Wolves in the Gulf

By Jim Hoagland
Thursday, December 8, 2005

BAHRAIN -- The wolf is no longer at the door of the wealthy Arab kingdoms and emirates of the Persian Gulf. It is now in their midst, threatening to devour these plump, slow-moving gazelles of states from inside their fragile defense lines.

That was the consensus I heard expressed by Gulf Arab leaders, intellectuals, senior military officers and national security officials who gathered here last weekend to compare notes with each other and their Western counterparts. They quickly agreed that both the severity and proximity of the existential threat they face have changed dramatically.

They could hardly do otherwise. The bomb blasts in nearby Iraq reverberated through two days of speeches and informal exchanges organized by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. Regional security in the Gulf is now a daily concern to be lived and breathed, not an abstract concept left to policymakers to debate.

Even a decade or so ago, their deep (and deeply justified) distrust of each other would have prevented such a collection of Bahrainis, Kuwaitis, Omanis, Saudis, Yemenis and others from gathering to seek common ground on military and counterterrorist strategies.

They would have also been deterred by concern about reactions from Iran and Iraq, the outside predators that the smaller oil-producing states most feared then. (Iran and Iraq were represented here as well.) This greater semblance of seeking cooperation now springs from the challenge that radical Islamic groups such as al Qaeda pose to all Arab governments. Traditional balance-of-power strategies to import security through bilateral agreements with outside protectors have been upended by three decades of revolution, conventional wars and the lengthening reach of organized terrorism in the Gulf.

Differences remain among and within the states that gathered here -- and those differences may have been exacerbated by the conflicting, at times confrontational, advice they heard from high-ranking U.S., French and British envoys. Those stunningly discordant Western views are the subject for another day.

The more immediate and important divide was over the nature and identity of the new wolf that the Gulf Arabs see stalking the region.

Government representatives described Islamic-inspired terrorist networks as the urgent threat to citizens and to stability -- and then put forward some fresh ideas on what Muslims themselves must do to defeat the terrorists. Those suggestions constituted the originality and the promise of this conclave.

"The terrorists have instrumentalized religion for their illegal purposes," Sheik Sabah Khalid Hamad Sabah, Kuwait's national security adviser, told those gathered. "We now face a multinational terrorist threat that is no longer isolated geographically or organized in small secret cells." He then outlined a six-point plan that emphasized the need for a balance of tolerance in Muslim countries as well as a balance of power in military terms.

The keys to achieving tolerance and social peace, Sabah said, will include curbing hate speech through the training of Islamic clerics who preach in mosques, barring charities from contributing to terrorist groups and "deepening democratic practices, including greater participation by women" in government and the economy. He called this "the Middle Way" in Islam and urged other countries to adopt the Kuwaiti program.

Muslim nations have for too long shied away from openly talking about the need to wage, and win, a spiritual battle within Islam. The willingness of a member of Kuwait's ruling family to do just that in proceedings that were televised on Bahrain's national television is a step forward.

But Arab academics suggested that the most threatening sources of destabilization lay elsewhere. They identified U.S. mishandling of the war on terrorism and the large American combat presence in Iraq as the new and urgent security problems confronting the region.

"The U.S. image is not what it was," observed Abdullah Shayji, a professor at Kuwait University. He cited reports of secret American prisons for torture abroad, the Abu Ghraib scandal and U.S. military actions in Iraq that he asserted "have made people in the region feel less secure. You should be setting the example" if you are going to preach about democracy and freedom, he added.

It is tempting for an American to focus exclusively on the promising emphasis on moderation within Islam that emerged from the Bahrain meeting, and to argue that the U.S. intervention and military presence in Iraq have contributed in important ways to bringing that about.

But the troubling concerns of Shayji and others that even a well-meaning wolf can be a dangerous and destructive partner need to be taken into account as well. The Bush White House has, in fact, paid too little attention to the example its actions and words set abroad.

jimhoagland@washpost.com


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