unprecedented historic proportions.

This transnational threat does originate in the Middle East, but it has already been present within European societies for some time and cannot be dealt with primarily by military means. As a result, NATO will be of limited value in this struggle. But, as far as most Europeans are concerned, this does not mean that the Alliance will become irrelevant unless it goes into the Middle East. You seem to take it for granted that traditional European security dilemmas and problems will never re-emerge, though, to be fair, you do express some concern about developments in Russia. Maybe they won't re-emerge. But we cannot be sure. NATO is not "a child's security" blanket, but a wise insurance policy. Certain risks may not be particularly likely and therefore appear, in your words, "academic". But it is surely both prudent and rational to insure against them, as long as the premiums are not too high.

Greater Middle East initiatives will lead nowhere unless the US administration re-engages in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

In addition to the structural role the Alliance plays in underwriting European security, as a result of ingrained habits formed by years of military cooperation, the "new" NATO is in many ways a security-services provider. As such, it is also able to make available a pool of forces of coalitions of the willing. If, therefore, NATO can make a useful contribution to resolving or managing specific problems in the Middle East, it should clearly be used. But contingency planning for politically delicate military missions in the region - and one could easily imagine crisis scenarios involving "friendly" countries such as Saudi Arabia and/or Pakistan - is one thing. Elevating the importance of the Greater Middle East to the Alliance so that it becomes NATO's new central front and raison d'être is another.

In the case of Afghanistan, there is simply no denying the fact that no member of NATO - not even the United States - is willing to devote the human and material resources necessary to get the job done. Well-meant calls for ambitious undertakings, which ignore political constraints and different strategic perspectives, are doomed to end in frustration and irritation.

Nevertheless, I think that we agree that both within NATO and, more likely, in other settings, a sustained transatlantic dialogue about strategic priorities and possible common policies in the Greater Middle East is urgently needed.

Yours,
...top...
Peter


Dear Peter,

I don't assume the end of great-power rivalry. It's not inconceivable that a new strain of pan-Slav nationalism could take hold in Russia, perhaps prompting an aggressive bid by Moscow to absorb parts of the old Soviet empire. This is a worst-case scenario, but with liberalism seemingly in retreat in Russia now, it cannot be entirely ruled out so by all means, let's preserve NATO as an insurance policy.

What's puzzling, however, is the argument that such purely conjectural dangers should take precedence over the unmistakable threats we face right here and now. NATO is a military alliance formed to protect its members against armed attacks and intimidation. Three NATO members have now been attacked by a global terrorist network rooted in the Middle East and Islamic extremism. Either NATO should develop the plans, capacities and will to combat this menace effectively, or it should give up any pretence of remaining a true mutual-defence pact.

The notion that NATO could become a pool from which members could draw military assets or form "coalitions of the willing" seems fanciful given the absence of a political consensus about the purposes for which those assets should be used. More likely, it would devolve into a transatlantic security forum or perhaps a predominantly European framework for security integration. In either case, that would spell an end to NATO as we knew it - the potent American-European partnership, based on a clear and unambiguous mission, that underpinned the West's successful Cold War strategy and a dramatic expansion of liberal democracy.

We agree that terrorism cannot be defeated by military means alone. But some tasks - denying terrorists safe havens in failed or rogue states, detecting and destroying terror cells wherever they may be plotting to do us harm, keeping the peace and nation-building in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, interdicting the transport of nuclear and other dangerous materials - ineluctably involve military force. Afghanistan does pose a crucial test. You assert that neither the United States nor European members of NATO are willing to devote the resources to get the job done. Shall we then withdraw and hope for the best? Is Osama bin Laden right about the irresolution of the democratic West?

Without a real mission to counter real threats, NATO risks becoming the institutional equivalent of a child's security blanket

Lurking just below the surface of today's transatlantic debates on terrorism, Iraq and Middle East transformation are mostly unstated fears about each other. Europeans fear that America will drag them into unnecessary fights; Americans fear that Europeans don't have the stomach for necessary fights. I do agree with you that a candid transatlantic dialogue is urgently needed to dispel both fears and forge a more effective, common response to the new dangers we face.

Yours,
...top...
Will


Dear Will,

You rightly mention fears lurking just below the surface of the transatlantic debate. They seem to be the current manifestation of what academics have called the "alliance security dilemma". On the one hand, states belonging to an alliance fear that their allies may abandon them in their moment of need. On the other, they themselves are afraid of becoming entrapped in conflicts they do not consider to be in their own vital interests. And the Iraq War stirred up some fear of entrapment in Europe - and created serious doubts about the strategic wisdom of this US administration and its priorities at a time when global Islamist terrorism is, no doubt about it, the clear and present danger.

Again, I do not believe that the "old" NATO based on one overriding geographically focused mission can be resurrected. After the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, NATO did invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, yet no member state interpreted this action as obliging it to provide unconditional military support. Moreover, as you will recall, Washington clearly preferred to build a coalition of the willing for its war on terror to risking becoming entangled in Alliance decision-making.

NATO is not a "child's security blanket", but a wise insurance policy

I have not advocated and do not advocate a NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. However, I don't see how the mismatch between high-flying rhetoric and actual policies can be bridged. And I've been unable to detect any evidence to the effect that the stabilisation of Afghanistan is a top priority for Washington. As a result, I would be cautious about the extent to which we put NATO`s credibility and prestige on the line in this operation. More than a decade ago, the United Nations was strongly (and wrongly) criticised and subsequently held responsible in the United States for the failure of the international community's intervention in Somalia. This contributed to further erosion of support for the United Nations in the United States. For the sake of NATO and the transatlantic relationship I hope that the Alliance is able to avoid a similar fate in Afghanistan.

Yours,
...top...
Peter