With a number of political systems in the Middle East upended by the Arab Spring and increasing concerns about military-to-military relationships with transitioning countries, the United States has a unique opportunity to reexamine and reform its defense cooperation with Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia in particular. On April 19, the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and the Scowcroft Center on International Security hosted an event to release the report, “A New Deal: Reforming US Defense Cooperation with Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia,” an initiative of the North Africa Task Force. The event featured a panel discussion with task force co-chairs: former Chief of Staff of the US Army General George Casey, Jr., former Congressman Jim Kolbe, with Hariri Center Director Michele Dunne. Scowcroft Center Director Barry Pavel, also a task force member, moderated the discussion.
Pavel opened the discussion by noting the timely release of the report with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel set to visit several Middle Eastern countries next week to discuss defense cooperation. Before inviting the panelists to speak, Pavel outlined the main focus of the task force study: 1) how to adapt US security cooperation in light of the Arab spring, 2) the key defense missions in terms of both US and Middle East interests, and 3) the type of defense partnerships the United States should pursue.
Congressman Kolbe underscored that none of the three countries that were the focus of task force—Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia—have successfully transitioned to democracies, meaning that it is vital for the United States to take an active, engaged role to support positive change in these postrevolutionary countries. He noted that although the economy is the single most important issue in each of the three countries, ensuring a shift to civilian control of the military is also an important challenge to be addressed.
General Casey shared what he sees as a reason for optimism in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia: former autocratic leaders are gone and security services are undergoing reform, however limited. He also conveyed his concerns that all three of these countries are currently divided as to whether they will follow an Islamist or liberal path forward. General Casey described similarities and differences in US defense cooperation arrangements among the three countries. While the United States and Egypt have had a robust military-to-military relationship, for example, the United States and Libya have had limited defense cooperation due the history of the relationship with the Qaddafi regime. General Casey emphasized the task force’s recommendation that the United States should enhance its defense relationship with Libya in order to help institute a strong central force that is loyal to the government.
In her remarks, Dunne emphasized the importance of US defense cooperation with Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, noting that the transitions will be reversible unless certain reforms, such as civilian control of the interior ministry and armed forces are undertaken successfully. Dunne spoke of the need for reevaluating current US defense assistance programs as well as broader US engagement with a wide range of Egyptian, Libyan, and Tunisian military and nonmilitary actors in order to agree on what US defense cooperation should entail. Dunne closed by cautioning that although the United States needs to help Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia meet their security challenges, the US must encourage the armed forces to play a positive role in the transition rather than allowing US assistance to hinder democratic and rule-of-law reforms.