Undoubtedly, the crisis over Iraq has severely divided NATO to the point where a veritable cottage industry has sprung to life proclaiming the end of NATO. Yet in fact, the rumors of its death have apparently not reached NATO headquarters. Instead, not withstanding all the rancor within the alliance, we would be better served by understanding that NATO is undergoing a profound transformation into an organization whose main missions are collective security and crisis management and whose main center of activity is increasingly located in the Muslim world. Obviously, such a trend would produce strain among allies and transatlantic organizations. Nonetheless the issue of whether NATO should go into the Middle East and even Central Asia has been irretrievably decided. NATO now provides security in Afghanistan. And beyond that, NATO is now preparing to move into the Middle East.
Secretary of State Colin Powell has recently expressed his belief that NATO will participate in Iraq's reconstruction. Although NATO's current priority is Afghanistan and it is reluctant to enter Iraq unless the members united behind the idea, the principle of engaging the Middle East is not the subject of an argument. Rather the question is how to do so, i.e. the modalities of this engagement. In fact, NATO is clearly moving to create a stronger basis for its relations with the Middle East NATO's new plan, a so called "Greater Middle East Initiative", will be unveiled at its forthcoming Istanbul summit in June. The U.S. and Turkish governments -- the latter being the official host -- plan to invite Egypt and Israel along with four other Middle Eastern and North African countries to the summit. Among those being considered are Morocco, Tunisia and Qatar. These selected states will then be invited to join NATO's Partnership for Peace (PFP) program which already includes the five Central Asian states and the three Transcaucasian states.
The aims behind this reinforcement and invigoration of the PFP program are to develop members' armed forces so that they can operate together with NATO and can ultimately function as the armed forces of a democratizing, and ultimately democratic, polity. They may actually learn to work together among themselves, a step that would be a major advance in Middle Eastern security if it actually were to materialize. This is what has happened in Central and Eastern Europe, and these goals are equally valid for Middle Eastern states under today's security conditions. This initiative could therefore foster greater trust among rival Middle Eastern states and armed forces while also facilitating their ability to work with NATO and each other. This initiative could also help those military institutions to ultimately serve as exemplars of democratic civil-military relationships in their host countries as also has happened in Central and Eastern Europe. This program would also extend NATO's collective security capabilities into the Middle East and even possibly the Persian Gulf, especially if Qatar joins it. In time, if the initiative succeeds, it will certainly help participants and their armed forces in confronting terrorism and other related contingencies, e.g. insurgencies, as well as humanitarian disasters. Likewise, if successful, it will help reduce the possibility of military coups in the Middle East and other member states in Asia.
This initiative also corresponds to the U.S.' emerging plan to reorganize its global posture and shift many existing formations to Asia, albeit in transformed organizational structures. Thus, U.S. Army divisions are now being transformed into brigades. Beyond that, Washington also will revamp the nature of its foreign bases. Many of the areas under consideration for so-called bases in Asia will probably not be permanent bases like those currently in use in Germany, Italy and Britain. Instead they will often be smaller, and available mainly on the basis of need to gain access to a particular theater of military operations during times of crisis and/or conflict, not a full-time large-scale presence. Or else they will be much more austere and smaller formations than what we have gotten accustomed to thinking of as bases. Under such conditions, it would obviously be preferable to train as many local militaries as possible to work with each other and with NATO - according to NATO standards - so that they could take a larger part in defending their region either on their own or with NATO and other Western forces.
Indeed, if this approach proves successful as a basis for regional military cooperation among hitherto adversarial states, the model could be extended further toward the Gulf and deeper into other areas of security cooperation as has proven to be the case in Central and Eastern Europe. NATO's ability to perform missions of collective security and crisis management rather than defense against a non-existent Russian threat would grow commensurately. Certainly a collective security organization in Russia's so called near abroad would restrain Moscow's continuing imperial temptations as well as terrorists' or other insurgents' inclinations to undermine these regimes. While none of this means that the old NATO alliance will suddenly be revived and overcome existing disagreements; it does suggest that at least some of the obituaries for NATO are decidedly premature and that a new consensus about its purpose and missions is coming into being. This initiative also suggests that U.S. and Turkish leadership can cooperate in devising a valuable strategic initiative based on Middle Eastern and Asian realities. Regional military units can then be organized to work with Western armed forces at a Western standard and learn about Western notions of democracy as applied to civil-military relations. Clearly the success of this initiative requires a large and long-term investment of men and resources. But if this investment does make meaningful progress towards transforming existing security conditions in the Middle East and the Islamic world more generally, it
will not only be a successful and thus justified investment but it also will be a continuing vindication of NATO's vitality.
Stephen Blank is a Professor in the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College. The views expressed here do not in any way represent those of the US Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.