Although US interventionism is part of the collective Arab experience, NATO interventionism isn’t – at least not yet. According to NATO’s “New Strategic Concept,” however, this could change soon, with European forces being propelled into global military engagements – even in the Middle East.

The new NATO doctrine, announced during the alliance’s 50th anniversary last April, is the most interventionist document in NATO’s history. Whereas the alliance’s Cold War strategy was limited to defending a clearly delimited territory, the new strategy commits member states to defending unbounded interests beyond Europe’s theater of operations. NATO’s new mandate is as global as the Western interests it has pledged to defend.

The new document’s guiding principle is early and wide-ranging reaction, possibly well beyond NATO’s traditional territory, should emerging crises threaten Euro-Atlantic security or interests. This means that the Arab world will receive its fair share of NATO attention. “Crisis response operations” are the chief instrument through which NATO will act henceforth. The new document features “Guidelines for the Alliance’s Forces,” which detail this intervention mechanism: “An important aim of the alliance and its forces is to keep risks at a distance by dealing with potential crises at an early stage. In the event of crises that jeopardize Euro-Atlantic stability and affect the security of Alliance members, the Alliance’s military forces may be called upon to conduct crisis-response operations.” The paper does not hide the geographic scope of NATO’s new operational radius: “The size, readiness, availability and deployment of the Alliance’s military forces will reflect its commitment to collective defense and crisis-response operations, sometimes undertaken at short notice, far from their home stations, including beyond the Allie’s territory.

“Beyond the Allies’ territory” includes a region that Brussels’ strategists term the “Euro-Atlantic periphery.” The new doctrine describes the Mediterranean as an area of particular interest. “Security in Europe,” the paper claims, “is closely linked to security and stability in the Mediterranean.”

When NATO discusses the Mediterranean, it refers not to beach resorts on the Italian Adriatic or picturesque Greek Islands. Rather, “Mediterranean” is NATO-speak for the Middle East. According to Cold War NATO thinking, this area, Europe’s “southern flank,” was viewed as a “secondary theater” in any potential conflict with the Soviet Union. NATO’s primary concern then was the central front running through the middle of Europe. Today, with most Eastern European countries eager to become NATO members and Russia overwhelmed by domestic crises, NATO’s strategic importance had waned. As NATO struggles to find new raise d’être, dangers lurking along Europe’s southern periphery have proved quite useful.

In 1997, NATO’s Academic Forum organized a conference entitled “America and Europe: A Time for Unity, a Time for Vision.” The Middle East was a key agenda item. One paper argued that following the Cold War, “the Mediterranean, previously considered Europe’s strategic backwater, is now a region where NATO may be most likely to face new challenges.” Nowhere, the paper argued, is a basic re-examination of Western strategy more overdue than in the Mediterranean region. “It is here that… the most likely candidates for future European security crises may be located.” As a consequence of this newly perceived threat, NATO slowly reconstructed its policies on two tracks, one political, the other military.

Five years ago, NATO politicians initiated the “Mediterranean Dialogue,” an exchange program to enhance contact and cooperation with six countries: Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia and Mauritania. Former NATO Secretary General Javier Solana missed no opportunity to praise the dialogue’s “confidence-building” measures. NATO’s military leadership, however, prefers not to rely solely on nice words about fruitful dialogue. In May 1998, Admiral T. Joseph Lopez, then-Commander-in-Chief of Allied Forces South (AFSOUTH), issued a warning about the emerging Mediterranean enemy, “instability”:

Think about a country like Turkey and many of the countries that surround it. Almost all of them have elements of instability. There are political and economics factors tied up with regional conflicts in some of those countries, religious and political extremism and… high birth rates, refugee movements and illegal immigration. There are factors of military capabilities and intentions, including the availability of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction [as well as] ballistic missiles to carry them as far as some European cities. Then there are the haves and the have-nots in strategic resources, including the availability of oil and gas, and more importantly, something we don’t ordinarily think about, water.

Lopez concluded that the ancient adage, se vis pacem para bellum (“if you want peace, you must be ready to fight”), remains valid today. “The best way to influence events in distant foreign lands – in fact, the only way to influence events – is to be there.” Thus, his main demand is unsurprising: “We must stay forward engaged.” A potentially frightening demand, seen through Arab eyes.

“NATO is opening its umbrella above our heads,” warned the Egyptian columnist Salaheddin Hafez in the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram soon after NATO’s new doctrine was announced. The crisis scenarios mentioned in the new doctrine sound all too familiar to Arab ears. Under the line item “security challenges and risks,” the doctrine states that:

[r]isks include uncertainty and instability in and around the Euro-Atlantic area and the possibility of regional crises at the periphery of the alliance, which could evolve rapidly. Some countries in and around the Euro-Atlantic area face serious economic, social and political difficulties. Ethnic and religious rivalries, territorial disputes, inadequate or failed efforts at reform, the abuse of human rights and the dissolution of states can lead to local and even regional instability… [and] crises affecting Euro-Atlantic stability.

It is as if NATO strategists tailored the new doctrine specifically for the Middle East. In a section that discusses “risks of a wider nature,” one finds familiar buzzwords such as “terrorism” and “disrupting the flow of vital resources.” The doctrine also warns about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the region. Such arguments have legitimized US interventionism in the past. The bombing of Libya and Sudan were executed in the name of Washington’s anti-terrorism campaign. In the Sudanese case, the target of US cruise missiles was later revealed to be an innocuous pharmaceuticals plant unrelated to weapons manufacturing or terrorist activities.

Innovative Interventionism

The biggest news story behind NATO’s new doctrine is that all NATO members actually signed it. US interventionism has now morphed into NATO interventionism. Without the NATO-led war on the former Yugoslavia last spring, such a doctrine might never have been possible. Cynics explain the unanimous signing of the doctrine by pointing to the timing of its introduction: NATO’s 50th anniversary coincided with the war in Kosovo, and most NATO states recognized the new doctrine’s applicability to the situation in the former Yugoslavia. They forgot, however, that military doctrines, which last longer than specific conflicts, can be applied (perhaps inappropriately) elsewhere.

What, for instance, will happen if the infamous Usama Bin Laden tries to blow up another US embassy? Will European fighter-jets be dispatched to bomb Afghanistan, Pakistan or Sudan? What if skirmishes in Iraq develop into a new war? Will NATO ground forces be mobilized to fight in southern or northern Iraq? Any disobedient state on NATO’s southern or eastern periphery could, in the future, feel NATO’s military sting.

The US welcomes renewed NATO support not so much for its military as for its political significance. Washington has had increasing difficulty recruiting allies for its Middle East adventurism. The multinational, anti-Saddam alliance of the early 1990s is now a dim memory. Today, only American and British planes continue to bombard targets in Iraq’s “no-fly-zones.” Even France dropped out, which indicated that NATO’s new doctrine is not yet automatically respected in practice. Common interventionism requires common interests, and it is this ingredient that is frequently wanting in the West’s Middle East policy. European capitals are frequently uncomfortable with the US approach to fighting terrorism, and there are many well-documented rivalries between Europe and the US about Washington’s views on the Israeli-Arab peace process as well as the US strategy of dual containment of Iraq and Iran.

From Washington’s perspective, the new doctrine enables the US to obligate Europe’s participation in future interventionist adventures throughout the world. To many outside the NATO alliance, worldwide NATO action in the name of US interests sounds like bad science fiction, but with the signing of the new NATO doctrine, the first chapter of this screenplay has already been written.

How to cite this article:

Karim El-Gawhary "NATO’s Future in the Middle East," Middle East Report 213 (Winter 1999).
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