Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Manama Dialogue 2008: The US and the Regional Balance of Power

The 2008 Manama Dialogue opened with US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates as the speaker at the first plenary session, entitled "The US and the Regional Balance of Power." His speech was extremely interesting, not because of what he did say (as I have written about before, the higher ranking the official giving the speech, the less specific the speech tends to be on policy issues) but because how he said it. He started with a discussion of Iraq, but had little concrete to say there. However, when he moved on to discussing Iran, he offered a fascinating sentence:

When it comes to Iran’s missile programmes, we all know that pictures can be deceiving.
Obviously, the intelligence failure in Iraq has shaken the US defense establishment for Gates to say this. To some degree, this may be some kind of carrot, indicating that the US is still open to being convinced that the nascent Iranian nuclear program is in fact peaceful and not intended for weaponization.

Gates concluded his speech by addressing two issues of specific concern to the Gulf region: air and maritime security. First, Gates made it clear that missile defense is one of the highest priorities in region:
Several GCC nations are in the process of acquiring, or have expressed interest in, shared early warning, near real-time information on air and missile attacks that would allow maximum time for a nation to defend itself. Additionally, all GCC countries have expressed a desire to obtain, or are already obtaining, active defence systems. These procurements demonstrate the GCC’s commitment to regional security and interoperability with each other and the United States.
I am no fan of missile defense. However, the Gulf is one area where missile defense makes more sense than in other areas. Given the proximity of threats, as well as the glut of missile proliferators, missile defense can go a long way to not only smoothing regional imbalances of power but frayed nerves. The experience of Israel and the Patriot missiles during the first Gulf War is clear evidence of the impact missile defense can have; without the reassurance of the Patriots (even though they likely didn't work), Israel very well may have felt pressured to respond to Iraq's SCUD attacks, which would have in turn splintered the coalition. Reassuring the Gulf states against Iran (and to some degree against Israel) will not only help to lower tensions but will also ease escalating pressure to proliferate.

Gates also emphasized the need to deal with the growing threat of priracy of the Horn of Africa and in the Gulf of Aden:
piracy is a problem that has serious international implications and should be of particular concern to any nation that depends on the seas for commerce. Earlier this year, the United States Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, established a maritime security patrol area in the Gulf of Aden and is leading an international coalition to keep shipping lanes safe. I thank Saudi Arabia for agreeing to support the effort and encourage other nations to do so.

Given the vast coastal areas of Somalia and Kenya, more than 1 million square miles, there are limits to patrolling alone; more must be done. Under the United Nations Security Council resolution passed last week, members of the international community must work together to aggressively pursue and deter piracy. Companies and ships must be more vigilant about staying in recommended traffic corridors, and should consider increasing their security personnel and non-lethal defensive capabilities. New efforts for countries represented here might include developing a maritime surface picture and standard operating procedures against seaborne threats beyond just piracy, such as terrorism, narcotics trafficking, and smuggling.

As this article in today's New York Times makes clear, dealing with the pirates poses many problems, not the least of which that piracy is more of a symptom of failed states -- specifically, Somalia -- than a problem in and of itself. Gates makes no mention of dealing with the problem of failed states. Still, attention to the problem and more regional cooperation will be essential if the pirates are to be brought to bay.

Following Gates's speech was a Q&A session. Among the most interesting was one from a delegate from Jordan:

There are two ways that we know of [to combat terrorism and political violence in the region]. One is the mutually-assured military destruction through militarization of various countries in the region. The second is the mutually-assured peaceful cooperation through democratic means.

The strategy has failed, judging by the outcome of the Bush administration in the region. Democracy assures the second alternative – the mutual peaceful cooperation – as European history shows that it works. In your speech, it was not mentioned. The word ‘democracy’ was not mentioned. Even in your responses to the questions, it was not mentioned as a policy tool. My question is: has it disappeared as a strategy to build peaceful cooperation in the region knowing that democracy could moderate the extremist views and positions? Is there a new direction in that regard?

First, it must be acknowledged how incredible it is to hear someone from the Arab world talking about democratic peace theory.

Second, it shows that, if nothing else, the establishment of democracy in Iraq, however imperfect and fragile it may be, is a truly transformative event. The recent shoe-throwing event in Iraq and the resulting protests hint at a political culture that is largely unknown in the Arab world -- open dissent and spirited protest. While it is too early to laud Iraq as a success, and while the jury is still out as to whether the invasion was worth the costs, even the prospects of a democracy in Iraq is an amazing event.

Finally, Gates was asked about Pakistan:

I give you three very quick challenges. Firstly, the ease with which extremist groups based in Pakistan are able to travel around the world and launch terrorist attacks, as we have seen recently in Mumbai, and even the training given to a group in Belgium. Secondly, the attacks on US and NATO convoys going through Pakistan, and the apparent inability of the Pakistan army to protect these convoys. Thirdly, the presence of the Afghan Taliban leadership in Quetta, the ‘Quetta Shura’ about which US officials seem now not to be mentioning.

Gates's answer, while brief and slightly evasive, is interesting:

Firstly, the US has been very impressed with the transition to a democratic government in Afghanistan. We have been developing our relationship with that democratically-elected government over the past months. Pakistan needs to be our partner in this. Pakistan is a sovereign country. It is important that we work together with Pakistan to try to deal with the problems, particularly in the western part of Pakistan.

The Pakistani Army has very been aggressive in that area in recent months, and with some considerable effectiveness. It has a positive effect, in terms of reducing the number of Taliban people and other extremists who are crossing the border into Afghanistan. Pakistan’s government has come under the weight, in recent months, of the fact that they face an existential threat from these violent extremists who have declared their intention to overthrow the Government of Pakistan. We would like to see an evolving partnership with Pakistan, working with Afghanistan as well, to get control of that situation in the border areas. That in turn will address all three of the issues that you have raised.

Tomorrow, I will report on the second plenary session, entitled The Economics of Regional Security, featuring Barham Saleh, the deputy prime minister of Iraq, and Yoshimasa Hayashi, a member of Japan's House of Councillors.


Jenni said...

This is so interesting, and great to read, Seth. Thank you! I too am impressed with the question by the man from Jordan, and I'd be interested in finding Gates response.

dave said...

What's interesting about his response?

Your argument against missile defense was based on ROI. But if it can be justified for regional threats, don't we get global for no added cost? Or is it a different technology?

On a related note, what role does deterrence play in the Middle East? What do you make of the argument that in the Middle East, a state (such as Iran) that holds a nuclear weapon can threaten to nuke the Saudi oil fields and send the world into economic shock? Suddenly we are the ones being deterred. Does this theory hold water?

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