- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 29, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Despite a great deal of hot campaign rhetoric, a genuine, strategic debate about Middle East has finally begun. It will continue to intensify in the coming months as the presidential candidates struggle to define their national security policies as being neither “hard” nor “soft” but “smart.”

On the one hand, there are those who contemplate deterring “non-state actors” like al Qaeda through more robust, and more targeted, counter-terrorist measures. On the other hand, there are those who call for deterring Iran’s nuclear exhibitionism with dire warnings, or even a pre-emptive strike.

The amazing thing about this discussion is that the two groups seem to be talking about the same general problem but in an unrelated way. The overall problem is neither new nor arcane: nuclear proliferation. Simply put, it is not in the interest of the United States and its allies to see the world’s most destructive weapons, namely nuclear weapons, fall into the hands of their enemies, whether they be states or transnational groups.

The source of the problem goes beyond access to nuclear weapons technology. It has to do with the incentives to proliferate. In the Middle East today, the incentives are substantial, not only because of the lack of a credible regional deterrent, but also because the general security environment there is both unstable and in flux. Iran is not the only state to worry about, just as al Qaeda is not the only terrorist network to dismantle.

The various regional actors make differing calculations of cost and benefit, and whether or not we term those “rational” is beside the point. What the Middle East needs above all is a stable order that dissuades and deters hostile powers of any size from contemplating the acquisition and use of such weapons. Order means that more powerful groups rein in or otherwise curtail the power and ambitions of less powerful ones. That is why states emerged in the first place.

Yet such an order cannot be imposed by the U.S. alone, or by a fragile coalition of United States allies in the region. Nor does it seem likely that it will emerge from within the region itself. So what is to be done?

We need to start thinking regionally, and pooling resources. This means looking at regional security as a whole instead of focusing separately on the strengths and vulnerabilities of allies and adversaries. And we need to use the best organization we have available—NATO—to devise a viable strategy of extended deterrence.

Warning Iran over and over that the United States and/or Israel will destroy its nuclear assets does not seem to be working. Telling the states of the Middle East that the North Atlantic Alliance will defend them if any are attacked with nuclear weapons sends a different signal. It says that the West stands by the entire region’s peace and security, not simply that the United States stands by a few allies of its choosing, bluff or no bluff. A stable regional order also will lay the foundation for more effective security cooperation on the ground, which should help to reduce the likelihood of nuclear proliferation among non-state actors.

The details of such a security guarantee will be difficult to work out, both militarily and politically, but not impossible, especially if they have the backing of Russia and other major powers. It may involve amending Article V or VI of the North Atlantic Treaty and the composition and mission of NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group. But nothing will happen unless we change our thinking about the problem. As President Eisenhower often said, if you cannot solve a problem, enlarge it. The Middle East calls for nothing less.

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