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Archive for Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Expanded NATO role needed in Mideast

July 25, 2006

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— With crises, conflicts and chaos spreading like an influenza pandemic across the Middle East, many people here and in other countries naturally wonder the worst:

Is that historically troubled area fated to fire and fury? Will it become the world's first failed region? Has the moment already passed to prevent the Middle East's free fall into oblivion?

Despite fighting in Lebanon, Israeli-Palestinian tensions, sectarian savagery in Iraq, disruptive meddling by Syria and Iran, Tehran's nuclear belligerence, terrorism regionwide and the resurgence of extremists in Afghanistan, the answers are no, no and no - particularly if NATO takes a greater role.

A generation of researching, monitoring, evaluating and traveling in the Middle East has left me more optimistic than pessimistic. I also find myself more willing than ever to try dramatic actions to right the region's wayward course.

During discussions here and in other British cities with government officials, defense-industry executives, policy analysts, academics and others, ideas for dealing with Middle East problems have ranged from negotiation and diplomacy to peacemaking and pacification to confrontation and intervention. Indeed, opportunities abound for all three, although the confrontation/intervention approach should be kept on a short, selective leash.

At the moment, the Bush administration and its allies are shaping plans for the most immediate and explosive challenge, that of Lebanon. Well and good, but the need to search more aggressively for long-term, regional solutions has never been stronger.

Persistent diplomacy - with an eye toward resolving the roots of major sources of disruption such as terrorism, statelessness, poverty, human-rights violations and hopelessness - must figure prominently into the strategy. That way, when the peoples of the Middle East finally tire of the blood, tears, death and destruction, they will have a framework to enable an enduring peace.

That effort will take time, though. In the absence of a powerful international presence to separate combatants and encourage stability during the interim, troublemakers would run amok. The United Nations has played the role of peacekeeper with varying degrees of success over the years. Thus, some people look to it for solutions to the current crises; it certainly could help.

But expanded involvement by NATO, which has a better record in terms of effectiveness, capability and credibility, would offer much more. NATO is uniquely qualified to mold and influence the security environment in the Middle East.

Besides requiring a clearer sense of mission in the aftermath of the Cold War, NATO already has shown what a positive difference it can make in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

In fact, NATO appropriately has taken on a much larger burden in Afghanistan of late. Should that show of resolve and determination continue - and I hope it will - it would strengthen the argument for NATO's broader involvement elsewhere.

The NATO mission in Iraq, though limited to training, has made important contributions. It graduated a group of senior officials ranking from lieutenant colonel to general earlier this month. Assistance to the operation in Iraq comes from all NATO members. Some provide training inside that country, others elsewhere. NATO members also provide military aid such as light weapons, rockets, helmets and ammunition.

But that is not enough. I would like to see NATO gradually take on combat responsibilities in Iraq, similar to what it does in Afghanistan. NATO forces particularly could contribute to efforts to police Iraq's porous borders.

In Lebanon, NATO could provide the pacifying influence that the southern part of that nation so desperately needs and that the government can deliver only in its wishful dreams. The rapid introduction of a NATO force would preclude the need for Israel to reassert control over part of Lebanon.

In the restive Palestinian Authority, a NATO force could provide similar benefits.

A robust NATO deployment to the Middle East would not present a panacea. It could, however, ease worries about the region's prospects for relentless conflict, failure and a free fall into oblivion.

- John C. Bersia, an editorial writer for for the Orlando Sentinel, is also the special assistant to the president for global perspectives and a professor at the University of Central Florida.

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