As the reform agenda for the Arab world continues to expand, it is time to integrate the issue of security sector reform into the discussion. Only in Iraq and Palestine is security reform a vibrant topic for local debate and for support or intervention by the international community. In those two cases, the debate is on because of acute shortfalls in security capacity, whether police, other law enforcement, or intelligence and military capabilities. For the rest of the Arab world, the problem may be the reverse: excess political clout and too much coercive capacity by the security professionals is leading to a mutual interest by leaders and security officials in postponing or avoiding reform.

The ground seems to be shifting now for several reasons. Virtually every Arab country is more worried about internal threats—from domestic Al Qaeda groups to civil unrest—than about external enemies. Demands to reduce defense spending and pressure from the international community to create a more secure environment for energy sector workers, diplomats, and other expatriates also contribute to the shift. Addressing these needs requires some new thinking about how best to use the security forces, including how to achieve better communication among different security services. Such integration still gives pause to many in the region, however, who deliberately developed systems of checks, balances, and mutual mistrust among security services in order to make incumbent regimes coup-proof.

There are a few signs of greater willingness to talk about the issues. In January, two nongovernmental organizations, Jordan's Center for Strategic Studies and the Geneva Centre for Democratic Control of Armed Forces, held a conference in Amman that addressed the need for security forces to disengage from their excessive involvement in the media, education, and bureaucratic appointments, and the need for more parliamentary and cabinet oversight of security institutions. Jordan may be a case ripe for change, due to its relatively stable political culture and the role of the king as an intermediary or buffer between the military and the political institutions. With his support, the debate can happen. Security issues are also more openly addressed by the burgeoning nongovernmental community in the Gulf. So far, the agenda is modest, focusing on practical improvements rather than the more theoretical issues of civilian control of defense forces and more transparent and accountable systems.

In some quiet ways, the international community is also trying to contribute. In the aftermath of the Oslo process in the early 1990s, the Arms Control and Regional Security exchanges (ACRS) provided an unprecedented venue for security professionals from across the region to meet each other and talk about issues affecting long term security. While the ACRS process, which formally ended in 1995, was not explicitly about reform, it created more space to discuss security beyond the immediate national interest of each state, established relationships across former forbidden boundaries, and strengthened civilian expertise on previously restricted military issues.

A decade later, NATO is creating new opportunities for security professionals to come out of their bunkers and talk about common concerns. First NATO offered its technical expertise to security officials in the Mediterranean, and, in June 2004, the concept was expanded to the Gulf region and pushed from dialogue to partnership. NATO hopes to work with security communities to promote more efficient and interoperable capabilities, to encourage cooperation in defense reform, and to coordinate counter-terrorism activities. Since counter-terrorism policies can work at cross purposes with political reform (particularly with respect to privacy and freedom of expression) NATO can offer the experience of fully consolidated democracies in managing the difficult tradeoffs in combating terrorism while protecting basic freedoms, a vital goal of the reform process.

Security sector reform has clear implications for and connections to political reform. Security professionals from police to soldiers will become more competent if they are trained better, from general education to learning about the rights of their fellow citizens. Citizens need more competent security to create the environment for peaceful political participation and change; in conditions of heavy-handed, old-style security, political openness cannot flourish. Newly established or empowered parliaments need to address security issues as a core responsibility, not be told by palaces that security issues are off-bounds. And more transparency and clarity about civil-military relations and the boundaries between them are necessary conditions for political change and reform at the strategic level. Trying to promote political reform while continuing business as usual in the security sector simply will not work.

Ellen Laipson is President and CEO of the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington DC.