On October 22, 2015, the Atlantic Council and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies convened the fourth public hearing of the Middle East Strategy Task Force (MEST). The event featured MEST Co-Chairs Madeleine K. Albright and Stephen J. Hadley leading a high-level panel discussion on the region’s security crises.
The Co-Chairs were joined by former director of both the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency General Michael Hayden, the Brookings Institution’s Kenneth Pollack, convener of the Middle East Strategy Task Force working group on security and public order, and Rami Khouri, senior fellow at The Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.
Dr. Vali Nasr, Dean of Johns Hopkins SAIS, opened the discussion by welcoming the panelists and audience before detailing the ongoing civil wars and the flourishing terrorist movements exploiting them. He further suggested that the United States needs to reconsider its policy and strategy if it seeks to achieve peace and stability in the Arab world.
Secretary Albright then gave remarks, saying that what distinguishes the Middle East Strategy Task Force from other projects is its collaboration with those in the Middle East and Europe to provide a multilateral approach to security policy. She described how the current situation in the Middle East requires a long-term analysis of the region. Albright concluded that it is not the role of the United States to act alone in ensuring security in the region.
Dr. Pollack’s remarks detailed the recommendations of his working group. He emphasized how MEST’s security component aimed to encourage a process of transformation in the Arab world that would enable long-term peace and stability. He explained that the current civil wars are the main generators of the ongoing security problems in the Middle East, as they spread to neighboring countries, stoke sectarian violence, create safe havens for extremist groups, and drive refugee crises. In order to confront these symptoms, he argued that it is necessary for foreign and regional powers to solve the region’s civil wars. He cited the precedent of third party intervention in bringing about a negotiated end to a civil war, but emphasized that the difficulty lies in ensuring that people are guaranteed long-term rights and an equitable share of economic benefits and political power. In conclusion, he said that the role of security is to create a conducive environment for a stabilizing reform agenda. He also pointed to the importance of creating a regional security mechanism that would not only serve as a forum for states to discuss and cooperate on regional security issues, but also where regionally-driven standards of governance and economic reform could be implemented.
Hayden agreed with Pollack, adding that the United States cannot prioritize security for security’s sake in the Middle East. He commented how half-hearted interventions– as opposed to well thought-out and well-resourced strategies– in a civil war don’t just fail, they make the war worse. He also said that the United States must have more strategic flexibility and noted that the United States’ homage to the current Baghdad government prevents it from partnering fully with the Kurdish Peshmerga against ISIS.
Khouri explained that Arab publics currently perceive US interventions in the Middle East as lacking credibility. He suggested that the issues discussed in the report need a wider analytical framework looking at the role of foreign interventions and policies of ruling Arab governments. He agreed that there needs to be reform in Arab governance but also in US foreign policy. The United States should aim for a catalytic role in the region to help the Arab world obtain legitimate and judicious governments. Khouri also described how fundamental the Arab-Israeli conflict is in addressing security in the region, stating that it is the oldest, strongest, most destabilizing, and most radicalizing issue in the region. He further attributed the rise of violent sectarianism in the Middle East to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and urged the United States the be honest about the impact that the war had on Iraqi society.
During the panel discussion, Hadley noted that the security report will have to address why sectarianism between the Sunni and Shia communities in the Middle East has recently become so violent. He further suggested to the panel that terrorists are not just the symptoms of civil war but are also independent actors who choose to take advantage of public grievances for their own political means.
Albright argued that it is a combination of factors that has caused an increase in terrorism in the region, including the availability of weapons and the presence of existing sectarian feuds.
Pollack noted that there are pre-existing elements in any society that can push it either towards violence or peace, noting that most people in the Middle East do not express their political frustrations through violence. Khouri attributed the rise of terror to a lack of political and economic hope.
Hadley then took a question from the audience, asking why the United States should care about the Middle East. Pollack noted that while only the Russian and Chinese nuclear arsenals really pose an “existential” threat to the US, the problems of the Middle East can pose a “meaningful” threat, which he defined as potentially radically affecting the American way of life. He cited the obvious threat that terrorism poses, but also cautioned that world energy markets are still highly reliant on Middle Eastern oil. Although the North American energy industry has largely been able to make up for the total elimination of Libyan oil from the market, global supply could not withstand the potential of another major producer going offline due to instability.