NATO: What is It Good For?
By Carl Bloice - BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board
June 23, 2011
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
BC Question: What will it take to bring Obama home?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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
"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
BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member Carl Bloice
is a writer in San Francisco, a member of the National
Coordinating Committee of the Committees of
Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism and formerly
worked for a healthcare union
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