Other members of NATO must step up

I have always been a strong supporter of NATO. Since 1949, NATO has been our most important military alliance. It has been enormously successful, first by playing a key role in the collapse of the Soviet Union, then by limiting new member nations from Eastern Europe to those willing to commit to democratic principles.

That democracy has prevailed and taken root in Eastern Europe is in no small measure due to NATO’s influence.

During the Cold War there was near unanimity among NATO members. Since the end of the Cold War, and its growth from 14 to 28 countries, NATO has been beset with internal disagreements. An enlarged NATO without a common purpose has found out how it difficult it is for a large group of democracies to fight wars together.

In fact, what we see today is an alliance in disarray.

The strains first showed in the air campaign NATO waged to defend Kosovo back in 1999, where the process of getting approval from more than a dozen different members to bomb different targets was frustratingly complicated. But things really started to go downhill for NATO as a war-fighting machine in Afghanistan.

After three trips there as a senator, I had no doubt about why the surge of U.S. forces in 2009 was necessary. Even if they had sent troops there (some had not), nearly all of the NATO countries placed limitations, called “caveats,” on where or how those troops could be deployed. Some refused to have their troops in combat zones.

Some said their troops could not engage in counter-narcotic operations. Some had so few troops there that making any use of them at all was a problem.

Another major problem for the alliance has been that, even before the European debt crisis, many of the countries in NATO were making drastic cuts in their defense budgets. Even in the UK, our most steadfast NATO ally, Prime Minister Cameron has announced massive defense cuts, including eliminating 40,000 personnel, and retiring equipment in all branches, including the famous British Navy.

In his farewell speech to NATO on June 10, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates bluntly described the problems that had developed in the alliance in recent years, and then discussed how they had impacted on NATO’s Libya mission. He pointed out that “while every alliance member voted for the Libya mission, less than half have participated at all, and fewer than a third have been willing to participate in the strike mission. Frankly, many of those allies sitting on the sidelines do so not because they do not want to participate, but simply because they cannot. The military capabilities simply aren’t there.

“Furthermore,” he said, “the mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country — yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the U.S., once more, to make up the difference.” And, “In the past, I’ve worried openly about NATO turning into a two-tiered alliance: between members who specialize in ‘soft’ humanitarian, development, peacekeeping, and talking missions, and those conducting the ‘hard’ combat missions. Between those willing and able to pay the price and bear the burdens of alliance commitments, and those who enjoy the benefits of NATO membership — be they security guarantees or headquarters billets — but don’t want to share the risks and the costs. This is no longer a hypothetical worry. We are there today. And it is unacceptable.”

The hard reality Secretary Gates presented to our NATO allies was that the U.S. is no longer willing or able to be the lone sheriff, sometimes supported by a deputy or two, who spends his own money and takes all the risks to run the bad guys out of town. If the other people in the town don’t get their act together and join the posse, the sheriff may have to cut his losses and move on.

That’s a threat I hope we never have to act on, because the survival of NATO is very much in our interest. Let’s hope our European allies have heard Secretary Gates’ wake-up call and respond in a way that will ensure NATO’s survival and future viability.

Originally published 17 Jul 2011 on delawareonline.com