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Defense Secretary Gates, due to step down at the end of this month, apparently wanted to go out speaking his mind. His around-the-world farewell tour has included visits to several US bases and major addresses to our allies in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Afghanistan. At every stop, he has made a point of reaffirming our commitment to our friends and alliances, while warning that after a decade of war and a rising debt, the US may not be able to maintain the same level of support that it previously supplied to meet security threats around the world.
The bluntness is unusual coming from a man known for his pragmatism and low-key management style at the Pentagon. His tenure – one of the most consequential for any secretary of defense in recent decades – has been marked by consensus building and an ability to work with a conservative like President Bush, as well as the liberal President Obama. He is leaving at an unsettling time when a drawdown of forces in Afghanistan and massive defense cuts loom on the horizon.
His speech in Brussels last Friday was particularly harsh in its assessment of the state of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which is desperately searching for relevance in a changed world following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The defense secretary was particularly galled by the “real possibility of collective military irrelevance,” due to the refusal of several member nations to increase their combat capabilities in order to reflect the needs of the alliance in Libya and especially Afghanistan. Unless alliance nations increase their participation in combat operations, Gates warned that NATO’s future is “dim, if not dismal.”
He criticized NATO nations for their lack of defense spending, pointing to the fact that in Libya, NATO is now running out of bombs after just 11 weeks. The US has had to increase its support substantially to make up for the deficient stockpiles of weapons, and Gates was incredulous that “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.”
He even raised the possibility that it may reach the point that the US might not see the need for a European alliance any longer. “The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress — and in the American body politic writ large — to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.”
Without naming any nations specifically, Gates complained of a “two tiered” membership in NATO “between those willing and able to pay the price and bear the burdens of commitments, and those who enjoy the benefits of NATO membership but don’t want to share the risks and the costs.” He also scolded the alliance for being “apparently willing and eager for American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defense budgets.”
In truth, while the lack of defense spending by Europeans is certainly a big part of the problem, it is the failure to define a new mission for the aging alliance that appears to be a stumbling block to unity. Should NATO be an alliance that stresses combat missions — the US view — or should it opt for “soft” power, like “humanitarian, development, peacekeeping, and talking tasks,” as Gates put it. The latter view is held by most European countries who have their own problems with debt and weak economies, and who also lack the national will to sustain casualties in combat operations like Afghanistan and Libya.
The test in the coming months will be how the alliance holds together when we begin to withdraw our combat forces from Afghanistan. Most NATO troops are not currently engaged in combat due to “national caveats” that prevent the alliance from putting their soldiers in harm’s way. This led one Canadian officer to remark, “How many battalions does it take to protect Kabul airport?” Indeed, as an example, the bulk of Germany’s 5,000 troops are attached to Provincial Reconstruction Teams in quiet provinces in the north of Afghanistan. Efforts to get nations like Germany, Spain, Turkey, and Italy to alter those caveats have proven unsuccessful. As Gates said in Brussels, it isn’t a matter of nations refusing to participate as much as it is that they are incapable of doing so. “The military capabilities simply aren’t there,” he said.
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