U.S. security assistance has to be, first and foremost, integrated into a broader U.S. Middle East strategy and linked more directly to clearly defined U.S. policy goals in the region, which currently center on, but are not limited to, deterring Iranian aggression, countering Iranian asymmetric warfare and combating violent extremism, all of which require working with Arab partners and helping them enhance their military capabilities (and reform their politics and economics). Such a strategic reconfiguration of U.S. security assistance must be implemented through the interagency process, given the involvement of various federal agencies in this system. The National Security Council (NSC) should take the lead, and start by abandoning the current bottom-up security-assistance approach, which is primarily engineered by the defense offices of U.S. embassies in the region, along with CENTCOM and the U.S. military-service chiefs, in favor of a strategy that is formulated at the top and communicated to the various bureaucracies and offices. As experienced as CENTCOM is in the military and security requirements of its Arab partners, and as irreplaceable as its role in the region is, the process of security assistance requires first the strategizing, prioritizing and policymaking of the NSC (ideally, DOS should be the one prioritizing and policymaking, and the NSC should be coordinating and helping get DOD on board). That is because even the strictest military affairs of the region have first-, second- and third-order political effects that must be accounted for, which can only be done through proper interagency coordination. However, strategy at the NSC level is not enough. There also has to be concrete planning guidance to identify which Arab partner capabilities we care about in relation to stated strategic aims. One way to do that is by returning to the original legislative intent of security assistance as a tool of foreign policy, which would require much closer DOS-DOD coordination. While new legislation like Section 333 of the FY17 NDAA is a helpful step in that regard, it maintains the responsibility for many security assistance programs, and a vast majority of unearmarked security-assistance funding, with DOD. Approaches that place foreign policy back in the heart of security-assistance strategy, planning and implementation, such as the creation of a transfer of authority to enable DOD to funnel its assistance dollars through the DOS policymaking apparatus, might assist in this goal.
Second, we need to craft clearer policies toward Arab partners to allow for more effective arming, funding and training of their militaries, should there be a need for such activities. Security assistance simply will not succeed in the absence of a convincing reason why we are committing more U.S. treasure and political capital, and sometimes even blood, to this endeavor. It is no longer sufficient for the Defense and Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), which takes the lead in implementing DOS’s authorities and the security-assistance process, to state vaguely that a certain arms sale to the region contributes to “regional stability” and U.S. interests. It has to explain to Congress more clearly why specific types of Arab military capabilities should be developed, and how exactly they are expected to contribute to U.S. goals.
Third, there might be a benefit to establishing a new joint congressional committee (or subcommittee) on security assistance, to which DOS and DOD report—although this runs the risk of creating more barriers and perhaps stovepipes than the ones that already exist. Currently, DOS and DOD report to separate congressional committees and use different language and metrics for security-assistance evaluation. That needs to stop, given the obvious linkages and synergies between political and military affairs when it comes to security assistance. We can talk all we want about joint planning and interagency coordination, but if oversight systems are not harmonized and reporting channels are not unified, it might make no difference (mind you, it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to convince the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the House Foreign Affairs Committee and others to give up their jurisdictions on security assistance).
Fourth, the executive branch needs to more meaningfully involve Congress in this process, not just because the latter has the power of the purse, but because security assistance must be a national conversation, especially as we might provide more of it in the future to our Arab partners to reduce our military involvement in the Middle East. This will require not just “dropping off” loads of documents and hoping for lawmakers to read them (which more often than not they won’t), but also personally and more regularly engaging with senior staffers on the Hill, who generally tend to know more about the issues than their bosses. In return, members of Congress need to more effectively engage their DOS and DOD colleagues by educating themselves more about security assistance (some, like Sen. John McCain, are more knowledgeable and experienced than others, of course), asking the right questions and, as impossible as this sounds, depoliticizing the issue. There’s no excuse for ignorance when DOS notifies and briefs members of Congress in advance on all major arms sales and security-assistance grants and submits multiple reports on FMF.
Fifth, it is vitally important for Washington to try to understand its Arab partners’ perspectives on their own national security and U.S. security assistance, rather than dismiss them offhand as bizarre or irrational. There is an unhealthy dose of waste and ineptitude in some aspects of the Arab partners’ approaches to defense and security policy, but not everything they do, by any stretch of the imagination, is misguided. A greater appreciation of the differing security calculations and concerns of Arab partners might help U.S. officials in their efforts to (1) encourage these partners to do joint threat assessments, strategic analyses and capability planning with U.S. counterparts, and (2) offer them more pointed advice on their core security requirements, both of which could positively affect U.S. security assistance. It is not as though U.S. political and military leaders have not pursued these consultative processes with Arab counterparts before. They have—many times. For example, Daniel Chiu, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development, led discussions with various global U.S. partners about their own military requirements and national-security concerns. The goal was to entice the allies to compare threat assessments and pursue joint acquisition projects with the United States. It worked to a large extent with Jordan, for example, but failed with Egypt. The United States now leads annual Defense Resourcing Conferences (DRCs) with Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan, and anticipates expanding these to other partners around the world. The purpose of these DRCs is to help partners match their procurement decisions to their strategy and resources. But unless this process is, first and foremost, directly tied to U.S. policy and strategy—which it doesn’t seem currently to be—all it would do is create more problems.
TOO OFTEN the United States has sold or transferred weapons to friends and allies—not just Arab—with little regard to their military utility and the recipients’ capacity to use them. This wasn’t much of a U.S. concern in the past, because Washington had policy objectives that seemed more important or pressing than building or enhancing the military capabilities of friends and allies.
However, U.S. priorities in the Middle East have changed. Today, the United States is facing a more complex network of adversaries, some of whom do battle in the shadows, resort to irregular war tactics and are eager to sacrifice everything for their apocalyptic cause. The support of Arab partners is vital for addressing these threats effectively. There is immense value in continuing to pursue arms deals that benefit the U.S. economy and preserve enduring U.S. goals in the region, including the upholding of U.S. military basing on and access to Arab territory and airspace, as well as the Camp David peace treaty. But the status quo is no longer acceptable, and it is becoming increasingly costly. Despite its humongous size, security assistance is not and cannot be an island. It must be reintegrated into the U.S. foreign-policy process.
Bilal Y. Saab is senior fellow and director of the Defense and Security Program at the Middle East Institute. He is most grateful to numerous current and former U.S. officials, military officers, senior congressional staffers and experts for sharing their insights.