While no one knows what the Middle East might look like even a year from now, one thing is certain: The region is in desperate need of long-term security structures.
Called by some observers as "the Arc of Crisis", the region, spanning from North Africa to the Indian Subcontinent, is the only major portion of the globe still threatened with long-term instability and war.
Virtually all the 25 countries in the region, 17 of them Arab, have a history of territorial disputes, ideological differences and national rivalries. Over the past six decades, the region has experienced 12 international wars and half a dozen civil wars of various dimensions. And, all that despite the fact that the rival blocs in the Cold War managed to restrain their respective clients for much of the period.
With the end of the Cold War, that mechanism for restraint all but disappeared. For a brief moment, it seemed as if the United States, reinvigorated under President George W. Bush, might provide a new mechanism for stability. However, the latest mid-term election in the United States showed that a majority of Americans do not share the president's strategic ambitions. Indeed, all the talk in Washington is about how to disengage from the region, especially by retreating from Iraq.
The United States is not the only power with major national interests in the Middle East. The European Union, China, Japan and India also depend on the region for the bulk of their energy needs. Instability and war in the Middle East will also affect neighboring nations in the Subcontinent, Central Asia, Russia, the Mediterranean basin, and the Horn of Africa.
Despite Iran's ambition to emerge as the regional superpower and a guarantor of stability in the "Arc of Crisis", few believe that the Islamic Republic, plagued by internecine feuds and a deepening social and economic crisis, has the wherewithal to play a leadership role. More importantly, it is unlikely that a majority of the peoples of the region would gladly rearrange their lives to fit into a Pax-Iranica based on the Khomeinist ideology.
It is against that background that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is launching its quest for regional allies with whom to develop a long-term security relationship.
NATO, which has one full member, Turkey, in the region, has already forged an association with Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Israel and Azerbaijan. It is present in Afghanistan, with which it hopes to establish durable ties. The alliance also maintains some level of cooperation with Pakistan, continuing a tradition established in the 1950s when Islamabad joined the Baghdad Pact and its successor the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO).
At the other end of the spectrum, hopes of closer NATO ties with the Central Asian republics and Armenia have been put on hold, largely because of Russian and Iranian pressure. Also, NATO's ambiguous, not to say negative policy towards Iraq has given the alliance a bad image with the new democratic regime in Baghdad. As far as Lebanon is concerned, it is unlikely that it will consider any NATO links before uprooting Iranian and Syrian networks of influence, currently showing their force by challenging the nation's democratically elected government.
That leaves the Arabian Peninsula as the most promising chunk of the region where NATO hopes to fish for partners, if not allies. The alliance already has an informal dialogue with Yemen, one of the region's most vulnerable nations targeted by radical Islamist groups. Although Yemen has granted mooring rights to the navies of several NATO members and taken part in joint anti-terrorism planning sessions, it is unlikely to formalize its ties with the alliance anytime soon.
In recent months, the alliance has directed its attention towards the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). At first glance, the six GCC members might look like a homogenous bloc. They are all Arab nations with a monarchic system. All but one are major oil exporters. Four are members of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). The United States and Britain maintain significant military assets in all but one of the GCC states.
Despite that apparent unity, however, GCC members have developed different, at times contradictory, defense doctrines. This is why NATO planners have realized that seeking a relationship with the GCC, as a bloc, might not produce results.
In that context, NATO's current efforts to forge closer ties with Kuwait and Bahrain may point to a new strategy by the alliance. Last week Kuwait hosted a joint conference with NATO to highlight similarities in the way both sides read the situation in the region. Kuwait has dispatched a high-level parliamentary delegation to meet NATO officials in Brussels, and put one of its most senior diplomats in charge of relations with the alliance.
Nevertheless, chances of NATO securing new partners in the region must be rated as dim.
The reason can be summed up in one word: Iraq.
Having refused to support the US-led war that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, the alliance has reneged on its promise of helping train the new Iraqi Army and police force. In a sense, the Iraq experience spelled the end of NATO as an alliance. Turkey, a founding member of the alliance, refused to let other members use its territory to intervene in Iraq. NATO, in turn, dragged its feet on the issue of guaranteeing Turkey's security in case of aggression by the Saddamite regime. Donald Rumsfeld's phrase "the coalition of the willing", acknowledged the downgrading of NATO, and underlined the ability of the US to attract coalition partners outside the alliance.
NATO's prestige has suffered further blows in Afghanistan where several member states have engaged in Byzantine politics designed to ensure their symbolic presence without obliging them to take active part in the fighting. These members have committed their troops with a number of reservations, known as "caveats" in the military jargon.
Some refuse to fight after the sunset, and insist that their troops should not enter Afghan villages even if these serve as terrorist havens. In some cases, the committed troops refuse to fight at short notice, insisting that their every move be cleared with the political authorities in their home countries. Since it is not possible to obtain such clearance immediately, in some cases, the NATO commanders end up with forces that are available only in theory and on paper. In some recent fighting in the Qala Mussa area of southwest Afghanistan, for example, two NATO members issued clearances for their forces several days after the final battle had already been fought.
Such anecdotes point to a key fact: NATO, originally created to face the Soviet challenge in Europe, has not succeeded in developing a coherent new doctrine in the post-Cold War world. Its members no longer agree on the source of threats to their interests and securities. Worse still, some members are prepared to sabotage the efforts of other allies to deal with perceived threats to them.
As far as the GCC states are concerned, association with NATO may be of some interest on diplomatic grounds. Having an agreement with NATO may look like a certificate of good conduct from a bloc of mostly Western democracies. In terms of offering the GCC anything resembling genuine security, however, NATO has little to offer. A divided alliance cannot secure its own flanks, let alone offer outsiders effective protection against predatory powers in a chronically unstable region.