Politics & Policy

NATO’s Problems

An outgoing defense secretary broaches the subject.

Outgoing defense secretary Robert Gates’s final policy speech in office, on June 10 in Brussels, laid out the problems and anomalies of NATO more clearly than any figure of such authority has done before. He was upbeat about most aspects of the Afghanistan operation, which, he usefully reminded us, is the first actual ground combat NATO as an alliance has ever fought, as well as the first serious test of the alliance in this century. In 2006, there were 20,000 non-U.S. NATO combat troops in Afghanistan, and that number has doubled; and 850 non-American combat deaths have been incurred, in the case of a number of countries, their first since World War II.

Gates claimed substantial success for the mission in the last 18 months, since the U.S.-led surge, though he skimmed lightly over the fact that Pres. George W. Bush led the alliance into Afghanistan and then leapfrogged over Iran to invade and occupy and nation-build in Iraq, leaving the alliance with no leadership in Afghanistan and a threadbare holding action as a mission statement. The fact that the Canadians, British, French, Dutch, Poles, Germans, Australians, and a few others kept the country from being completely retaken by the Taliban was a signal accomplishment that has rarely been mentioned by American leaders, including on this occasion. (Canada led the very modest forces the alliance then had around Kandahar and prevented the enemy from recapturing its historic center of strength and support.)

It remains a mystery how the U.S. government, contrary to all tradition in this country, squares its alliance with Pakistan, well lubricated by expensive assistance to the Pakistani military (which consumes 13 times as much money as is spent on education in that country), with substantial Pakistani support for the Haqqani Taliban, which provides approximately 30 percent of the armed opposition to NATO in Afghanistan.

The careers of Douglas MacArthur and Harry S Truman came to spectacular and somewhat undignified ends 60 years ago in a fracas over sending draftee forces into mortal combat in Korea for an objective short of victory. If a generously supported ostensible ally in the theater, such as Nationalist China (Taiwan), Japan, or the Philippines, had been supporting the North Koreans, Truman would have been impeached and removed from office, and MacArthur would have crushed North Korea in its cradle (a joyous consummation) and (conventionally) bombed such industry as China then possessed into rubble, while smashing the People’s Army, but at a cost of at least another 20,000 American and allied soldiers’ lives.

It devolves upon the United States to try to convince Pakistan of the danger, futility, and terrible consequences of continuing to promote Islamic terror in Afghanistan and India (which has a larger Muslim population than Pakistan, albeit a chronic minority in that huge country), but Gates, as he left office, understandably passed on that hideously intractable problem. If NATO manages to extract a satisfactory outcome in Afghanistan despite the antics of Pakistan, the corruption of the Afghan government, and the simultaneous effort to exterminate and negotiate with the Taliban, it will be a more astounding, though obviously less important, achievement than the collapse of the Soviet Union.

A less distinguished alliance performance has been furnished in Libya. President Obama made a serious error saying Qaddafi had to go but then indicating that the U.S. would do nothing to accomplish that outcome. Although all 28 NATO members endorsed the action, fewer than half have contributed to it. The U.S. is playing a supportive role in what is Europe’s baby: French president Nicolas Sarkozy led the charge when he got a good look at polls showing him running neck-and-neck with Mlle. Le Pen’s Poujadist-xenophobic Front National. (He was spurred on by his wife’s ex-husband’s former father-in-law, BernardHenri Lévy, in Europe’s most intricate commingling of the boudoir and the national interest since Count Andrassy seduced the Habsburg empress and enough other court ladies to turn the Austrian Empire into the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1867.)

The Libyan action calls for 300 air strikes a day, yet the command center in Italy can organize only 150; eleven weeks into it, most of the allies are running out of munitions and the U.S. has to supply those too. Gates singled out for praise not only Canada, always a reliable ally and insufficiently recognized by American officials most of the time, but also the pleasantly surprising trio of Belgium, Denmark, and Norway. Norway resisted heroically in World War II but the last stabs the other two took at even serious self-defense were World War I for “gallant little Belgium” and Schleswig-Holstein in 1864 against Bismarck for the Danes. (Both countries surrendered as swiftly as physically possible to the Nazis in World War II, and when Roosevelt looked for a Danish government in exile to inform that the U.S. was occupying Greenland, the best he could do was a consul in Washington.) Secretary Gates pointed out that Norway and Denmark are providing 12 percent of the strike aircraft but hitting one third of the targets in Libya. Again, Qaddafi can’t possibly survive much longer unless NATO collapses, and no matter how palsied the alliance is, it will not be seen off by the mad colonel.

But the trend is disturbing. During the Cold War, the U.S. provided 50 percent of NATO’s defense spending, and when it argued for a greater commitment from the European front lines, had to endure a permanent crescendo of flimflam from its Euro-allies (except for the British) about greater American burden-sharing being balanced by greater European risk-sharing, because of Western Europe’s proximity to the Soviet Union, as if the U.S. should foot the bill for the inconvenient vagaries of European geography. Now, it is paying almost 75 percent. European defense spending has declined by 15 percent in the decade since the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The only allies that spend more than 2 percent of GDP on defense are Britain, France, bankrupt Greece, and, astonishingly, miniature NATO-candidate Albania.

Non-U.S. NATO countries, Gates said last week, spend almost $300 billion annually on defense, but do not have the capability to show for it, implying that a good deal of it is really bureaucratic workfare, questionable procurement, and willful duplication. And he also said last week that he fears a de facto two-tiered NATO alliance is emerging, one group prepared to engage in hard combat when strategic requirements justify it, and the other enjoying “security guaranties and headquarters billets” and confined to ”soft, humanitarian, development, peacekeeping, and talking tasks.”

Robert Gates has been an effective and distinguished 21st defense secretary, having been a well-respected director of Central Intelligence, and was probably surpassed, in qualifications to hold the office he is departing, only by the third defense secretary, Gen. George C. Marshall, and otherwise rivaled only by the 16th, Frank C. Carlucci. He successfully brought in and directed the Iraq surge for President Bush, and the Afghanistan surge for President Obama.

The fact is that the “Alliance of the Willing” is a fraud largely comprised of those who will graciously accept a U.S. military guaranty, but won’t pay anything to have it. Now that Russia is no longer a threat, NATO should be expanded into a worldwide alliance of reasonably democratic states prepared to accept the principle that an attack upon one is an attack upon all, to act on it, and to agree on and defend the legitimate strategic interests of the whole alliance. Laggards and freeloaders should be rusticated (starting, if they don’t pull up their socks and stop their grandstanding hypocrisy, with the formerly valorous Turks). In NATO, the North Atlantic should become the world, and the integrity of the alliance should be reaffirmed among those with a community of defensive interest prepared, if provoked, to pay their way in money, armed strength, and if need be, servicemen.

 — Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full. He can be reached at cbletters@gmail.com.

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