By Bilal Y. Saab – This took longer than I expected, but it is finally out. For expert commentary on the 2012 conference on a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, I urge you to take a look at this CNS special roundtable report. It includes contributions from 12 specialists in the field of arms control in the Middle East. My essay (I am lead editor of the report) takes a long-term view at the future of arms control in the Middle East in light of the Arab uprisings. Here it is again, along with that of Chen Kane, my partner in crime, but I really recommend you read the other pieces as well.
The Road Ahead by Bilal Y. Saab
If a conference on “A Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East” does take place in December 2012 in Helsinki, it would not be the first time Middle Eastern nations meet in the Finnish capital to address underlying sources of regional insecurity and instability.
Indeed, more than seventeen years ago, delegates from all regional participants in the ACRS talks, along with the gavel-holders (the United States and Russia), the host country (Finland), and experts from Australia, India, France, and the United Nations, met to discuss all things arms control and regional security. While modest progress was achieved on some of the conceptual and operational items in ACRS, the talks ultimately collapsed in 1995, primarily because Egypt and Israel disagreed over a disarmament strategy and timeline (Israel is the region’s only nuclear weapon state). Assuming it happens later this year, will the 2012 conference produce more positive results? Most analysts, including participants in this roundtable, are skeptical, and perhaps rightly so.
Nobody doubts that it will take years, if not generations, for arms control to take root in the Middle East. With no end in sight to the Arab-Israeli conflict, with increasing regional uncertainties caused by the Arab uprisings, and with talk of possible military action by Israel and/or the United States against Iran to halt or destroy its nuclear program, the prospect of states in that part of the world cooperating with each other like they have never done before and placing real, verifiable, and mutual limitations on their state sovereignty, national secrets, and defense armaments for the collective goal of reducing regional insecurity indeed seems unthinkable at present.
The Middle East will experience growing pains should regional states decide to resume the long interrupted arms control process and participate in the 2012 conference. Any casual reading of the arms control experience between the Soviet Union (later Russia) and the United States and among European states after the end of the Cold War will clearly show that arms control—already a counterintuitive concept and exercise even to the most liberal and open-minded—is tough and complex business.
Much has changed in the Middle East since the ACRS period of the 1990s. Iran is much closer today to achieving a nuclear weapons capability (if it so chooses) than it was years ago. With Saddam Hussein out of power since 2003, Iraq is no longer a confrontationist state in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Iraq’s recent radical shift in politics has resulted in a Shi’ite-majority government that is increasingly under the influence of Iran, though the situation in Baghdad remains unstable. Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey have increased their regional power and influence at the expense of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya are transitioning from authoritarianism to representative government following their popular uprisings. Finally, Syria is in a state of civil war that could engulf several states in the region. If Damascus falls and a new anti-Iranian leadership comes to power in Syria, Tehran will lose its only real ally in the Middle East and its most important access to the Arab world. These changes (actual and potential) notwithstanding, many of the old problems plaguing the Middle East—territorial disputes, arms races, security dilemmas, historical rivalries, and religious, sectarian, and ethnic animosities—persist.
All of these fluid security and political dynamics present a wide array of challenges to the 2012 conference in particular and to the future of arms control in the Middle East in general. But they also present potential opportunities, depending on how the political transitions in the region unfold. The biggest long-term opportunity I see is the gradual change in the overall political landscape of the Arab world and in the domestic context of Arab foreign and defense policy.
Current and emerging leaders could be more receptive to new thinking and practices in foreign and defense policy. Even if they prove to be worse than their predecessors, they will still operate under vastly different political circumstances, i.e., facing greater societal demands and political pressures that could positively impact foreign policy decision-making. For example, if Arab publics call for regional cooperation on security and nonproliferation, their national governments-Islamist and secular-will have to comply with their wishes. Otherwise, they will face political costs.
In addition to new leadership, the political transitions in the Arab world are likely to empower parliaments and free judiciaries from the grip of all too powerful executives. Indeed, Arab parliaments and judiciaries no longer have to be symbolic, powerless, and rubber-stamped institutions, and can play a more effective role in foreign affairs. Arab parliaments should be empowered to fulfill the goals of legislation, oversight, accountability, regulation, and constant renewal of political life. But they can also play an extremely constructive role in arms control by ratifying treaties, financing foreign policy proposals, approving defense budgets, and overseeing weapons systems to the best they can.
In a similar vein, Arab bureaucracies no longer have to be used by dictators to sustain their patronage policies. Instead, today there is an opportunity to stop the trend of staffing the bureaucracies and intelligence services with regime loyalists who are instructed to suppress and spy on society. If properly handled by the new leaders, intelligence services can be used to perform necessary national tasks, including defending the homeland and assisting with arms control-related verification mechanisms, if the opportunity presents itself. Absent real intelligence reform in the Arab world and no less than a revolution in these services’ mission and standard operating procedures, regional arms control is likely to face some serious technical problems.
As far as civil society is concerned, its recent resurgence and the empowerment of the public in the Arab world are positive developments that will help ease and speed up the transition to democracy. Open societies tend to form governments that are more competent and better at integrating and incorporating the input of as many skilled and specialized voices from outside the government as possible. Closed societies, on the other hand, tend to form less than effective governments because they have a much smaller pool to choose from, often paying more attention to factors like loyalty and ideology at the expense of skill and capability.
The importance of the involvement of civil society in the arms control process cannot be overstated. The instrumental role that American civil society and industry has played in supplying the United States government with knowledge about and technical resources for arms control—including nuclear power, chemistry and biology, weapons systems, radars, sensors and overhead reconnaissance satellites—has helped the United States successfully negotiate and sign a number of arms control treaties including the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty and the Chemical Weapons Convention. Even the most competent governments need the expertise and specialized skills of practitioners, scientists, and companies from the private and nonprofit sectors. In arms control, public-private collaborations and partnerships are a must given the field’s complexity and multi-disciplinary nature.
The Arab world’s governments do not have a stellar record of engaging their civil societies and seeking from them the necessary knowledge and skill-sets to better perform at public policy and foreign affairs. Of course, some governments are better than others. Obviously, the more open the political system is, the more opportunities and avenues civil society will have. Unsurprisingly, the idea of empowering civil society or including it in governmental decision-making has been anathema to Arab autocrats who viewed it as a political threat. With new political opportunities now forming in the Arab world and civil society being allowed to operate with more freedom after all these years of suppression, real investments in education and science and technology—necessary for creating and nurturing an arms control culture—are now possible.
While one could argue that public opinion in the Arab world did not generate significant political costs to old autocrats as they engaged in foreign policy (one notable exception, however, is the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat for his unpopular peace treaty with Israel), this is more likely to change. Through popular will and mandate, Islamists and liberals (in fewer numbers of course) are coming to power in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and possibly elsewhere, and should these new rulers fail to deliver and fulfill their promises, public opinion will not be kind to them and may force political adjustments or resignations.
Of course, the pace and scope of widespread change in the Arab world is largely dependent on the changing role of the militaries and law enforcement agencies, i.e., the remnants of the ancien régime. One cannot speak of a new social contract in the Arab world if the militaries retain their supraconstitutional powers and firm hold on national politics. Take Egypt, for example, where the fight between the Islamists and the liberals on the one hand (i.e., those who led the popular uprising), and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (the ruling military council) on the other will determine the future of the country. We can expect similar political battles and rocky transitional scenarios to take place in Syria should the regime of President Bashar al-Assad collapse and the armed rebels take over until a new government is formed.
In sum, for arms control in the Arab world to have a better chance to succeed, civil-military relations should be relatively sound and the role of the military in society should be properly defined; the military services should not obstruct the natural flow of politics and instead answer to the civilian authority whose agents are solely responsible for making and conducting foreign and security policies, and not the other way around.
We have no choice but to wait and see how the new leaders of the region will approach issues and how amenable they will be to new and more cooperative approaches in foreign affairs, including arms control. Should the transition succeed and real, drastic reforms in political and economic affairs take place, the next big test for Arab societies will be to start building durable and effective governmental, institutional, administrative, and technical capacity in order to deal with a host of domestic and foreign policy challenges. That in itself is a process that is likely to take an even longer time.
It is one thing for nations to be free, but quite another to be prosperous and competent at home and in their dealings with the outside world. The Middle East could open up politically but remain mired in bureaucratic under-development and economic slump. Smart national leadership can prevent that from happening.
Bad Timing But Still Some Hope by Chen Kane
The decision of the 2010 NPT Review Conference to hold a conference on “A Nuclear-Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction-Free Zone in the Middle East” was part of a compromise between the United States and Egypt (the latter as Chair of the Non-Aligned Movement, the New Agenda Coalition and a leading country in the League of Arab States). This US-Egyptian agreement was intended to facilitate a consensus text for the 2010 NPT Review Conference. Specifically, Egypt got Iran to agree on the consensus document in exchange for the United States promising to launch the 2012 conference.
It is important to mention the background story behind the 2012 conference because both Egypt and the United States are currently unwilling to hold or incapable of holding (or both) the conference in late 2012, but both also do not want to openly admit it. Current Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has been in power for a month, and his ruling party has no experience in government or in pulling the levers of power. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have yet to start articulating Egypt’s domestic, security, and foreign policies, and it is unclear who will actually decide on international affairs for the country; will it be the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces or the president?
The power struggle between those two blocs has just started and will take a while to resolve. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry has made it clear that the current situation in the region should not be used as an excuse for postponing the conference, but the ministry also lacks strategic instructions or a coherent planning mechanism for what they want to achieve in such a high-level forum. Should the conference be used as a venue to further isolate Israel or to start a constructive regional security dialogue?
The United States is not in a better position, either. It is presidential election season in Washington, DC. One only has to hear US officials commenting on the conference to conclude that the United States is unable to invest any political power to make it happen (perhaps after the November election, but not before the scheduled month of the conference in December). Conference facilitator Jaakko Laajava and his team have been working extremely hard to reach an agreement on some terms of reference, an agenda, and follow-through for the conference, but they lack the influence and authority to make things happen, assets that only the United States possesses in its relations with many Middle East nations, most importantly with Israel. With such a demonstrable lack of US interest, it is extremely unlikely that Israel will prepare any constructive ideas to kick-start the conference, especially since it opposed the conference in the first place.
With this background in mind, I believe that the agreement to hold the conference has been reached for the wrong reasons and its timing could not be worse. That said, I do not think that holding a conference is a bad idea. I do believe that it is in the best interest of all countries in the Middle East to convene and openly discuss all the security issues facing the region. But here is the main question: are countries in the region ready and do they have the proper incentives to come to the negotiating table and talk directly to each other? No matter how significant the threat of failing to reach consensus in the 2015 NPT Review Conference is, if the states in the region are not ready to engage in a constructive dialogue, the process will simply not start.
Should they prove their readiness to talk, here are some useful ideas regarding both process and substance that can be agreed upon for the conference:
• States in the region have not met for more than seventeen years since the collapse of the ACRS talks, and some of them did not participate in (Syria and Lebanon) or were not invited to (Iran, Libya, and Iraq) the ACRS talks. There is a great deal of bad history in the region and tensions must be relaxed. States will need time to deliver “national statements,” and speak about their concerns and threat perceptions. This is crucial because if states are not given the proper amount of time to do this healthy venting exercise on the first day of the conference, they might do it throughout the meetings, rather than engage in a constructive dialogue and achieve tangible results.
• While countries in the region may not be willing to work together right now, they may be willing to take unilateral steps to enhance regional security. The model of the Nuclear Security Summit where every country brings a “house gift,” a measure it is committed to implement unilaterally or as a sub-group by 2015, can be adopted. Starting with unilateral steps is likely to create a momentum for working toward a common goal, even if these commitments are not taken in unison.
• If a follow-up meeting or process is agreed upon, it would be best to start with the technical issues. While the region may not be ready to solve the political-strategic issues yet, especially while the governments of the major regional players are consolidating power, there are technical issues that can be discussed. One example would be a discussion on how to create a verifiable zone free of chemical and biological weapons and their delivery systems, including missiles.
• Regional civil society, and especially the youth, should have a say and a role to play in the prospective zone. A Finnish NGO should host a meeting in parallel with the conference (similar to the NGO meeting held in parallel with the Nuclear Security Summit) for international NGOs and next generation practitioners from the region to come together outside the bounds of official government talks. Such a parallel conference may create even more important opportunities to promote dialogue and support fresh ideas in conjunction with the official talks.