Palestine, Lebanon and Yemen are all fractured, post-conflict, quasi-democratic states with divided societies hamstrung by deep disagreements among opposing parties in those countries over what constitutes the national interest. While the United States and the European Union have been far more willing to engage in institution-building in these countries after lessons learned from Iraq, they have not undertaken comprehensive security sector reform aimed at imposing civilian oversight over military and security forces in Palestine, Lebanon or Yemen. Rather, the approach has been to “fix broken windows” by focusing on short-term repairs rather than long-term renovations. 

Yezid Sayigh, Professor of Middle East Studies in the Department of War Studies at King’s College, believes that Western security assistance can only succeed if it is part of a broader integrated effort to bring about democratic-based security sector reform. Yezid Sayigh presented his paper, “Fixing Broken Windows”: Security Sector Reform in Palestine, Lebanon, and Yemen, in a panel discussion with the Center for International Policy's Nicole Ball and Congressional Research Service's Jim Zanotti. Carnegie’s Marina Ottaway moderated the discussion.

Counterterrorism and Cold War-Style Security Assistance

Sayigh observed that the United States and the European Union have prioritized counterterrorism in their security sector development approach. But this is only one part of a successful strategy; rule of law reform and improving democratic accountability to the civilian leadership in Lebanon, Palestine, and Yemen are necessary elements as well. According to Sayigh, around 90% of the current military assistance programs are Cold-War style provisions of equipment and training rather than broader attempts to reform the sector as a whole

A security sector development approach that prioritizes counterterrorism can have clear negative outcomes in fractured states without secure democratic leadership.  

  • For example, in Palestine, security sector development aid was used to arm  Fatah against Hamas. This had the effect of facilitating the acceleration of a total breakdown of order and bringing about two rival governments, each with separate security forces. 
  • According to Sayigh, the most common forms of security assistance have led to the development of enclaves within the local military that are more highly trained than the rest. These units then become an asset desired by other stakeholders within the local system, rather than a means of enforcement. 
  • Ball warned that a “business as usual” approach can be counterproductive even in achieving counterterrorism objectives, by producing negative competition between rival agencies. For example, in Lebanon the three main intelligence agencies do not share information or analyses with one another.

Local Ownership

Sayigh acknowledged that even a piecemeal approach can sometimes have positive results. He pointed to the example of post-2007 Palestine, where U.S. assistance and the determination of the PA Finance Minister Salam Fayyad reduced the number of security organizations in the West Bank from six to three and the number of personnel within the security sector from 90,000 to 60,000. Thanks to his persistence and the support of the Interior Minister, the Palestinian government in the West Bank has developed fairly professional forces. Sayigh attributed this success to the key factor of local ownership of the initiative. Donors can not create large-scale transformations if local actors do not want them. In the absence of local ownership of such initiatives, the ability of donors to promote change is greatly restricted.

No Commitment, No Broad Approaches

Sayigh expressed his surprise at how rarely security sector reform is addressed from a broad perspective. There are exceptions, however.  In 2005, the United States and the European Union, attempting to relaunch efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, brought the topic of security sector reform back to general attention. Unfortunately, Sayigh said, attempts to professionalize the security apparatuses and to bring them under democratic civilian approaches were superficial. Substantive change, he explained, was overlooked in favor of short-term gains and the eagerness of policy-makers to appear effective rather than actually create change.

The participants discussed the short and long-term needs of security sector development, and the challenges facing any broad perspective approach to such development.

  • Zanotti stated that comparative accounts of Western efforts, like Sayigh’s paper, could be helpful in emphasizing the needs, shortcomings, and demands involved in security sector development. He noted that short-term counterterrorism measures must be employed alongside long-term political strategies.
  • Ball argued that the United States plays a significant role in helping countries develop their security sectors. The United States must increase its understanding of security sector reform if it is to be effective in that role. While she lauded the “very few” in the Department of Defense, the State Department, and USAID who have attempted to educate their seniors on the issue and the devotion of an entire chapter to security sector reform in the most recent Army Field Manual, she pointed out that the United States is a long way from having a comprehensive and considered government-wide approach to security sector reform.
  • Sayigh suggested that, in the absence of major political and financial local commitments in the three countries addressed by the paper, the task of creating sector-wide reform has seemed too vast for policy-makers to even consider, and thus no serious attempts at reform have been made.
  • Zanotti believed that two challenges stood in the way of developing and implementing broad reform-driven strategies. One problem is the perception among many policy makers that current programs are successful, leaving them unconvinced of the need for a new approach. The second problem is that of inertia. Given the established patterns and tangled webs of stakeholders, it is difficult to achieve effective coordination on across-the-board reform. In such an environment, policy-makers are tempted to focus on immediate achievable goals.

Overcoming these difficulties will require strong leaders able to counter inertia and willing to take risks on switching from short-term to long-term approaches.