President Trump will reportedly unveil plans for an “Arab NATO” during his upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia this weekend. While possessing an innate appeal to many, Trump’s security team will need to develop answers to some basic questions about the role and functions of this organization and should carefully weigh the potential downside risks associated with this proposal.
An announcement to create an “Arab NATO” would represent the culmination of a project that the Trump administration has been pursuing since coming to office in January 2017. Initial plans apparently envision an alliance centered around traditional U.S. allies including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Egypt, although others could presumably join. The United States itself would not be an official member of the pact but would contribute substantial military, intelligence, and diplomatic support to the alliance. It would not directly involve Israel.
The idea of the United States acting to forge an alliance of Arab Sunni leaders to confront and curb Iranian influence in the region enjoys widespread support among the foreign policy community. Doing so would certainly be consistent with the rhetoric of candidate Trump as he criticized the Iran nuclear deal. It would also strongly reflect the views of his current key national security advisors including Secretary of State Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Mattis, and his senior military commander in the region General Votel who seem united in the view that Iran poses the single greatest threat to U.S. interests in the Middle East.
Forging this anti-Iran alliance also has the innate appeal of echoing the success of NATO as a military alliance. Furthermore, this approach would be broadly consistent with the balance of power politics that the United States has long pursued in the Middle East beginning with Nixon Twin Pillars policy (supporting Saudi Arabia and Iran as bulwark against Soviet expansion), continuing through with U.S. support to Iraq against Iran during the 1980-1988 Gulf War, to balancing against Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and through the age of dual containment aimed at curbing bad actors in both Baghdad and Tehran during President Clinton’s tenure. In many ways, a Sunni-led coalition of Arab states aimed at containing or reducing the influence of Shi’a Iran is a natural extension of these broader historical trends in U.S. foreign policy.
Yet, as administration officials work to develop the details of this concept (the devil is always in the details), they will need to seek answers to some basic questions and consider the potential negative effects of pursuing this strategy.
First and foremost, the questions that should be answered:
What missions or functions will this alliance fulfill that are not already within the purview of existing regional organizations such as the Arab League or the Gulf Cooperation Council? How will an "Arab NATO" succeed where these organizations have failed?
Moreover, U.S. membership and an on-the-ground military commitment of hundreds of thousands of American troops were essential to NATO’s success in deterring Russian adventurism in Western Europe. In fact, the most direct implication of referencing “NATO” as a model itself implies an Article 5 commitment of the member states to treat an attack on one as an attack on all. Yet current plans do not call for U.S. membership in this new organization. How will an “Arab NATO’” succeed in the absence of such an explicit U.S. commitment? Are U.S. leaders prepared to extend such a commitment to defend each and every member of this new “Arab NATO”? How would such a commitment benefit U.S. interests? Who determines what acts will constitute an ‘attack’ and what would the U.S. role be in supporting such a declaration?
What additional U.S. benefits will be bestowed on this new “Arab NATO” beyond existing bilateral arrangements? Several Arab countries in the region are already designated as “major non-NATO allies” including Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, and Tunisia. This designation already entitles these countries to several advantages regarding access to U.S. defense-related research, participation in counterterrorism initiatives, priority delivery of excess military equipment, financing of defense equipment, and expedited processing of technology requests.
How will this organization resolve internal security disputes between member-states? Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates are supporting different and sometimes competing militias and groups in both Libya and Syria. Meanwhile, Egypt has heretofore been a reluctant supporter of the Saudi military campaign in Yemen. Could Egypt (a country that suffered more than 10,000 casualties in Yemen’s civil war during the 1960’s that was subsequently dubbed ‘Egypt’s Vietnam’) be compelled to substantially contribute to Saudi-UAE military efforts in Yemen? Will this ‘Arab NATO’ have the authorities needed to resolve these divergent views and coordinate these disparate assistance programs and ongoing military actions?
Next, the counterarguments and potential negative effects of a new “Arab NATO”:
Iran is not the Soviet Union: The NATO analogy simply does not hold water. The Soviet Union was indeed a global military nuclear power advocating a political and economic model that had broad appeal throughout many parts of the developing world. Iran is certainly a regional power that cannot be ignored. However, Tehran has limited options for extending its Shi’a ideological and communal appeal in a region that is overwhelming Sunni. Moreover, the nuclear deal has at least for now brought Iran back from the nuclear brink as it imposes severe limitations on its uranium enrichment capabilities, has eliminated its plutonium route to a nuclear weapon, and enforces a stringent international inspection regime of its nuclear facilities. Iran has also limited conventional capability to challenge the U.S.-led security order in the region which is precisely why it relies on a strategy of competing in the “gray zone” short of open conflict by supporting non-state proxies such as Hizbollah in Lebanon and Shi’a militias in Iraq.
The Security Dilemma: Arab Gulf leaders predictably bristled at President Obama’s suggestion that they would simply have to “share” the region with Iran. Nonetheless, an alliance with the express purpose of containing Iran will necessarily provoke concern and reaction in Tehran. Tehran will feel an increasing sense of regional isolation that will prompt hardliners in the government to take compensatory action such as increasing support to Iran’s expanding network of Shi’a militias throughout the region or improving its already substantial missile or naval capabilities. These actions, in turn, will prompt further reaction and counteraction in Arab capitals and will only reinforce the sectarianism fueling extremist ideologies further dividing the region. Moreover, this approach runs the risk of permanently locking Iran into an adversarial relationship with the region which unnecessarily limits U.S. policy options going forward. NATO’s Article 10 was explicitly adopted to allow for the possibility that Russia could one day join the alliance. Will this “Arab NATO” provide similar flexibility to serve as an incentive for Tehran to moderate its behavior?
Maintaining Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge: By law, the U.S. is committed to ensuring Israel’s ‘qualitative military edge’ defined as “the ability to counter and defeat any credible conventional military threat from any individual state or possible coalition of states or from non-state actors.” The quantity and quality of U.S. advanced arms sales to Arab states have always had to be considered with this legal constraint in mind. President Obama in an effort to reassure Arab Gulf allies against the Iranian threat approved several record-setting arms sales worth billions. Meanwhile, President Trump’s upcoming trip will reportedly result in pledges of U.S. arms sales exceeding $100 billion. Developing large packages such as these will require detailed coordination with Israel and the U.S. Congress to ensure America adheres to this commitment to maintain Israel’s military advantages.
Reckless driving by allies: International scholar Barry Posen in his book Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy identifies the problem posed when states offer uncritical or unconstrained support to allies. Using Israel as a case in point, he suggests that the unconditional nature of U.S. assistance has at times enabled leaders in Tel Aviv to take independent actions contrary to U.S. interests. There is more than a little truth to this criticism. Indeed, U.S. military assistance to Israel (exceeding $120 billion) has helped Israel become the region’s dominant military power. This dominance has allowed multiple Israeli prime ministers to undertake independent military attacks against suspected nuclear reactors in Iraq (Osiraq, 1981) and Syria (Al-Kibar in 2007) and more recently to threaten unilateral attacks against Iran to win stronger concessions as the P5+1 nuclear deal was being negotiated with Iran in 2015. Similarly, a large influx of advanced US military equipment to Arab Gulf allies could enable a more extensive Saudi military engagement in Yemen that only exacerbates the already desperate humanitarian situation, increases the number of civilian casualties, facilitates the spread of Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and destroys the potential for a negotiated resolution of the civil war there.
Further militarizing U.S. foreign policy: Finally, in his commencement address at West Point in 2014, President Obama cautioned that “U.S. military action cannot be the only – or even primary – component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.” While Iran undoubtedly seeks to limit and undermine U.S. influence in the region, it is not the principle source of the instability permeating the region today. The primary sources of instability in the region are internal and result from the inability of local leaders to satisfy the basic functions of effective governance and their failure to build tolerant resilient civil societies. The true sources of instability are the region’s high unemployment, bloated public sectors, non-competitive economies, rampant corruption, and extensive political repression. A NATO-like Arab military alliance will not address these larger socio-political-economic problems that are the basic sources of regional instability.
Dr. Christopher J. Bolan is a research professor of Middle East security issues at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.