The security situation facing the Middle East is grave and appears to be trending toward greater violence and instability, says a new report. The states of the region have tended to focus on traditional, external threats but the internal threats they face—from domestic unrest, state failure, and civil war—have become both more common and dangerous, according to an analysis from the Middle East Strategy Task Force.
Ultimately, the only way to eliminate the recurrent, worsening security crises of the Middle East is to help the states of the region address the deep structural problems in their economic, political, and social systems through a process of long-term reform, notes the report on Security and Public Order, jointly published by the Brookings Institution and the Atlantic Council:
It is critical that the strategies employed by regional and external actors working together to address the security problems of the region be crafted so they do not impede long-term political, economic, and social reform. Instead, these strategies should include steps to enable and encourage such reforms. Eventually, a critical goal for the Middle East should be to establish an inclusive security condominium along the lines of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), which later developed into the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), that can address security concerns via cooperative and collective measures, and enable the reform that is necessary to address the deeper structural problems of the region.
There is an important causal relationship between security on the one hand and political, economic, and social development on the other, notes the report, edited by Brookings analyst Kenneth M. Pollock:
For instance, Barbara Walter notes that the scholarly literature on civil wars shows a strong correlation between poor governance and the outbreak or recurrence of civil war (and good governance does not necessarily mean democracy, although functional liberal democracies do feature good governance). In contrast, that same scholarly work has found no correlation between reform and increased risk of violence. That is a critical revelation because across the Arab world, people have drawn the wrong inference, believing that reform opens the door to revolution, state failure, and civil war.
Part of the Libyan challenge, for example, is that its strategic importance far outstrips the attention it has so far received, the report notes:
Not only does the country possess rich oil resources that are important to key European economies, but its location bordering Egypt, the most populous Arab country, and Tunisia, the Arab Spring’s only budding democracy, makes spillover a special concern. However, given the extent of the current American efforts in Iraq and Syria, let alone the expansion of those roles envisioned here, it seems highly unlikely that the United States would make a similar effort in Libya.
If the United States and the wider international community are going to accept the difficult and costly commitment to take on the region’s security problems exactly as the states of the region want, it must come with a reciprocal agreement by those states to take on the equally painful task of pursuing meaningful reform to transform the region so that someday it will evolve beyond its current state of endless crisis and conflict:
Reform is … a long-term, gradual process of change to improve legitimacy and efficiency so as to preclude the kind of revolts that broke out in 2011. Reform was not what Ben Ali did in 2011; it is what former King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia began doing in 2005 and was the most important reason that there was no revolt against the Al Saud in 2011.47 In short, the interests of security demand the promotion of reform because a failure to reform is a key element in the revolts and concomitant state failure and civil wars that today are the most important of the many security problems bedeviling the Middle East.
Threats to national security – especially in the form of jihadist terrorism – are again being used by the regions regime to maintain the status quo.
“Real as their terrorist threats are, it is also the case that nearly all of the states of the region have used terrorism as an excuse to avoid reform and stamp out political opposition,” the report adds:
Across the Middle East, groups that regional governments dislike are branded as terrorists, and the violence and repression the regimes then employ against them are justified by use of the term. All of which makes the problem only worse over the long term. The repression, violence, and injustice feed popular grievances, convincing others that the government has no interest in solving the underlying problems, which can in turn generate still more support for violent opposition in a vicious cycle.
Even when a government employs so much force that it is able to snuff out groups employing terrorism (or insurgency) altogether, if the underlying grievances are left to fester, they will eventually produce new forms of instability.
“This is ultimately the story of the 2011 Arab Spring, which was preceded by decades of reliance on repression rather than reform (seemingly successfully to many observers) only to have it all explode in uncontrollable and unpredictable ways,” the authors conclude.
The US government has a legitimate need to prevent such attacks and bring those who perpetrate them to justice, the report adds:
Nevertheless, it is also true that since 2001, American policy toward many countries of the region has been subsumed by counterterrorism policy. Washington has consistently overlooked human and civil rights abuses, reliance on violence and repression, and avoidance of genuine reform by the regional governments because it desires the assistance of those same governments in identifying and eliminating terrorists.
It is because the states of the region are so loath to de-emphasize the immediate requirements of counterterrorism for anything—even that which could undermine terrorism over the longer term—that the external states are almost certainly going to have to play an active role in moving the governments of the Middle East toward reform. Doing so will require a combination of positive and negative incentives to reward and enable taking risks for reform, while making clear that the international community will no longer countenance repression in the name of counterterrorism, because doing so simply breeds worse terrorist threats against both the nations of the Middle East and their external partners and allies.
New security architecture
For many centuries, Europe was the most unstable, violent continent in the world. Today, Europe—at least Europe west of the Dnieper River—is so tranquil and secure as to be geostrategically boring, the analysis continues:
Its transformation since 1945 was the product of a wide range of factors, including long and painful economic, political, and social reforms like those envisioned herein for the Middle East. However, another important aspect of these changes was the development of new security architectures for Europe and the superpowers that helped bound their strategic competition and avoid the kind of great power wars that had plagued the continent since the Reformation. These arrangements reduced misperceptions, reined in arms races, and bolstered deterrence through dialogue, confidence-building measures, and arms control agreements. Some of the most important also helped to usher in the wider societal transformations that finally ended the Cold War.
“Although the Middle East is different from Europe (and East Asia, where other security architectures have proven similarly helpful), given the extent of its problems, there is no doubt that it too could benefit from similar kinds of structures,” it concludes.
Security sector reform
Still another goal must be to create professional, apolitical security services that protect all of society, not just the government, the report adds:
Institutions that are loyal to a constitution and a body of laws, not to specific individuals treated as above the law. Moreover, as part of a process of broad reform, the eventual professionalism and commitment to the nation over the regime needs to be solid enough to prevent a regime from subverting its own laws and arrogating to itself autocratic powers.
Under the bipartisan Co-Chairmanship of former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright [chair of the National Democratic Institute, a core partner of the National Endowment for Democracy] and former US National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, the Atlantic Council convened the Middle East Strategy Task Force (MEST) in February 2015 to examine the underlying issues of state failure and political legitimacy that drive extremist violence and threaten fundamental interests broadly shared by the peoples of the region and the rest of the world.