Israel and the Gulf States: Towards a Tacit Security Regime?

blog_israel_gulfThe nuclear threat posed by Iran has brought Israel and the Gulf States closer together. This nascent tacit security regime allows these countries to address the common threat while sidestepping the more intractable issue of Palestinian statehood.

Israel and the Arab Gulf States do not have diplomatic relations; indeed, some do not even recognize Israel as a state. However, shared concerns of Iran have, since 2006 brought these erstwhile foes closer together. These relations, short of an explicit alliance, are an expression of realpolitik rather than shared values or of deep intimacy. However, the Israelis, Saudis and Emiratis, underpinned by shared perceptions of threats to be countered and interests to be realised, have been cooperating on security related matters for some time.

For Israel and the Gulf States, the nuclear deal with Iran singed in July 2015 has done little to curb Iran’s regional conduct or indeed its longer term nuclear ambitions. Another motivation that bring the sides closer relates to disagreements with the Obama administration over its Middle East policies and deep concerns that in the long run their main security guarantor will lessen its commitment to their security and further decrease its military and diplomatic leverage across the region.

Although relations between the sides warmed up in recent years, they are not new. For example, Oman and Qatar, whether it was to find favour in the eyes of the Americans or to anger the Saudis, established official relations, albeit partial ones, with Israel. Israel opened missions in both countries, but the second intifada in 2000 and Operation “Cast Lead” in Gaza led to their closure. Now, however, it seems that Saudi Arabia in particular is more willing to acknowledge its ongoing dialogue with Israel, if only to test how its public will react to more overt relations. It already got the attention of Iran and Hezbollah.

This new openness that carries with it a heightened political symbolism, is gradually breaking a long-held taboo that any Saudi, let alone one identified so closely with the ruling family, could ever appear in public with their erstwhile foe. These days, one does not have to look hard to find opinion pieces by senior Israelis or Saudis in each other media outlets. State-run media in the Gulf appears to be softening its reporting on Israel, running columns floating the prospect of direct relations, quoting Israeli officials, and filling its news holes with fewer negative stories on Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians. The outspoken Prince Alwaleed bin Talal was also very candor speaking about the startling relations of Wahhabist Saudi Arabia, custodian of Islam’s holiest sites, and the Jewish state and noted that “For the first time, Saudi Arabian interests and Israel are almost parallel … It’s incredible.”

Faced with crumbling Middle East state order, Israel is, again, actively looking to form ties with states and non-state actors, some even former enemies. While in the past they stood in the shadows of others, the Gulf states too have adopted a more assertive foreign policy needed to confront regional changes. It remains unclear, however, if the two sides will be willing to take the same foreign policy risks, this time towards each other, to realize the full potential of their relations.

The fact is that the shared antipathies towards Tehran does not preclude competition or divergent interests pursued in other fields. Gulf States, have strongly supported the recent adoption of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334 regarding Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Furthermore, Saudi officials make clear that unless Israel is willing to engage seriously with the Arab Peace Initiative and with it, tangible progress towards realising Palestinian self-determination, overt ties with Jerusalem will hardly move beyond the symbolic handshakes at academic symposia. Netanyahu too remains hamstrung, politically as well as ideologically by a domestic constituency unwilling to accept substantive territorial concessions to the Palestinians.

The hierarchy of threat in favour of Iran trumped any immediate desire among the Gulf states to push the Arab peace initiative, however signalling it’s still “on the table”. Furthermore, at the end of 2015, the most senior cleric in the Kingdom, Shaykh Abdulaziz al-Shaykh stated that ISIS was in reality an adjunct of the Israeli army. Such statements emanating from such an authoritative figure are indicative of the current boundaries of the relationship on the Arab side.

Internal constraints on all sides will continue to determine the type and intensity of external engagement. Indeed, neither side is willing to pay the price needed to realize the strategic potential inherent in their relations. Both sides are benefiting from the advantages of covert ties without having to pay a political price for pulling them out of the closet.

This nascent tacit security regime between Israel and the Gulf states has, for the most part, been shaped by its lowest common denominator, the perceived threat from Tehran, while sidestepping perhaps the more intractable issue of Palestinian statehood. Whether, overtime, the contours of the regime can foster the confidence building measures that will be required to reach a formal treaty satisfactory to all sides will, in truth, be the real test of its leverage beyond the immediate purchase of hard security. For now, all concerned remain the best of adversaries.

An attempt to change force such relations from the shadows would undermine what has been achieved so far but even so, there is a wide range of policy options between full diplomatic relations and a total lack of contact, and the actors involved can and indeed have taken advantage of this. Israelis in particular have increasingly taken the opportunity to express in public forums the interests shared between Jerusalem and what Major General Herzi Halevy, Head of Israeli military intelligence, referred to as “pragmatic Sunni countries” and the opportunities therefore to be realised.

Israelis and Arabs alike hope that the Trump administration will reverse the Obama-era policy of leading from behind. But if Trump follows suit and makes good on his pledge to Make America Great Again, beginning at home, Washington’s Middle East allies could find comfort in their secret, under the-table relations. Those already become an important template for understanding shifts in alliances and regional security systems, across the wider Middle East and beyond.

Clive Jones holds a Chair in Regional Security (Middle East) in the School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University, United Kingdom. Yoel Guzansky is Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University and a Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. They are the authors of “Israel’s relations with the Gulf states: Toward the emergence of a tacit security regime?”, Contemporary Security Policy, 38, forthcoming. It is available here.

Armies should be self-aware when using historical lessons

CSP_Blog_16_08_Eric Sangar (Small)Military strategy is often informed by lessons from the past. Which lessons armies pick up and use, however, depends on organizational filters. Due to organizational layering, armies may collect contradictory lessons leading to incoherent policy.

The study of success and failure in past wars has been closely intertwined with the emergence of strategic thought. Prominent strategic thinkers, such as Machiavelli, Clausewitz, or Liddle Hart, have relied on history of past campaigns to analyze and improve warfare in the present. And during the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there have been lengthy debates on which lessons from the past have been neglected, and which have been applied wrongly.

However, so far there have been no systematic attempts to theorize how armies learn from their historical experience. In my article “The Pitfalls of Learning from Historical Experience”, I propose a pioneering theoretical argument to explain why the British Army discussed historical lessons for the Afghanistan mission (ISAF) in a contradictory way.

Why contradictory? Using research papers written by staff officers as well as doctrinal pamphlets, I observe two strands of historical experience that dominated the internal debate on lessons for the Afghanistan mission: the Anglo-Afghan Wars of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the colonial counterinsurgency campaigns conducted after 1945, including Malaya. However, this debate is characterized by a significant difficulty: due to fundamental differences in their nature, the two strands of lessons cannot be integrated into operational strategy without losing coherence.

The lessons from the Anglo-Afghan Wars are about the assumption that the Afghan society is so different that any military approach needs to be tailored to the local Afghan context. For instance, the Land Warfare Centre’s pamphlet presenting lessons from the Anglo-Afghan Wars states:

The Afghans are a proud and independent people who resent foreign interference and especially foreign militaries that they construe as occupation forces. They have always resisted external forces and attempts to change traditional ways; […] there is room for reintegration and possibly reconciliation but only when the use of force against insurgents has applied enough pressure on the insurgent/tribesman that his options are limited enough to make him want to move from one side to the other.

By contrast, the suggested lessons from the post-1945 campaigns assume that there is a set of universally applicable principles that, if implemented coherently, are a central condition of success. In the words of an officer,

not only are the principles contained in British COIN doctrine relevant to modern COIN operations they are also applicable to a wide range of conflict situations, from peacekeeping to general war.

This contradiction – between the adaptation to the perceived specificity of the Afghan context and the adherence to a universal set of principles – has also had implications for coherent operational decision-making. For the initial deployment of British forces to Helmand province in the Summer of 2006, the British Army had prepared an integrated civil-military plan influenced by many of the principles that were formalized in the aftermath of the Malaya campaign. However, operational commanders decided to deviate from this plan only few weeks after their arrival. This can be explained by a perception of a historically violent Afghan society, where the Taliban insurgency could only be stopped through the determinate use of force.

Why do these apparently rather incompatible sets of lessons coexist in British military thought and practice? It is important to understand the stages of internal evolution of military organizations, which determine what kind of lessons are selected and transmitted at specific points of time. I introduce the concept of ‘layered organizational culture’. This expression relates to the idea that existing sets of ideas and organizational routines will determine how a military organization processes new experiences.

As organizational culture changes, so will the ways in which experience is handled. However, earlier layers of organizational culture continue to interact with more recent ones. This can lead to the sub-optimal co-existence of inherently incompatible lessons. When contemporary military organizations study experience from different stages of their historical experience, it often results in recommendations that are perceived to be legitimate although they are taken from greatly diverging contexts of organizational needs and perceptions.

The history of the British Army’s efforts to learn from its colonial experience illustrates this argument well: during the Victorian era, although the bulk of the British Army was deployed in permanent garrisons all over the Empire, a systematic evaluation and transmission of lessons gleaned from colonial operations did not happen. Experience was compartmentalized within locally deployed regiments, and there were no attempts to build a universally applicable doctrine. Internal debates across the army dealt almost exclusively with strategy and tactics for interstate warfare on the European continent.

The perhaps only ‘universal’ lesson transmitted from colonial operations was that every context was unique, and that local commanders had to show initiative in order to tailor strategy to local requirements. As a result, the defeat during the First Anglo-Afghan War was attributed to the specificity of the local context, that is the xenophobic and warlike nature of Afghan society, and adaptation to this ‘alien’ context was the main lesson transmitted within organizational memory.

Organizational culture regarding the use of colonial experience changed after 1945. This was a result of changes in the Army’s force posture. The strategic reserve forces that were rapidly shipped from one colonial uprising to the next did not have the time to develop that sense of local awareness that was perceived to be necessary for success. Instead, from the Malaya campaign onwards, doctrinal thinkers started to look for principles that could be easily taught and applied across diverging contexts. But this new layer of organizational culture interacted with the one rooted in the Victorian Army. As a result, ground commanders continued to enjoy a tremendous amount of autonomy with regards to the interpretation and implementation of the ‘classical’ principles of British counterinsurgency doctrine.

What lessons can be gleaned from the use of lessons by the British Army in the context of the ISAF mission? It would be neither realistic nor helpful to abandon the study of historical experience altogether. But doctrinal thinkers should be more aware that experiences transmitted from the past are ‘filtered’ through the lens of specific configurations of organizational culture that were dominant at the time when an experience was made. This would require working more closely with military historians and sociologists, who can help to answer why specific observations and recommendations have been recorded from past campaigns. History may indeed become a toolbox – but one that can stimulate increased organizational self-awareness and help to avoid the pitfalls of learning from the past.

Eric Sangar is a FNRS Research Fellow at the Tocqueville Chair in Security Policy of the University of Namur, Belgium. He is the author of “The Pitfalls of Learning from Historical Experience: The British Army’s Debate on Useful Lessons for the War in Afghanistan”, Contemporary Security Policy, forthcoming. It is available here. He is currently analyzing the influence of collective memory on uses of history in the realms of media discourses on armed conflict, foreign-policy making, and military strategy.

Selling Schelling Short: Reputations and American Coercive Diplomacy after Syria

CSP_Blog_15_02_JohnMittonphoto2Do reputations matter in international politics? This fundamental question figured prominently in debates regarding the appropriate American response to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria in August 2013, in which 1,400 civilians were killed.

Having previously issued a ‘red-line’ against the use of chemical weapons in Syria, many prominent journalists and policy-makers argued that the Obama administration had to respond to the attacks with military strikes or suffer consequences with respect to American credibility. This position was informed, largely, by a research tradition made famous by Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling: maintaining credibility requires following through on threats and commitments so as to establish a reputation for resolve.

Contrary to such ‘conventional wisdom’, however, many academics actually argued against the threat of airstrikes noting that traditional concerns about reputation are overblown. Citing new research, they claimed that credibility is a function of the current balance of capabilities and interests and not of past behavior. As such, backing down in Syria was the right policy option. There would be no consequences for American credibility in future crises.

In the end, the Obama administration continued to make the case for air strikes against Syrian government targets. As a result of this threat, the Assad regime backed down and the US was able to secure a disarmament deal. The Syrian government agreed to accede to the Chemical Weapons Convention and dismantle and destroy its chemical weapons stockpiles. The debate between Schelling’s concern for reputation and the ‘new consensus’ pushed by his critics remains central, however, to discussions regarding American credibility and coercive diplomacy.

What are the parameters of this debate? Prominent anti-reputation theorists, such as Daryl Press, Jonathan Mercer and Ted Hopf, all discuss (and dismiss) the theory offered by Schelling. According to these authors, Schelling argued that behavior anywhere mattered everywhere – that credibility was exclusively a function of one’s reputation for action/resolve in previous crises, even if said crises occurred against different opponents in different places all over the globe. This position is logically flawed and empirically inaccurate, they argue, and has led to disastrous foreign policy outcomes in which leaders fight wars or conduct military strikes solely to maintain their reputation.

What these authors miss, however, is that Schelling’s arguments were considerably more nuanced. First, Schelling also recognized that fighting solely to maintain one’s reputation was foolish. As he writes: “That preserving face – maintaining others’ expectations about one’s own behavior – can be worth some cost and risk does not mean that in every instance it is worth the cost or risk of that occasion.” In other words, the decision to follow through with threats or commitments must also consider the circumstances of the coercive encounter in question.

Second, many of Schelling’s arguments on the importance of past behavior are primarily concerned with the Soviet-American Cold War rivalry. They are not definitive statements regarding his theory of reputation in all circumstances. In the context of ‘pure bargaining’, reputation constitutes one of the manipulable aspects of the encounter, and is therefore related to the tactics by which an outcome (concession) can be ‘won’ by one or the other party. Maintaining a reputation is important so that the commitment of one’s reputation in a particular encounter is effective.

So do reputations matter? A detailed re-engagement with Schelling’s seminal work suggests that the answer is a qualified yes. First, reputations are likely to matter the greater the link and connection between one round of bargaining and the next (a situation Schelling describes as ‘continuous negotiations’). This includes situations of ‘enduring rivalry’ (long-standing enmity between two states and the expectation of future conflict) as well as ‘protracted crisis’ (in which a strategic sequence of interaction/negotiation plays out between two parties over time).

Second, and more generally, the extent to which crises approximate one another along a variety of dimensions (opponents, power balances, issue areas, geographical region etc.) can serve to either augment or diminish the relative importance of reputation in any particular case. Again, not as definitive or determinative but rather complementary and/or additive components of credibility.

Ultimately, a reputation for resolve is not a magic bullet. Balanced debate as to when and where it should be protected must focus on the merits and dynamics of the particular situation, not on recourse to either/or positions related to a ‘conventional wisdom’ or a ‘new consensus’. This conclusion has broad implications for US foreign policy, including relations with Iran (in particular the continuing implementation of the nuclear deal), Russia (with respect to both Eastern Europe and the Middle East), China (in a variety of contexts and potential flash points) and North Korea (in dealing with Pyongyang’s nuclear program).

Maintaining a reputation for resolve will be important but should not be chased at all costs. Parsing the fine-grained dynamics with respect to each crisis or confrontation in a chain of negotiations is admittedly complex, leaving room for reasonable disagreements as to when, in a particular instance, specific reputational considerations are in play. Yet entirely dismissing reputation in the context of international crises is dangerous. Committing one’s reputation, as Schelling argued, remains an important component of a nation’s bargaining strategy. We must remember, in other words, that reputation can be an ingredient for peace, and not merely a pretense for war.

John Mitton is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. He is the author of “Selling Schelling Short: Reputations and American Coercive Diplomacy after Syria”, Contemporary Security Policy, Vol.36, No.3, 2015, pp.408–431. Access here.