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Creating Middle East Security


The Middle East is a volatile region where conflicts abound and often reverberate across borders. Achieving overall security in the Middle East will take much more than military force.

Terrorism. Insurgencies. Factional militias. Religious extremism. The Middle East is filled with elements that work against regional and national security. And many observers say that because the basic rights and needs of citizens in many Middle Eastern states have not been fully met, public anger and frustration help to keep the violence going.

In the Middle East, governments typically respond to instability with massive firepower and by curtailing civil liberties. But many observers say that such force ultimately doesn't ensure security. They say that can only be achieved by a holistic approach combining effective external defense and internal order with economic and political development, and by preventing ethnic and religious factions from imposing their will on others. But in the Middle East, this complex formula has proven very difficult to implement.

Legitimate Government

John Steinbruner, the Director of the University of Maryland's Center for International Security Studies, says that for government force to be effective in the long term in maintaining security, citizens must accept their governments as valid.

"The equation for security has at least two terms. One has to do with force, and the other has to do with legitimacy - - and they're not substitutable. So if you have low legitimacy, you're going to have poor security regardless of how much force you have," says Steinbruner.

Steinbruner and other analysts say perceptions of a lack of legitimacy is a particular problem in Iraq. They say too many Iraqis view the U.S. - led coalition's troops as invaders and occupiers, and either commit violence against them or do nothing to stop it. Those analysts say that perception of a lack of legitimacy has also been a problem for the interim and permanent Iraqi governments that rose after the fall of Saddam Hussein. This is despite the fact that the post-Saddam governments were deliberately constructed to be inclusive of all major groups.

Peter Gubser, President of the Washington-based non-governmental organization American Near East Refugee Aid, stresses that across the Middle East, the key to long-term security is lifting up the population.

"Security, these days, is not just at the point of a gun or the point of a bayonet. Security is [dependent upon] growing economically, growing socially and growing culturally. And when you have that type of dynamic going, you're less likely to go in the direction of violence," says Gubser.

But many governments in the Middle East, such as Syria's and Egypt's, have been slow to embrace multiple competing political parties and broad-scale economic empowerment.

Steve Simon, a former Clinton administration counterterrorism official now at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, says some states use Iraq's internal security problems as an excuse not to institute reforms.

"There's a danger of the leakage of violence from Iraq into surrounding countries," says Simon. "And the authoritarian rulers of surrounding countries say, 'You see what happens when change is forced [i.e., the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein]? You get chaos. And we cannot allow that to happen in our country.' "

Crossborder Violence

States can threaten regional security by committing violence in a neighboring country. Syria, for example, has been accused of trying to destabilize Lebanon though terrorism and political assassination, including the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri last year. The United States has accused Iran of interfering in Iraq's affairs by supporting terrorism and sectarian militias.

The rise of radical Islam is another major factor in the Middle East's instability. Many observers say that coming to a broad-based agreement on the proper role of Islam in the region's governments and societies is essential to stemming the violence that threatens stability.

Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington warns that only Muslims can decide this question.

"There is a debate for the future of Islam going on both among Sunnis and Shiites. We [i.e., the United States] can have influence, but democracy won't win that debate. Human rights won't win that debate. No amount of American intervention can win it. And it is, at this point, the most serious issue that most people in the Middle East face," says Cordesman.

The borders of Syria and Iraq, for example, encompass a variety of religious and ethnic factions that, over the years, have been in conflict with each other. Because of that, some analysts support dividing some countries, with separate territories for each faction. But Tamara Cofman-Wittes at The Brookings Institution in Washington says that idea has had disastrous consequences.

"The example of Yugoslavia proves just how much ethnic fragmentation is not a solution. It provoked territorial wars and ethnic cleansing. In the Middle East, those nation-state identities have taken on real meaning in a lot of places. We have to accept these nation-states as they are. And we can't think that some more primordial communal identity is going to solve the problem," says Cofman-Wittes.

Creating and maintaining security in the Middle East is a daunting task. The elements needed to achieve it, such as political pluralism and economic opportunity, would loosen the grip of well-entrenched privileged groups. There are also ethnic and religious animosities that go back centuries that must be overcome.

But in order to achieve an end to violence that threatens internal and regional security, most experts agree that there appears to be no choice but substantive and lasting change.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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