Interview with Kenneth M. Pollack on Persian Gulf Security

By Bilal Y. Saab – Ken Pollack needs no introduction. One of my favorite analysts of the Middle East, a good friend, and a former  colleague, Ken is a Senior Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings (formerly the Center’s Director). Ken’s government experience includes stints at the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council, focusing on the Persian Gulf. I sat down with Ken last week to discuss security affairs in the Middle East and specifically, his new paper for the Saban Center called Security in the Persian Gulf: New Frameworks for the Twenty-First Century. Needless to say, I strongly recommend your read the paper, and if time is short, you can always take a look at the executive summary.

1- US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently proposed improved collaboration with GCC states on maritime security and missile defense to counter potential threats from Iran.  One of the fruits that could come out of enhanced US-GCC relations is a regional missile defense system for the Arab Gulf. How realistic is such a system knowing the classic challenges and limitations of missile defenses?

As you point out, we should not expect a whole lot in tangible terms from a regional missile defense system for the Gulf.  Even with advances in recent years, such a system is likely to miss more than it hits.  It might also be extremely expensive—and might not be the best use of such funds for countries (including the United States and Saudi Arabia) that probably would be better off using that money to address deep structural problems in their economies and societies.  That said, if the costs are bearable, there are definitely some important plusses to going ahead with such a program.  First, it provides another tangible sign that the GCC has no intention to bow down before a nuclear-armed Iran, but will instead balance against Tehran however they can.  Second, it is another symbol of American commitment to the defense of the Gulf—something that many people worry about if Iran acquires a nuclear capability.  Third, it would help further integrate the defense and security strategies of the Gulf Arab states and the United States in the Gulf.  It would further smooth cooperation and be one more physical incentive for all of the states of the region to work and act in unison, and in lock-step with the United States, all of which would be helpful in deterring Iranian aggression, reassuring the Gulf Arabs, and ensuring cooperative moves both among the GCC states and between the GCC and US.

2- Calls for and discussions about a new regional security architecture are old. From the 1991 Gulf War to the Arab Spring, has anything changed in the Middle East to make that vision possible and what role should the United States play to make it happen?

You are right that these ideas date back twenty years, and the original rationale for them remains germane: the GCC architecture is helpful, but it only takes you so far.  In particularly, it isn’t of much help if your goal is to create a framework for arms control in the region and/or developing a more cooperative approach to security problems with Iran and Iraq.  However, there are three things that have changed since the Persian Gulf War.  First, Iran has made much greater progress toward acquiring a nuclear capability of some kind, and that is an important new threat that all of the Gulf States and the U.S. now must confront.  Second, Saddam Husayn is gone, and Iraq is in the hands of a new leadership that everyone hopes will be more peaceful than he was.  While the jury is still out on Iraqi stability, let alone aggressiveness, the nature of that threat has changed considerably and if Iraq somehow manages to stumble toward stability, it would be helpful for Iraqis, Gulf Arabs and Americans to find a way to deal with its security needs in a collaborative framework.  Finally, the GCC states and the United States have made considerable progress in knitting together their communications, intelligence, air defense, and naval networks, which provides a strong foundation for further cooperation.  So there is both a greater need and a greater potential for an expanded and transformed security architecture.

3- In what ways has the Arab Spring changed traditional security dynamics in the Middle East? Specifically, should Damascus fall, are we truly about to witness a radical shift in the regional balance of power?

This is a big topic and for a fuller treatment, I would refer you to the essays that I wrote in the collaborative volume The Arab Awakening:  America and the Transformation of the Middle East (Brookings, 2011).  The thumbnail sketch is that the Arab Spring is likely to have a profound impact on the security dynamics of the region.  Even more than the Iraqi civil war, it has created the threat of a Sunni-Shi’a conflict in the region—something that the civil war in Syria is really helping to generate.  It has created the prospect for further realignments in the region: democracies vs. autocracies, haves vs. have-nots, Islamists vs. secularists.  I am not saying for certain that any of this will happen, only that the events of 2011 and 2012 have completely reshuffled the Middle Eastern deck and we cannot be certain how the states of the region will align themselves when the next hand is dealt.  It might very well be completely different from our traditional prisms for viewing security dynamics in the region like pro-American vs. pro-Soviet, Arabs vs. Israelis and conservatives vs. radicals.

4- In the continued absence of comprehensive peace in the Middle East, do you think real arms control has a shot in this conflict-ridden region? Or do you subscribe to the theory of peace first, then arms control?

I think that a comprehensive peace between Arabs and Israelis would be ENORMOUSLY helpful to arms control efforts in the region, but I am pessimistic that that is a near-term prospect and I think it would be a huge mistake to simply throw up our hands and say that arms control efforts are impossible until there is peace.  I have concentrated my writing on this score on the Gulf because I think that the Gulf could make tremendous progress on arms control regardless of what does or doesn’t happen with the Arab-Israeli issue because, frankly, none of the Gulf States really cares much about the threat from Israel, INCLUDING the Iranians.  As I have written in this new report and in prior pieces on the subject, all of the Gulf states see one another as their primary security threats and partners, and for all of them, Israel is distant if not irrelevant.  Getting serious arms control in the Gulf is going to be very hard, but not because of anything connected to the Arab-Israeli dispute.  Beyond that, there is work that could be done among the Arab-Israeli confrontation states BUT (and this is a big but) only if the Arabs can stop trying to use arms control talks to try to get the Israelis to give up their nuclear arsenal.  The Israelis are not going to give up their nuclear arsenal—certainly not before a comprehensive peace, but possibly not ever.  Arms control could be incredibly helpful to all of the confrontation states (especially Syria, once there is a unified, stable Syrian state again) and if the Arab states were smart, they would try to secure those very tangible and helpful benefits rather than cutting off their noses to spite their faces the way that the Egyptians did by blowing up the ACRS talks by trying to use them to get the Israelis to give up their nuclear arsenal.  A pair of pliers is an incredibly useful tool, one that can solve lots of problems; but if you try to use it as a hammer, you are not only not going to drive home any nails, you’re going to break your pliers so that you can’t use them to solve your other problems.  That has been the Arab approach to arms control and it is foolish.  It doesn’t hurt the Israelis.  It only hurts the Arabs themselves.

5- A conference on a Middle East zone free of WMD is scheduled for December 2012. Nobody anticipates major breakthroughs and it is not even clear that the event will take place on time. But if it does, and all regional countries including Iran and Israel decide to participate, what can one realistically expect from this conference? How should the United States approach the conference?

I think the most one can expect from such a conference would be a very mild, aspirational statement that it would be great to someday have a Middle East free of WMD.  That won’t seem like much at all, but if you can get that, it will force both Israelis and Iranians (and everyone else) to start to think that that will someday be the goal.  That will change things in important ways.  Before Camp David and Oslo, there were many Israelis who believed that it was realistic for them to hold on to all of the land that Israel had conquered in 1967.  The debate in Israel was between those who knew that they would have to give it back (and the only questions were when and how) and those who wanted to keep it all.  That was a very real debate in Israel.  Camp David and Oslo—partial and imperfect as they were—demonstrated to all Israelis, that there just isn’t an option to keep all of the land conquered in 1967, and so the debate in Israel has become all about how and when (and how much of) the land is going to be given back.  That is a huge shift in the Israeli political debate and that has moved us a LOT closer to real peace than we were in the 1970s or even the 1980s.  So that kind of a statement—vague and intangible as it may be—could still be very helpful in changing people’s perspectives, which can eventually change the terms of the political debate.