The Arab Spring happened quite out of the blue for many Western foreign policy practitioners and profoundly challenged their previous approach of prioritizing (autocratic) stability and economic relations. NATO's air intervention in Libya constitutes a clear-cut policy shift, taking forceful stance against authoritarianism and for a successful democratic transition in the region.
Over a year after the unfolding of the Arab spring, the region is still in turmoil and Western actors, like NATO, are in need of a consistent strategy towards it. A successful realignment of NATO's foreign policy strategy vis-à-vis the Middle East depends on two factors: First, as foreign policy requires regional partners, it is necessary to choose the most decisive and responsive actor in the (post-)revolutionary setting. Second, an effective strategy depends on the correct assessment of NATO's key assets and their efficient implementation. In other words: NATO needs to know with whom to act and how.
The Arab Spring upheavals and the subsequent demise of Ben Ali, Mubarak, Qaddafi or Salih was only made possible through the collective efforts of a multitude of actors. In all Arab states where revolutions took place, we were able to see the collaboration of students and liberal groups, Islamist organizations, the poor masses and dissatisfied cadres of the ancien régime. Yet, it was the armed forces, which were vital for both the success of regime change and the post-revolutionary setting as the ultimate arbiters. In Tunisia as well as in Egypt, the military sided with the protesters against the former authoritarian regime. In Libya and Yemen, parts of the armed forces split from the regime and supported the challengers. Regimes that were able to suppress protests, by contrast, such as in Algeria, Bahrain or Syria (for the time being), counted on the support of their armed men. Likewise in the post-revolutionary setting, the stance of the Arab military institutions will be more than decisive for a lasting democratic transition: The Tunisian army seems to have incorporated a professional, pro-democratic outlook and supports the transition process from the barracks. The Egyptian military and those forces of Libya and Yemen still vacillate between a democratic and an autocratic stance. The new NATO strategy needs to take this central role of the Arab militaries into account and make them a core target of its policy efforts.
Here is where the assessment of NATO's key assets come into play: Even though NATO has significantly broadened its policy portfolio over the last decades, its unrivaled expertise and main appeal to external actors still lies in the classic military field: threat assessment, strategy development, arms cooperation and innovations in military tactics. Given these strengths, NATO is best equipped to work together with Arab militaries as the decisive actors of the transition phase, and to employ a strategy of effective conditionality. Through platforms like the Mediterranean Dialogue, NATO can share its superior military knowledge and further cooperation with the Arab armed forces, at the same time putting issues like the democratization of civil-military relations (CMR) or the public accountability of the coercive apparatus on the agenda. Only Arab armies willing to adapt structural changes (e.g. overhaul the security apparatus) and internalize democratic ideals are granted the benefits of full-scale military cooperation with NATO. In order for NATO to retain a full repertoire, issues, like weapon sales, should also be better coordinated between its member states (e.g. no German tank sales to Saudi-Arabia, like in summer 2011, without the democratization of CMR).
The policy of effective conditionality has lost its appeal to some extent, at least in the economic sphere, as autocratic economic heavyweights like China or Russia have circumvented the Western value agenda by conducting "ideology free" business. However, in the security field, conditionality is still likely to prevail as NATO's military assets are unparalleled and much wanted in the insecure environment of the Middle East. The long-term US influence on the Egyptian army is a good example of how this reciprocity can work: Over decades the USA have engrained the Egyptian military with democratic values, at the same time granting substantial military benefits. The Egyptian military not cracking down on the protesters in January 2011 was a first positive result of this policy even though the Egyptian military still has a significant distance to cover towards becoming a genuine democratic actor.
Effective conditionality has to be accompanied by an unquestionable advocacy of democracy and liberal values. The Libyan intervention was a strong start: NATO's stance towards Assad in Syria as well as the autocratic gulf monarchies (Bahrain!) codetermines its future success.
Julian C. Fuchs has just finished his Diploma degree in political science and Middle Eastern politics at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany. He wrote his Diploma thesis on regime-military relations in Algeria and Egypt, analyzing obstacles and catalysts of regime change.