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March 4, 2009

Conflicting Visions of Security


Charles Peña

Last week, I had the opportunity to travel to Manama (my first visit to the Middle East/Persian Gulf) to attend the Bahrain Security Forum and Exhibition (BSFE) co-sponsored by the Ministry of Interior and the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Fifty-eight speakers and several hundred participants from all around the world were invited for an international dialogue on security, with particular attention paid to border security issues.

The opening plenary session can only be described as surreal. We were welcomed by Bahraini Prime Minister Shaikh Khalifa bin Salman Al-Khalifa followed by an opening address by Interior Minister Shaikh Rashid bin Abdullah Al-Khalifa. RUSI's chairman, Sir Paul Lever, also spoke.

The secretary general of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Abdulrahman Bin Hamad Al-Attiyah, then proceeded to harangue Iran over its dispute with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) over the status of three islands by stating:

  • "Iran has been acting as an occupying force, which is impermissible with Islam and international law."
  • "We have been asking Iran to set back, curb its aggressive tendencies, but that has certainly not been the case."
  • "To redress these hostile declarations and irresponsible policies, Iran needs to take clear positions at the highest level of leadership coupled with procedures to respect sovereignty of other countries."

Al-Attiyah was followed by an unscheduled surprise speech by Iranian Interior Minister Sadeq Mahsouli, who was in Bahrain to defuse tensions caused by Iranian statements that Bahrain used to be Iran's 14th province and that Iran had sovereignty over Bahrain. He largely refused to take the bait, claiming, "The crisis between Bahrain and Iran is over, but there never really was what you could properly called a crisis." But he also claimed, "Tehran condemns foreign interference in the matter of Iranian islands. The islands are Iranian." (The previous day, Mahsouli reportedly told Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, "The relationship between the two countries is a warm and sincere one and will not be hurt by the mischief of enemies.")

After Mahsouli's impromptu speech, the former secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Michael Chertoff, gave a short speech completely unconnected to the previous two – mostly about trying to find a common definition of terrorism. I knew I had to be in some bizarre parallel universe, because I could not imagine witnessing what I had just seen and heard in the United States.

Batting cleanup in the opening plenary was INTERPOL President Boon Hui Khoo from Singapore, demonstrating the truly international flavor of the forum. I'm not going to report on the whole event, but I want to offer some observations.

First and foremost, it should be apparent that Islam is not a monolith. The Sunni-Shi'ite divide is real, as witnessed by the tensions between the Gulf states and Iran. So the biggest mistake we can make is to lump all of Islam together – particularly when it comes to terrorist acts of violence perpetrated in the name of Allah and Islam. And we should not continue to conflate threats. Sunni Arab terrorists represented by al-Qaeda and their ilk attacked the United States on 9/11, but groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah are not direct threats to America.

We also need to understand that all homeland security is local. So while the United States sees Iran as a threat, we need to appreciate that the Gulf states have their own selfish reasons to try to make Iran a security partner (even in the same breath that they give Iran a tongue lashing). And local in the Middle East also means that friendly Arab nations and unfriendly Iran alike see Israel as a security problem, with concerns about Israel's nuclear weapons and the still unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict. None of the speakers from the region were shy about denouncing Israeli military action in Gaza or putting the burden of carving out a Palestinian state – a prerequisite for security in the Middle East – on Tel Aviv.

Tellingly, Michael Chertoff unintentionally demonstrated why the United States is not winning hearts and minds in the Muslim world. Previously, Sir Ian Blair (former commissioner of police in London) had made the case that the concept of a "war on terrorism" has been unproductive because it has resulted in emphasizing a military approach rather than treating terrorism as a criminal-justice problem to be solved by police. Chertoff countered that there were times when a military approach was appropriate and other times when a police approach was the best course of action. The example for the former was a high-value terrorist target in Afghanistan. Even if that target might be among non-threat targets, Chertoff argued that calling in a bomb would be the correct way to be certain of eliminating the threat. However, if that same high-value terrorist target was in New York City, then calling in the police would be the right thing to do.

To begin, the example of a high-value terrorist target raises the question of whether the intelligence identifying the target is reliable and can be corroborated. But more importantly, Chertoff's example ignores the very real effects of collateral damage. Even if a threat is real and correctly identified, if innocent civilians are victims of an attack then the end result is more reasons to hate the United States and for people to become terrorists. And the implication is that it's OK to drop a bomb in a foreign country because collateral damage is acceptable, i.e., it's OK if foreign civilians are killed to protect Americans. But if Chertoff's high-value terrorist target is such a severe threat, why wouldn't we use the same "take no chances" approach in New York City? The message isn't lost on a foreign audience.

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  • Photo - George Cole

    Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
    Policy Institute
    , an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. He has also appeared on CNN, Fox News, NBC Nightly News, ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and The McLaughlin Group, as well as international television and radio. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda, and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.


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