An opportunity we cannot miss

NATO and the Middle East–the very combination of these two terms may still strike some observers as far-fetched, perhaps even frivolous. But the time to explore how NATO can make a real contribution to Middle Eastern security has clearly come. Within the transatlantic community, there is a growing consensus that new ties must be built with a region of unique strategic importance. At the same time, many countries in this region also indicate a wish to put their relations with the West on a new footing. This creates an opportunity that we cannot afford to miss.

Clearly, change in the Middle East cannot be imposed from outside. However, we know from experience that outside encouragement and support are required to sustain a positive momentum. For decades, Europe and North America have tried to play such a role–albeit with a mixed record. The jury is still out on whether the transatlantic partners can do better this time around in developing a more coherent approach to the Middle East. But the consensus between Europe and North America on making NATO part of such a fresh approach–a consensus that would have appeared unthinkable only a few years ago–gives cause for optimism.

In essence, NATO’s policy vis-a-vis the Middle East currently features three major elements.

The first element is the Mediterranean Dialogue that includes seven countries from North Africa and the Middle East. Since its inception 10 years ago, the dialogue has developed steadily, and its work program now includes subjects as diverse as airspace management, border security, counter-terrorism, defense reform, civil emergency planning, military exercises, and training and education. The dialogue is now being significantly enhanced through the inclusion of more concrete military cooperation activities. And NATO allies and dialogue partners are discussing ways to work together on specific operations, including participation in NATO’s major maritime counter-terrorist operation in the Mediterranean, Operation Active Endeavor.

The second element is the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI), launched at NATO’s Istanbul Summit last year. The ICI focuses on establishing relations with countries in the broader Middle Eastern region, notably the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The ICI will follow the logic of our enhanced Mediterranean Dialogue, i.e., it will focus on practical areas such as defense reform, joint training and the fight against terrorism. Several Gulf states have already welcomed these new opportunities and together we are working out the modalities of our cooperation.

The third element in NATO’s current approach to the Middle East is the training of Iraqi security forces–both inside and outside that country. The logic is clear: all allies have an interest in enabling Iraq to assume more responsibility for its own security. The NATO training mission is modest in size. However, the very fact that it came about is a strong indication that the transatlantic community wants to leave past controversies behind and focus on the challenges at hand. And that in itself is a most welcome development–both for NATO and for the Middle East.

The enhanced Mediterranean Dialogue, the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative and our training mission in Iraq are three major elements of NATO’s current engagement in the Middle East. They demonstrate that the Alliance is involved in the region–and that all the allies realize they have a stake in its future.

Admittedly, all these steps are still rather cautious. They take into account regional specifics and sensitivities and, above all, perceptions in the Arab world that are not always favorable. Yet NATO’s engagement will grow stronger. Calls for NATO to play a role in the implementation of an eventual Israel-Palestine peace agreement indicate as much. That such ideas resonate among American conservatives as well as European liberals may be surprising to some, yet there are good reasons why such unlikely bedfellows agree. After all, NATO comprises North America and most of the European states. And as the Balkans have demonstrated, a NATO framework ensures a degree of political and military commitment and experience that no coalition of the willing could ever hope to match.

We are not yet at the point where an active NATO role is required. There would first have to be a lasting peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians; both would need to be in favor of a NATO role in its implementation; and there would have to be a UN mandate. These conditions do not yet exist. But there are signs that that time may be approaching. And I believe that, if the call comes to NATO, this alliance must be prepared to respond positively, and to play its full part.

In the years to come, the evolution of the Middle East will affect Euro-Atlantic security more than the development of any other region. That is why NATO needs to explore how it can support positive change. The first steps have already been taken, and more are likely to follow. They will put NATO in an even better position to help the states of the Middle East to enjoy peace and stability.