In response to the arc of crisis burning across the Middle East, European governments seem to have reverted to traditional perspectives on stability and counter-terrorism. Their policies now exhibit many salient features from the pre-Arab spring period. European governments are active in the campaign against Islamic State and are providing Arab regimes with enhanced counter-terrorism, intelligence, and other security assistance.
So, have European policies come full-circle? Does counter-terrorism once again subordinate any focus on political and economic reform in the Middle East? In the early days of the Arab spring, ministers, leaders and commissioners lined up to insist they had learnt the lesson that security alliances with autocrats cannot in practice provide the stability that is their realpolitik justification. Have these same leaders now forgotten their own warnings?
There are certainly signs that the EU is reversing back to the past. Member states are reinforcing cooperation with Jordan, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others in order to contain Islamic State. Military action against Islamic State is proceeding despite concerns that it is tilting the balance of power in Syria towards the Assad regime. Debates in Brussels focus on overcoming limitations to intelligence sharing and Europol’s constricted reach.
The prominent foreign policy debates are once again about defeating radical jihadism. Observing this fitful drift in strategic reflection is like watching a replay of the late 1990s or the period after the 9/11 attacks.
The reversion is not complete, however. Many still make the argument that stability, peace and de-radicalization ultimately depend on inclusive and participative government. EU policy-makers today have fewer illusions about purely security-oriented cooperation and alliances.
European governments have ruled out cooperating formally with the Syrian regime, and recall that Assad’s autocracy was one of the causes of the IS surge. Most stress that returning to the EU’s pre-2011 rapprochement with dictators such as Assad hardly offers grounds for sustained stabilization. They acknowledge that more not less priority needs to be given to encouraging inclusive, democratic government in Iraq. They are relatively uncritical towards the re-empowered Egyptian military, but maintain a greater distance than in the Mubarak era; several formal European statements have drawn attention to government repression in Egypt simply storing up the prospect of violence in the future.
Consequently, the situation is nuanced: the EU has tried security containment, and it has tried (modestly) backing the Arab spring as a route to social stability. Both apparently failed. So, what now?
The answer is that a better synthesis is needed between the security and reform agendas.
In the period prior to the Arab revolts, counter-terrorism experts played a more prominent role in European decision-making than those advocating a focus on supporting democratic reforms. In 2011 and 2012 this situation switched around: EU policy briefly became a more positive enterprise in assisting local Arab demands for better governance rather than a nervous and negative exercise in containment. It seemed that the main players in the region were IT-savvy, modern and cosmopolitan youngsters, not jihadists.
The pre-2011 policy over-played the counter-terrorism angle and failed to understand the Middle East’s underlying social changes. After 2011, the EU was not particularly ambitious in supporting democratic transitions; but its focus was on national-level reforms more than on the regional, geopolitical ramifications of states’ internal political changes.
It is easy to point out that a focus on political reform must be retained, to get to the root drivers of radicalization. But, the EU committed itself to supporting reforms from 2011 with little consideration of how this would relate to geo-strategic questions — how reform and geopolitics would condition each other in mutual symbiosis. As Islamic State rampages and Middle Eastern intra- and inter-state order teeters, the challenge is to move towards a better conjoining of security with reform imperatives.
It is now commonly argued that the EU should strike flexible and security-oriented alliances with friendly powers, forget about transformation and conditionality, and abandon its ambitious schemes of regional cooperation. Those favoring a security-first approach insist this is necessary because the logic of modernization in the Middle East and North Africa is once again subjugated to sectarian identities.
This argument contains much that is sound, but is now being pushed too far. In today’s dire circumstances, security cooperation is necessary. But pursued as the central plank to European foreign policy, it reinforces the very power dynamics that drive radicalization. It risks worsening the disease it purports to cure.
While regional alliances are needed to contain Islamic State, these should not divert the EU from providing more effective backing for moderate opposition groups in Syria; European governments have conspicuously not matched the United States’ new package of support for the Free Syrian Army. European governments talk of the need for inclusive government in Baghdad, but still need to reverse a decade of disengagement from Iraq. Iraq needs a genuinely democratic basis of inclusiveness not the current divvying out of power quotas between discredited elites. The EU should not forget that long-term stability in the Middle East still requires the tempering of social frustrations within unreformed Gulf states — however closely these regimes now work with Western powers on counter-terrorism.
And, perhaps most crucially, some form of more effective and broader regional security architecture is needed to link together what happens within states with what happens at a regional level. The EU needs strategic deliberation that more systematically connects security actions with domestic political factors in the Middle East.
A focus on reform without security cooperation today looks naïf; a focus on security without reform is likely to be self-defeating. The pressing need is to understand how these two dimensions of change are causally linked to each other.
Headline image credit: Yemeni Protests 4-Apr-2011 P01 by Email4mobile. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.