Three out of four National Journal National Security Insiders say NATO has yet to outlive its usefulness, even as operations in Afghanistan and Libya exacerbate what Defense Secretary Robert Gates called “significant shortcomings" in the trans-Atlantic alliance's military capabilities and political will. Separately, a majority of Insiders say the disagreement between Washington and Saudi Arabia in dealing with the region’s pro-democracy movements does not amount to a fundamental split between the two longtime allies.
On his last trip as defense secretary, Gates declared that NATO has become a “two-tiered alliance” between those willing and able to pay the price and bear the burdens of alliance commitments, and those who don't want to share in the risks and costs. NATO has 2 million troops in uniform, excluding U.S. forces, but Gates said the alliance has “struggled, at times desperately” to collectively sustain 25,000 to 40,000 troops in Afghanistan. Less than a third of NATO member countries were willing or able to participate in airstrikes in the operation in Libya, even though every country voted in favor of the military operation to protect civilians from Muammar el-Qaddafi’s brutal crackdown.
Despite these strains, 38 of 53 respondents (72 percent) said NATO, founded to deter Soviet adventurism within Europe during the Cold War, is still relevant in today's conflicts. “NATO has shown willingness to accept new missions, but still needs to improve effectiveness,” one Insider said. “NATO may be noisy and messy but it provides cohesion and unity to like-minded nations. Realizing U.S. interests would be harder without it.”
Several Insiders said Gates made “all the right points” in his blunt Brussels address even as they insisted the alliance is still viable. “The current difficulties in both Afghanistan and Libya certainly highlight the degree to which the NATO alliance has been used by many European nations as a means to subsidize their own defense spending with U.S. taxpayer money. It is clear the United States bears an unreasonably large portion of the burden,” one said.
Some NATO members stayed on the sidelines of the Libya operation in part because they don’t have adequate military capabilities to contribute, Gates said, while warning of a "dim, if not dismal future" because of ongoing European defense cutbacks.
“European military weaknesses revealed by the Libyan war -- in such areas as air defense suppression, electronic warfare, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, and even stocks of ammunition -- is a potent reminder to European members of NATO of their heavy security dependence on America,” one Insider said, noting that NATO still remains important for security in other parts of the world, like Central and Eastern Europe.
Fifteen Insiders (28 percent) said NATO is no longer a helpful force. “USA and a few partners are carrying a full load,” one said. “Until the rest start kicking in, it is a hollow force.”
Meanwhile, relations between Washington and Saudi Arabia have deteriorated to their lowest point in decades. The Saudi royal family has made no secret of its fury at the Obama administration for championing the so-called "Arab Spring," amid fears the protests and political shake-ups would open the door to increased Iranian influence in the region. As protests wracked Egypt earlier this year, Riyadh supported its longtime ally Hosni Mubarak, whom it considered a stable bulwark against Iran. It also sent hundreds of troops into Bahrain to help the Sunni monarchy put down an uprising led primarily by the country's Shi'ite majority.
Despite the diplomatic fray, 62 percent of Insiders say the rift between Washington and Saudi Arabia amounts to a temporary bad patch in a still-solid bipartisan relationship. “Despite the mutual frustrations, both countries continue to need each other. One need look no further than Bahrain to see how our interests converge,” one Insider said, referring to U.S. Fifth Fleet’s headquarters in the tiny, oil-rich island nation. “And, of course, looming over everything is the threat both countries feel from Iran."
Eighteen Insiders (34 percent) said the events in the Middle East caused a fundamental strategic divergence in the relationship. “Obama has so screwed up the [Middle East] it is scary," one Insider charged. "The Arab Spring could well be a figment of Obama's imagination that only he sees and believes. The Saudis are rightfully wary and scared of what this President might do next in the [region]. Americans should be worried too.”
1. Has NATO simply outlived its usefulness?
- Yes 28%
- No 72%
Yes: "This alliance has become more an end than a means. Too often we hear more talk about what a mission will do to the alliance than about how the alliance can help to accomplish the mission."
No: "NATO has not outlived its usefulness -- but it has yet to adapt to fulfill its potential new utility. It needs a two-tier decision-making system so that it can function. For instance, let the 'haves' who meet their 2 percent [agreed gross domestic product spending on defense] make decisions and act in out-of-area operations, while preserving the collective defense reassurance function (freeriding) for the new members."
2. Do you believe the Saudi fury at the Obama administration for championing the 'Arab Spring' represents a temporary bad patch in a still solid bipartisan relationship, or have events in the Middle East caused a fundamental strategic divergence for the two longtime allies?
- Bad Patch 62%
- Fundamental Split 34%
- Volunteered Response 4%
Bad Patch: "The two countries, at the end of the day, need one another. Good relationships with Saudis are not built overnight. They do not fall apart overnight either."
"The Saudis need to sell oil; we need to buy it. That will transcend differences over the Arab Spring."
Fundamental Split: "The U.S.-Saudi alliance has been on life support since the beginning of the Bush administration. Palestine, 9/11, and Iraq mortally wounded it. The Arab Spring means the House of Saud can no longer count on America to save it."
Volunteered Response: "It depends on the direction the Saudi regime takes. If it sees the handwriting on the wall and begins serious reform, then this is a 'bad patch.' If it digs in its heels, then this could be the start of a fundamental split."
National Journal’s National Security Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of defense and foreign policy experts. They include:
Gordon Adams, Charles Allen, Thad Allen, James Bamford, David Barno, Samuel "Sandy" Berger, David Berteau, Stephen Biddle, Nancy Birdsall, Milt Bearden, Peter Bergen, Kit Bond, Paula Broadwell, Steven Bucci, Nicholas Burns, Dan Byman, James Jay Carafano, Phillip Carter, Michael Chertoff, Frank Cilluffo, James Clad, Richard Clarke, Steve Clemons, Joseph Collins, William Courtney, Roger Cressey, Gregory Dahlberg, Richard Danzig, Andrew Exum, William Fallon, Jacques Gansler, Daniel Goure, Mike Green, Mark Gunzinger, Jim Harper, Michael Hayden, Pete Hoekstra, Bruce Hoffman, Paul Hughes, Donald Kerrick, Lawrence Korb, Andrew Krepinevich, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, James Lindsay, Trent Lott, Brian McCaffrey, Steven Metz, Franklin Miller, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Kevin Nealer, Paul Pillar, Stephen Rademaker, Marc Raimondi, Celina Realuyo, Bruce Riedel, Barry Rhoads, Marc Rotenberg, Kori Schake, Mark Schneider, John Scofield, Tammy Schultz, Stephen Sestanovich, Sarah Sewall, Jennifer Sims, Constanze Stelzenmüller, Frances Townsend, Mick Trainor, Suzanne Spaulding, Ted Stroup, Dov Zakheim.
This article appears in the June 20, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.