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A NATO for the Middle East

4 minute read
Walter Isaacson

When the U.S. was faced with a new global threat 60 years ago, the expansionism of Soviet communism, its leaders responded with an awesome burst of creativity. Among the institutions they launched were the World Bank, the Marshall Plan and, most important, the mutual-defense pact and military alliance NATO.

Now faced with a new global threat, that of terrorism from Islamist extremists, we could sure use some of that type of creative and bold thinking. What would George Marshall and Dean Acheson be doing now? At the top of their list, I suspect, would be forging a new version of NATO. They might call it MATO: the Mideast Antiterrorism Organization, a military, police, intelligence and security mutual-defense alliance between the West and our moderate allies in the Middle East.

This MATO alliance would include the countries that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on her recent trip to the region, referred to as the “mainstream” and “moderate” Arab nations: Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the gulf states. These nations are as threatened as we are by the rise of Iran and of Islamist radicalism.

Creating the alliance would present an opportunity disguised as a challenge: for it to be most effective, it should include Israel. That would require an Israeli peace with the Palestinians, which would permit Israel to escape from having to occupy the West Bank indefinitely. The opportunity is that Israel could (as the Saudi plan of 2002 suggested) then establish normal relations with the moderate Arab states, and the new military alliance could provide the security guarantees that could make any Israeli-Palestinian settlement work.

Another challenge would be to ensure that the new alliance does not inflame the sectarian divide in the Islamic world, which could happen if it is seen as a Sunni cabal against the Shi’ites. But if the new Iraqi government (the only Shi’ite-led one besides Iran in the region) joined, the new alliance could show that it was willing to protect both moderate Shi’ites as well as Sunnis. The alliance would then be able to help take over from the U.S. some of the security responsibility in Iraq, and it could wean the Shi’ite leaders in Baghdad from their ties to Tehran.

There is, however, one major philosophical objection to this approach. The so-called moderate Arab states, particularly Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are far from paragons of democracy.

Since Sept. 11, the Bush Administration has put a premium on an idealistic and neoconservative agenda of pushing hard for democracy in the region even at the risk of short-term destabilization. It would be nice to continue to say, as Secretary Rice used to declare frequently, that there is no conflict between pushing for more democracy and seeking greater stability in the Middle East. That may be true in the long run. But the real-world present is more complicated, and there are some real trade-offs. An unsettling fact about the Middle East, as the elections in the Palestinian territories and Iran have demonstrated, is that democracy does not always go hand in hand with moderation in the short term. Elections in Egypt and Saudi Arabia would surely show the same.

Rice’s rhetoric has now changed. On previous trips to Egypt, she was firm in preaching the need for faster democratic reform. But that sermon was missing during her latest trip, when she instead spoke of America’s “important strategic relationship” with Egypt in what she has called a struggle “between extremism on the one hand and mainstream states on the other.”

In a recent editorial, the Washington Post warned that Bush should not sacrifice his democracy agenda in the Middle East. And indeed it would be perilous to abandon our ideals for the sake of short-term security.

So what would Marshall and Acheson do? They probably would have created, in addition to a NATO-like antiterrorism alliance, a worldwide coalition of true and free democracies, ranging from India to Turkey to Israel. This Concert of Democracies could work on ways to nurture and support our common ideals, even as the new antiterrorism military alliance could be used to protect our security interests. Washington could use both instruments, just as it now uses both NATO and the U.N., depending on the situation.

Perhaps such an approach could even begin to minimize the trade-offs that now seem to vex us. Membership in MATO, especially if it drains some of the bile from the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, could make the leaders and citizens in places such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia feel more secure. And that may make them more open to greater democracy and reform.

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