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Arab Spring Produces Anxiety for Defense Department

By Valerie Insinna

Instability caused by the Arab Spring is unleashing a wave of new challenges for the Pentagon, including changing military-to-military relationships.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey said he is hopeful that the Arab Spring will eventually produce stability in the region, but admitted at an Oct. 1 speech at Kansas State University that the road getting there would be difficult.

However, even in light of the assassination of former Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, the chairman said the United States would maintain an active role in the region.

“Ambassador Chris Stevens would be the first one to say … under no circumstances should we abandon that part of the world simply because of the acts of a few terrorists,” Dempsey said. “But … this is a very complex time, and we want to make sure that we employ all of the instruments of our government and that we partner with those who have common interests in the region to try to find a way to settle those issues for the long term.”

Not only does civilian violence threaten long-term stability of Arab Spring countries, but the changing roles of militaries in those countries can also create conflict.

Such countries will have to establish civilian control of the military in order to achieve democratization, said a team of analysts at an Oct. 10 congressional briefing. That transition might happen gradually.

"It’s really a process of negotiation between the centers of power in the military and in the civilian [government],” said Laurel Miller, senior policy analyst at the Rand Corp. “And it's not as if that's desirable to delay full civilian authority over the military, but there have been circumstances where you can argue it's been a practical necessity.”

That challenge can clearly been seen in Egypt, which had essentially operated as a military dictatorship before the 2011 regime change that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak, a long-time U.S. ally.

The U.S. military has historically had a strong relationship with Egypt’s military, but an Obama administration statement after the embassy attacks in September stating that Egypt is neither an ally nor an enemy left some questioning if the relationship is still intact.

Jeffrey Martini, a Middle East analyst at Rand, said the U.S. military has tools it can use to help ease Egypt’s transition, including senior-level military-to-military engagement and security sector reform programs, which can help teach militaries how to operate under democratic principles. The U.S. military is on board with the regime change and it does have a lot of the authorities it needs, he said.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who took the country's reins in late June, has sought to limit the power of the military through his own means. In August, he fired Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi, Army Chief of Staff Sami Anan and the service chiefs. He also annulled constitutional amendments by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that limited presidential power. However, Martini said the forced retirement of some of Egypt’s highest military was incentivized. Those who were fired were given “great jobs.” 

“One way that militaries are frequently eased out or given a parachute to get out of politics is to accommodate their economic interests. I think that's going on," he said. "So I'm actually heartened."

Photo Credit:Defense Department


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