Yes, the world is changing, it is in upheaval and it is exciting when looking at the developments in the Middle East. Revolution, regime change and democracy are in the air of several countries, but often accompanied with violent crackdowns (Syria), military rule (Egypt) or fundamentalist movements (Yemen). Yet, what does this mean for NATO and its future operations? How should the US and its transatlantic allies react to such a transformative event in a region, which has usually been prioritized due to its strategic value?
The close proximity of countries such as Tunisia and Egypt to Europe demands that NATO employs its knowledge and resources to support democratic developments. Yet at the same time, member states need to take a critical look at their own interests and capabilities. Therefore, NATO should conduct a debriefing first, an observation second and an engagement last. What does this mean in detail?
Debriefing: According to politicians and news sources, NATO will end its Afghanistan engagement in the next two years, at least to some degree on a combat level. This begs the question, what has NATO learned from its engagement in a Muslim country? How has operating among a Muslim population changed some rules of engagement or at least NATO's understanding of an out-of-area mission? Confronting and evaluating these questions is crucial if NATO is serious about becoming involved in a post-Arab Spring scenario. The question and challenge is how NATO can be credible to a Muslim population after many scandals (Qur'an burnings) and misguided policies (night raids).
In this context, officials can also draw on their experience in Kosovo, where the NATO engagement is still highly popular among the Muslim population. In addition, NATO needs to strengthen and support the role of Turkey – a country which is not only predominantly Muslim, but at the same time demonstrates the synergy between Islam and liberal values, an incredibly asset and opportunity for NATO.
Second, observing developments and traditions on the ground and in NATO member states: Yes, the Arab Spring is a riveting process that has captured the Western audience, yet some political realities will remain unchanged. After Afghanistan, many European countries (especially Germany) will be reluctant to commit more troops or resources to support social movements in the Middle East, often due to domestic and financial concerns. This does not have to be detrimental to the Arab cause, especially because the region is traditionally and rightfully suspicious and wary of Western involvement. Therefore, NATO has to respect the importance of ownership that the Arab youth has rightfully claimed, so that regimes in Syria or military councils in Egypt that are influencing events on the ground or determining the course of events cannot discredit NATO.
Memory in the Middle East is different from Western memory after all. Western interventions are remembered no matter how many years back they date and they are usually not regarded in a favorable light. This needs to be taken into account by member states and consequently, they should only become involved at the explicit request of new regimes or, to some degree, the civil society. I would even go further and argue that NATO should not become involved unless it has the support of the Arab League, which would offer a great boost to Western credibility and effectiveness both at home and abroad. Of course, democratic developments should be supported throughout the world, but some realities demand that we, as member states, also look at the financial and political context of these movements. Often, engagement by the West is branded as 'interference' by certain countries. Therefore, NATO has to be extremely careful whom it supports and where and when it wants to do so.
Thus, a successful engagement with Arab Spring countries can only occur if NATO members agree on their particular interests for the region (countering terrorism, ensuring energy security, regulating immigration patterns or democracy) and their willingness for support. European and US interests overlap for the first two issues, yet immigration concerns are rather specific to Europe. Consequently, NATO should work with other organizations, such as the EU or NGOs, in order to foster positive developments for Arab civil societies and their economies and act not in a military specific context. Some commentators might argue that NATO has valid security concerns in the region, and indeed, it does. However, this does not mean that NATO has to immediately respond to these concerns in a military fashion.
Instead, the West and NATO have to convince the people in the region that they are not guided alone by strategic interests but also by their values, which should include a respect for local ownership of the movement, an acknowledgement of the history of the West and a positive outlook regarding NATO’s support for civil societies and not military councils. This could result in a higher long-term regard for NATO and its missions.
Sarah Wagner is currently a Political Science graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Supported by the Fulbright Commission, she is studying U.S. Afghanistan policy for a year before returning home to Germany.