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.”
Haass wrote that “it would be wrong, not to mention fruitless, to blame the Europeans and their choices alone. There are larger historical forces contributing to the continent’s increasing irrelevance to world affairs.”
Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates used his recent final policy speech to blast NATO and the Europeans for not adequately sharing responsibility for policing the world. He warned of “the real possibility for a dim if not dismal future for the transatlantic alliance.” Haass commented that Gates “may not have been pessimistic enough.”
“The U.S.-European partnership that proved so central to managing and winning the Cold War will inevitably play a far diminished role in the years to come,” wrote Haass. “To some extent, we’re already there: If NATO didn’t exist today, would anyone feel compelled to create it? The honest, if awkward, answer is no.”
Haass’ commentary was titled, “Why Europe no longer matters.” However, Europe does matter – a great deal. It’s just that in the absence of a perceived common threat and with the rapidly changing pattern of global economic and political power, the glue that held the individual nations together in military alliance no longer holds.
“Last month, this column noted that NATO was created in 1949 to protect Western Europe from the Soviet army; it could long ago have unfurled the ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner; it has now become an instrument of mischief, and when the Libyan misadventure is finished, America should debate whether NATO also should be finished,” wrote conservative columnist George Will in the Post June 17. He went on to speak of NATO as “a Potemkin alliance whose primary use these days is perverse: It provides a patina of multilateralism to U.S. military interventions on which Europe is essentially a free rider.”
Will’s comment points to the crux of the matter. While Washington now views the alliance as an instrument for action in parts of the world away from the European continent, the Europeans are reluctant to go along with that mission statement. A good example is the r efusal of Germany’s conservative government to join in the attack on Libya. Reflected here is the question of Europe’s place in the world.
Geographically, NATO has been defined as Western Europe, plus the UK’s two former English-speaking colonies in North America, and with the U.S. as the linchpin. Today, it is an alliance of 28 nations made up primarily of white people who are being drawn into conflicts within countries of the “third world,” primarily in Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa. However, in the wake of the end of the Cold war and the rise of China, India and the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries, tectonic shifts are underway in international relations. Axiomatically, the movement flows from changes in economic relations. Germany, for instance, is expanding its relations with Russia, and China is Germany's second largest trading partner outside of the European Union, after the United States.
With regard to the conflict in Libya, mention is frequently made of the Europeans’ “special interest” in what happens in that country, interests that the U.S. does not share. (You thought the war is being fought to protect Libyans from attack by the undemocratic and brutal Gaddafi regime?) Actually, in this case, it is the special interest of the UK and France. They have “special interests” in what happens in their former colonies, dependencies and with their client governments in North Africa. And they are hardly humanitarian.
The Fourth International Libyan Oil and Gas exhibition was scheduled for Tripoli this October. In announcing the event, the organizers reported, “Libya has the largest proven oil reserves in Africa with 42 billion barrels of oil and over 1.3 trillion cubic metres of gas. With only 25 percent of Libya’s surface territory explored to date there is every chance that actual reserves could see this figure dwarfed in coming years.”
“As Europe’s single largest oil supplier, the second largest oil producer in Africa and the continent’s fourth largest gas supplier, Libya dominates the petroleum sector in the Southern Mediterranean area and has ambitious plans for the future.”
London and Paris initiated the Libyan war and lured Washington into the conflict with appeals to NATO “solidarity.” The Obama Administration took the bait and when it sought to transfer responsibility for the war onto the Europeans, it found that in addition to the European public’s aversion to such missions, the European governments interested in the fighting lacked the wherewithal for a sustain engagement. Thus, Gates’ lament about the Europeans not doing their part.
Actually, the only surprising aspect of this situation is that all involved so badly miscalculated the cost of the aggression. Europe is in crisis. With Greece nearing an economic meltdown and Spain, Ireland, Portugal and Italy waiting in the wings, the governments on the continent are in no position to bear any significant additional military expenditures and it’s unlikely the European public would put up with it.
Likewise, in the U.S., public opinion is increasingly opposed to such foreign military campaigns, especially in a place like Libya where there is no Al-Qaida and where we are told the U.S. has “no national interest.”
The White House cannot argue that we are in Libya to meet any international treaty obligations. This most likely explains President Obama’s bonehead decision to ignore the U.S, Constitution and argue that the Administration doesn’t need Congressional approval for engaging in war in Libya. The U.S. is currently involved in military conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, and now regularly launches drone attacks on areas of Yemen from a base in Djibouti. The latter “secret” operation is also being conducted without authorization from Congress, and will no doubt be defended on the ridiculous grounds that no ground troops are involved.
Once again last week, General Joulwan complained about the supposed absence of “mission clarity,” this time around Libya. He made it clear he believes that if it becomes clear that the aim of the war is to bring about regime change and the Obama Administration just says so, the rest of NATO will turn to. He’s whistling in the dark. An alliance that has lost its relevancy and faces economic calamities on both sides of the Atlantic can’t, and won’t, turn things around. What we should hope for is that White House leadership will be employed to unite the governments involved in giving full support to the efforts of the African Union to find a negotiated path out of the deepening and costly quagmire.