NATO’s Growing Role in the Greater Middle East

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

March 1, 2006

Ten years ago, the idea of writing a substantial paper about NATO’s role in the Greater Middle East would have been implausible. Indeed, at that time NATO was only tentatively involved in southeast Europe . let alone southwest Asia . and the organization¡¯s own future remained highly uncertain. In August 1995, after four years of hesitation and debate over the issue of extending the zone of operation of what had once been a strictly defensive alliance, NATO intervened militarily for the first time in Bosnia. However, this only occurred after organizations like the United Nations (UN) and the Western European Union (WEU) were seen to have failed, and the mission was not regarded as a precedent for Alliance action in the Middle East or Asia. At the time, few could have envisaged that a decade later NATO would be deploying over 10,000 troops to Afghanistan, training Iraqi military forces in Baghdad and increasing its political and military cooperation with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

That, however, is precisely the situation today. Over the past several years, this once entirely “North Atlantic” institution has:

  • invoked its Article 5 defense clause for the first time ever, following the September 11 attacks in the United States;
  • deployed a peacekeeping force of nearly 9,000 troops to Northern Afghanistan and committed to expand that mission geographically (to the south) and quantitatively (by another 6,000 troops);
  • launched a 9 million euro training operation for Iraqi forces involving contributions from all 26 NATO members;
  • created the NATO Response Force (NRF), a grouping of some 20,000 forces and equipment that can be called together at short notice and deployed anywhere around the world;
  • deployed the NRF in an earthquake relief operation in Pakistan;
  • established an air-bridge to supply soldiers from the African Union (AU) to a peacekeeping mission in Sudan;
  • launched the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI) to develop its political and military relations with members of the GCC;
  • expanded its Mediterranean Dialogue (MD) to facilitate political dialogue with Middle Eastern countries including Egypt;
  • enlarged the scope of political discussions in the North Atlantic Council to include briefings on a range of Middle Eastern and global issues; and
  • established a Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Response (CBRNR) team to help deal with possible weapons of mass destruction contingencies.

Many of these operations are limited in scope and political discussions in and about the Greater Middle East are still in their early stages. Nonetheless, the trend toward greater Alliance involvement in the region is clear and NATO’s role in this area is likely to continue to grow. NATO is in the process of fitfully transforming itself into a global security organization in terms of its missions, its participation and possibly even its future membership.

NATO will not become a security alliance for the Middle East – as it was for Western Europe – with US and European bases scattered throughout the region. Nonetheless, despite all the differences among NATO members and the obstacles to a NATO role in the Middle East region, the fact remains that the United States and Europe will continue to have significant common security interests there, and NATO remains the best mechanism for coordinating their policies and operations. Those who have for years predicted NATO’s demise will, in all likelihood, continue to be confounded.