In response to the arc of crisis burning across the Middle East, European governments seem to have reverted to traditional perspectives on stability and counterterrorism. Their policies now exhibit many salient features from the period before the Arab Spring that began in 2011. European countries are active in the campaign against Islamic State and are providing Arab regimes with enhanced counterterrorism, intelligence, and other security assistance.
So, have European policies come full circle? Does counterterrorism once again outweigh any focus on political and economic reform in the Middle East? In the early days of the Arab Spring, European ministers, leaders, and commissioners lined up to insist they had learned the lesson that security alliances with autocrats cannot 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, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and others to contain Islamic State. Military action against the jihadists is proceeding despite concerns that it is tilting the balance of power in Syria toward the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Debates in Brussels focus on overcoming limitations to intelligence sharing and on the constricted reach of Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency.
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 September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The reversion is not complete, however. Many still make the argument that stability, peace, and deradicalization ultimately depend on inclusive and participative government. EU policymakers today have fewer illusions about purely security-oriented cooperation and alliances.
European leaders have ruled out cooperating formally with the Syrian regime and recall that Assad’s autocracy was one of the causes of the Islamic State surge. Most governments stress that returning to the EU’s pre-2011 rapprochement with dictators such as Assad hardly offers grounds for sustained stabilization.
So, European leaders acknowledge that they must give more priority to encouraging inclusive, democratic government in Iraq. They are relatively uncritical toward the reempowered Egyptian military but maintain a greater distance than they did in the era of former president Hosni Mubarak. Several formal European statements have drawn attention to government repression in Egypt simply storing up the prospect of violence in the future.
The EU has tried backing the #ArabSpring as a route to social stability. It failed. So, what now?Tweet This
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 the EU needs a better synthesis between its security and reform agendas.
In the period prior to the Arab revolts, counterterrorism experts played a more prominent role in European decisionmaking than those voices 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 tech-savvy, modern, and cosmopolitan youngsters, not jihadists.
The pre-2011 policy overplayed the counterterrorism 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 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 is essential to address the root drivers of radicalization. But the EU committed itself to supporting reforms from 2011 with little consideration of how reform efforts would relate to geostrategic questions. As Islamic State rampages and intra- and interstate order in the Middle East teeters, the challenge is to move toward a more combined approach that tackles both security and 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 modernization in the Middle East and North Africa is subjugated to sectarian identity.
This argument contains much that is sound, but it is now being pushed too far. In today’s dire circumstances, security cooperation is necessary. But pursued as the central plank of European foreign policy, an emphasis on security 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 partnerships 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 opposition Free Syrian Army.
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In Iraq, European governments talk of the need for inclusive government in Baghdad, but still need to reverse a decade of disengagement. Iraq needs a genuinely democratic basis of inclusiveness, not the current divvying out of power quotas among 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 counterterrorism.
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 naive; a focus on security without reform is likely to be self-defeating. The pressing need is to understand precisely how these two dimensions of change are causally linked to each other.