Second session at Riga Conference

This evening’s session is on where Western commitments in the Middle East and North Africa will lead to. On our panel are the following:

Valders Zatlers – former President of Latvia
Fraser Cameron – Senior Advisor at the European Policy Centre
anas El-Gomati – Libyan political analyst
Kurt Volker – MD Centre for Transatlantic Relations at John Hopkins University, USA
Huseyin Dirioz – Assistant Secrtary General for Defence and Planning at NATO.

Zatler said the first lesson learned is that the crisis in Libya came up in an unexpected way.  The were a lot of concerns about whether Europe could lead the response to the crisis.  Result was that Europe did take a lead and the US was more doubtful.  The experience has been that the effort in Afghanistan is fairly small outside of NATO involvement.  We need to be well prepared for the next crisis which will happen – not sure where.

Chair asks El-Gomati whether Libya actually want European involvement.  El-Gomati responds saying that there is clear evidence of support of Europe’s positive action.  Relationship between north Africa and the Middle East is based on cooperation against extremism, support of the issues addressed in the Arab Spring, responses to Israeli action.  Old frameworks cannot assist in the development of responses to current events.  Islamic fundamentalism is a facade now; individual rights are being demanded now.  Now need to work collaboratively to establish and protect these rights.

Dirioz notes that the situation we have encountered creates challenges and opportunities.  From NATO’s perspective, what the crisis has shown is that NATO and the international community need to be able to respond very quickly.  NATO is still an indispensable ally – with its operational partners, it has saved lives and protect and educate civilians.  Another lesson is that European companies can lead missions, with the support of specific US capabilities.  There is, therefore a fundamental challenge of overcoming the imbalance of capabilities between US and Europe and within Europe itself.  What we can do to redress the imbalance is ‘smart defence’ – coordinated prioritisation, multinational resource allocation.

The Chair asked Cameron whether we should be more ambitious about what Europe can do.

Cameron responded that we should be more ambitious but we won’t be.  We have completely misread the situation of what the region wants.  It’s not about fundamentalism or autocracy, it is about dignity and jobs.  We’ve seen you need political leadership in terms of cooperation and sharing – and this is incredibly difficult to do.  At the moment there are only two powers prepared to take decisions on security – Britain and France – and Cameron says he sees this remaining for some time.

The Chair asked Volker about his criticism of NATO involvement in Libya.  Volker noted that we have been hypocritical in the way the West has dealt with dictators.  We’ve listened to the dictators saying “it’s us or the extremists”.  This has been a myopic perspective.  Previously governments have said they agree with democracy… BUT…. (implementation, local relationships, etc).  This is backwards – we need to focus on democracy first and then deal with implementation issues.

The Chair asks about Syria and how the West should respond.  Zatlers said that you cannot compare Libya and Syria.  Where Libya was led by a single ruler with a military force, Syria is led by a party and an organised unit.  Cameron notes that there is no consensus to go beyond sanctions in Syria.  El-Gomati notes that if we follow the logic of Asad in Syria, it’s only a matter of time before the people of Syria follow suit and rise up against the government.  We could be approaching something perhaps worse than Syria in terms of violence.  El-Gomati adds he hopes that shared values will inform response rather than economic sanctions.  Volker agrees, saying we need to ensure that citizens have support.  We need to stop being surprised; we need to seek an outcome in Syria that addresses the dignity of the citizens rather than sitting back and waiting for regime change.

Questions from the floor begin.  First question is about the importance of media and why NATO did not target state media.  Additionally why did it take so long to react in Libya.

Dirioz notes that 6 day decision was fast by NATO terms.  Also important to minimise injury to civilians, so worth the wait. Hopes that the response is considered efficient.  Volker responds saying the comparison between Kosovo and Libya is unfair; just because it took a long time in Kosovo, there is no reason to argue that it should take a long while in Lbya.  Once you have made the decision to act it should be a very fast response.  In Afghanistan, all members states were asked to take part. In Libya only 8 countries took part – for a variety of reasons including capability. This is a problem, and dangerous for an alliance.

Question from the floor is on different tactics.  Afghanistan was together in and together out.  Libya action has been very different.

Zatlers says that the military reaction of NATO is efficient.  But this focus on military action is inappropriate.  In Northern Africa we needed to focus on political action.

Cameron notes that there is a perceptual problem about the West coming to preach about democracy and human rights when they have been dealing with Mubarek and Ben Ali.  El-Gomati notes that any financial aid that’s given to countries that have deposed their dictators should be based on evidence of reforms.

A question from the floor is on Nordic-Baltic cooperation – what can this region offer to the Middle East and North Africa?

Volkers notes the Nordic-Baltic region are prosperous, have intellectuial capital and membership within NATO.  Thus can make better NATO and EU policies.  Also can look at areas of technical assistance – education, financial market regulation, SME facilitation.  Let the people and the region decide what they need but respond appropriately.  Volkers adds there needs to be a question about involvement of NATO in a military sense at all in Europe and North Africa.  NATO could act in a more security oriented role – education, healthcare, cybersecurity and so on.

Dirioz notes that the Nordic-Baltic cooperation is highly successful in a military and economic sense.  This is a good example for other regions.

Question from the floor is on ability of the US and European to respond to Israel given the calls from democratic Arab nations to respond to Palestine conflict.

Volkers speaks about the building of cooperation with Middle East civil society groups.  He notes that there is a requirement to deal with violent and groups that are non-compliant with peaceful processes.  That limits the manner in which you can respond.

El-Gomati notes that action needs to be taken against groups like Hamas.  But if we don’t level the playing field for groups like Hamas then how can we expect them to play?

Cameron says there is a great deal of disappointment in the US government and Obama by their failure to respond to reductions of democratic participation in the Middle East.

Question from the floor (Chinese delegate) – is there an over estimation about effectiveness of intervention? Are we making things worse by promising too much

[JJ’s comment – great question]

Another question about alternative responses to Middle east and North Africa – will Europe be cooperating or competing with non-Western responses to issues in the region.

Zalters said that it’s necessary to cooperate with regional organisations. Cameron says that we need to talk about what protection really means.  Engaing the international community is a very useful exercise.  Cameron says Afghanistan was a huge mistake because public opinion support never was there.  Can other countries help?  Yes they can.  China has interests in Libya for instance, and while there may be some competition it should not be considered to be an exclusive act to assist in regions that need assistance.

Dirioz says that we have not promised too much.  NATO has been clear on what is promised and what it can deliver.

Volkers says we have the capacity to intervene, but we fail at delivering stability.  On the issue of raising expectations.  Values are universal.  As democratic societies we need to stand on their side – doesn’t always mean intervention, but we need to stand up for those values.  Can’t keep lying about individuals as reformists.  El-Gomati says it’s not about expectations – it’s about demands for human rights and dignity.  He adds that countries that were favoured in Libya may be reconfigured to a lesser role, but this will be prioritised by local values.

Questions from the floor is about how Libya will end up after action. Is the current configuration in Libya going to be sustained.  second question is about Russian resistance to protection in Syria.

Cameron says that the Russians are worried about genuine expression of popular opinion – think back to Orange revolution and Georgia etc.  Russia are scared of the streets so natural reaction is to stop it.  El-Gomati says that revolutions can be quite messy.  Cannot expect the current situation to be sustained.  But it’s extraordinary that there is virtually no threat of security problem and no government in Libya at the moment.  Powerlessness corrupts absolutely just as power does. Need to ensure that democratic progress is pursued.

We’re wrapping for the day in terms of on the record events.  Hope you have enjoyed this blog.


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