Is A NATO-Like Alliance The Answer To Security Challenges In The Middle East?

Bonnie Kristian Fellow, Defense Priorities

The Trump White House is in negotiations with Israel and at least four Arab nations, The Wall Street Journal reports, to create a new Mideast alliance to shift the regional power balance away from an already outmatched Iran.

Though the United States and Israel would not join the military pact as currently conceived, Washington would provide “military and intelligence support” while Jerusalem would participate in an intelligence-sharing program with the alliance nations. For full-fledged members—currently, the list comprises Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Jordan, though other majority-Sunni nations may come on board—participation would entail a mutual-defense agreement much like the terms of NATO.

As with any arrangement of this scale and import, it is more than possible that the final deal, if it comes to fruition at all, will look quite different from the description the Journal has presently obtained. Still, Trump himself alluded to the talks in his joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, labeling the potential alliance “something that is very different, hasn’t been discussed before” that would “take in many, many countries and would cover a very large territory.”

If he is proven correct, this deal could fundamentally reshape Middle East security dynamics and be a signature achievement—or failure—of the Trump White House. To that end, it is worth examining the bare bones of the plan the Journal piece articulates, which at this point hold both promise and cause for concern.

On the positive side, to the extent that the alliance is managed and funded by participant nations, this deal would be a welcome shift toward regional responsibility for stability in the Arab world reminiscent of the pre-Gulf War dynamic. That dynamic was imperfect, absolutely, but it was not achieved—like the present dysfunction—at the cost of “several trillion [U.S. tax] dollars, along with the obvious human price and the resulting geopolitical chaos,” as Stephen Walt notes at Foreign Policy.

A strong foundation of diplomacy and cooperation among these regional powers is also a necessary step on the road toward lasting, homegrown peace in the Middle East, something the last decade and a half of external intervention and nation-building have endemically failed to produce. And an arrangement that produces friendly—or, at least, collegial—relations between Israel and longtime enemies like Riyadh is likewise welcome news for regional quiet.

A second positive is the exclusion of the United States from the mutual-defense pact. Given our current NATO commitments, risky global military sprawl, ongoing military interventions, and ever-mounting national debt, there is no case to be made for the wisdom of shouldering a promise that could draw us into yet another war in which we have no vital national security interests at stake.

More troubling is the degree to which the United States would be involved in this alliance beyond the initial planning stages. The WSJ notes that the agreement “would expand upon the existing Saudi-led coalition of Sunni countries fighting in Yemen,” and it would see Washington “step up military aid to the Yemen campaign and secure the Red Sea.”

This is deeply worrisome, as American support for the Saudi-led coalition intervention into Yemen’s civil war is one of the most appalling—and most unrecognized—aspects of the Obama administration’s foreign policy legacy. U.S. assistance to the Saudi campaign is unconstitutional, counterproductive, and inhumane. It accomplishes nothing for our defense while fostering a power vacuum in which al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has flourished and has devastated the Yemeni civilian populace with man-made famine.

In short, if the Yemeni civil war intervention is merely the baseline for U.S. military involvement in this proposed pan-Arabian alliance—and the Journal suggests it is—there is a real risk this deal will lead not to regional self-responsibility but an institutionalization of indefinite American warmaking in the Middle East.

As it now stands, that grim assessment is by no means guaranteed to come true. This alliance idea could be developed as a source of much-needed balance and stability in the Arab world. But the trick is getting it right, and the Trump White House must tread carefully to avoid building a permanent pipeline of American blood and treasure to the Middle East.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a weekend editor at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, Relevant Magazine, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.