NATO: What’s It Good For?

When General George Joulwan appeared on BBC America the other day, he danced around the question of the future of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But the former NATO supreme allied commander in Europe did have a couple of interesting things to say about the war in Libya.

It is true, Joulwan said, that the allied forces fighting there to overthrow the regime of Col. Muammar Gaddafi are running out of weapons and ammunition; in fact, they are short of the kinds of precision weaponry that limits collateral damage to civilian non-combatants. They just might end up having to “buy them from the United States,” said Joulwan, a director at General Dynamics. (The company makes fighter-bombers and radar disablers) When asked directly about NATO’s future he cautioned, “it’s not Club Med” and said the problem the alliance has is an absence of U.S. leadership and lack of “mission clarity.” But he evaded the question of why NATO continues to exist at all.

These days, politicians and establishment pundits alike are widely commenting on the question: NATO, what is it good for?

If you accept the notion that in the years following World War II, Western Europe faced a threat of a Soviet invasion, then the military alliance had a raison d’être. Actually, that idea was as a problematic as the “dominos” that were supposedly going to fall in Asia. The concern about a Soviet invasion was widely accepted and the division on the continent between the “East” and the “West” was real. With the fall of Soviet communism and the end of the Cold War, political support for NATO began to decline – as naturally it would.

The alliance did get involved in a European military conflict, a messy one that resulted in the dismemberment of the Republic of Yugoslavia and leading to various simmering ethnic conflicts that have yet to be resolved. When the U.S. decided to invade Iraq it proved impossible to bring NATO along and the U.S. was forced to rely on a “coalition of the willing.” Following 911, the Western Europeans did commit forces to Afghanistan but the NATO involvement was not whole-hearted, and is now on the wane.

Back in December 2009, when President Obama announced that he was sending 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan and that the U.S. would begin winding down its military operation there sometime this year, General Joulwan said he expected other countries to respond to an appeal from Washington. “I truly believe, if approached right, you’re going to see several NATO nations, more than just Great Britain, join us. What has been missing here is a decision. There is now a decision. And once the president makes a decision, in my experience, the military turns to. They will generate this force and get it there as quickly as they can to meet the mission on the ground and I hope our NATO allies act with equal decisiveness to get there because it’s extremely important, because this cannot drag on forever.”

Now, 18 months later, the NATO member governments involved are, one after the other, pulling their countries out of combat roles in Afghanistan, and the U.S. finds itself in the position of pleading with them not use the anticipated drawn down of some U.S. forces as an excuse speed up their own withdrawals. Meanwhile, here at home, military chiefs are speaking out on Afghan policy with a candor that probably would have earned them censure or dismissal in the time of President Harry Truman, arguing against any substantial withdrawal this summer as promised.

“With the Cold War and the Soviet threat a distant memory, there is little political willingness, on a country-by-country basis, to provide adequate public funds to the military. (Britain and France, which each spend more than 2 percent of their gross domestic products on defense, are two of the exceptions here.),” Richard N. Haass president of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote in the Washington Post June 17. “Even where a willingness to intervene with military force exists, such as in Afghanistan, where upward of 35,000 European troops are deployed, there are severe constraints. Some governments, such as Germany, have historically limited their participation in combat operations, while the cultural acceptance of casualties is fading in many European nations.”

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