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After Gates’ Blunt Warning, What’s Next for NATO?

June 10, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
As NATO continued its bombing campaign in Libya Friday with the U.S. in a support role, outgoing Defense Secretary Gates issued a blunt rebuke to many of America's European allies. Margaret Warner discusses growing tensions inside NATO with former Assistant Secretary of State Richard Burt and retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno.
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MARGARET WARNER: A three-month-long military effort in Libya is highlighting tensions in the NATO alliance.

NATO continued its bombing campaign in Libya today, with the U.S. in a support role, after initially taking out Libyan air defenses. But in Brussels today, the soon-to-retire U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates issued a blunt rebuke to many of America’s European allies.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ROBERT GATES: While every alliance member voted for the Libya mission, less than half have participated at all, and fewer than a third have been willing to participate in the strike mission.

MARGARET WARNER: The strike force is led by Britain and France, with Norway, Denmark Belgium, and Canada joining in. But other major NATO members, like Germany, Poland, the Netherlands, Turkey and Spain, are not flying air strikes.

ROBERT GATES: Frankly, many of those allies sitting on the sidelines do so not because they do not want to participate, but simply because they cannot. The military capabilities simply aren’t there.

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.

MARGARET WARNER: Gates also pointed to Afghanistan.

ROBERT GATES: Despite more than two million troops in uniform, not counting the U.S. military, NATO has struggled, at times desperately, to sustain a deployment of 25,000 to 40,000 troops.

MARGARET WARNER: This uneven division of labor can’t be sustained, he warned, with the U.S. facing its own economic strains and defense budget cuts.

ROBERT GATES: If you told the American taxpayers, as I just did, that they are bearing 75 percent of the financial burden of the alliance, this is going to raise eyebrows.

Future U.S. political leaders, those for whom the Cold War wasn’t the formative experience that it was for me, may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost. What I have sketched out is the real possibility for a dim, if not dismal, future for the transatlantic alliance.

MARGARET WARNER: The Europeans must spend more, and spend it more strategically, Gates said, or risk sliding into collective military irrelevance.

For more, we go to Richard Burt, an assistant secretary of state for European affairs and an ambassador to West Germany in the Reagan administration. He’s now with McLarty Associates, a consulting firm. And Retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno commanded coalition forces in Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004. He’s now at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank.

Welcome to you both.

General, that was quite a broadside that Secretary Gates leveled against the Europeans, essentially saying they’re not keeping up their end of the bargain within NATO. Is he right?

LT. GEN. DAVID BARNO (RET.), U.S. Army: I would have to agree with him. And it’s great to see him in his last policy speech probably in this administration making that point about this vital alliance to the United States.

I hope the Europeans pay attention. He said similar things a year ago — there was really no reaction — right here at Washington’s National Defense University. So, the real question is, what will it take to get NATO to change its ways?

MARGARET WARNER: How did you see it?

RICHARD BURT, Former U.S. assistant secretary of state for European affairs: Well, I thought the speech was, in fact, a little bit strange, because I saw a pretty familiar harangue directed against the Europeans. And when I say familiar, this has been — this isn’t new. We have been complaining about the lack of European defense spending really going back to the 1960s.

MARGARET WARNER: Certainly since the end of the Cold War.

RICHARD BURT: And — and — that’s right, and even threatening to pull our forces out of Europe if they didn’t spend more.

But that was the same week, Margaret, that President Obama welcomed Angela Merkel to the White House. As your lead piece here pointed out, the Germans are not supporting the operation in Libya. Their defense spending is less than 2 percent of their gross domestic product, which Bob Gates said is an important criterion. And she was given the Medal of Freedom and a state dinner.

So, what I think this reflects is a broader recognition that, beyond purely military power, we have much more invested in our overall relationship with the Europeans.

MARGARET WARNER: So, you’re saying this was — what, he shouldn’t have said it?

RICHARD BURT: Not that he shouldn’t have said it. But I think the way he said it, I think, ignored the fact that, first of all, the Europeans, as you’re seeing a debate in the United States, are very much focused on austerity and the lack of economic growth, high unemployment.

And it’s hard — I think we — we — if we’re going to pound the Europeans to spend more, we should at least believe that they have that capability and the will to do more. And I doubt they do at this point.

MARGARET WARNER: Is it a lack of will, or is it a lack of money, General?

LT. GEN. DAVID BARNO: I think they’re related. I think that Europeans economically in several companies, Germany, for example, is doing as well or better than the United States is.

Right now, I think one of the messages Secretary Gates was sending to Europe is that the strategic context for the United States has changed, and it’s changed not only because of the 2008 great recession, but it’s changed because of the debt load and the deficits the United States is running right now, unprecedented levels.

In fact, by the end of this decade, most analysts say that we’re going to be paying as much in interest on our national debt as we pay today for our entire defense budget. That’s new territory for the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me just ask you, as Ambassador Burt said, this isn’t a new complaint on the part of the U.S. But has the Libya mission, because, for the — for once, the U.S. has said it wouldn’t take the lead, has it exposed this gap more dramatically?

LT. GEN. DAVID BARNO: Well, I think it has. And Libya is not 3,000 miles away from Europe. It’s part of Europe’s backyard. And the refugees from Libya could well wash ashore in Spain and Italy and France…

MARGARET WARNER: They are.

LT. GEN. DAVID BARNO: … NATO members, exactly.

And so these are vital interests, I would suggest, to the Europeans. And if NATO can’t operate effectively and muster the resources to be able to do a very small military operation right next door in Libya, we have to question what their ultimate value is.

MARGARET WARNER: And in Libya, Ambassador Burt, in fact, it was the U.K. and France that most wanted to do this, and pretty much persuaded the Obama administration. Yet, you think it’s — is it all right that the Europeans clearly couldn’t do it by themselves?

RICHARD BURT: Well, I mean, first of all, I think Bob Gates today conspicuously left out France and Britain in his critique of spending.

MARGARET WARNER: Of course, yes.

RICHARD BURT: But, more importantly, this — this — this became a NATO mission after the fact. You’re absolutely right. Britain and France grabbed, put the bit in their teeth. They grabbed hold of this mission. They got the United States to back it.

And it only later, in a kind of very clumsy way, became a NATO mission. This was never a NATO mission at the outset. And I think many members of NATO believe that — that, as did Bob Gates, apparently, if you read the reporting, that military force wasn’t necessary in this contingency.

And on the question of immigration, you get a good argument on both sides of the Atlantic. If we are successful in getting rid of Gadhafi and his regime, is that going to make immigration better or worse? I mean is using military power going to be a solution to the issues we face, not only in Libya, but in the greater Middle East?

We’re not talking about using military power in Syria. We’re not talking about using it in Yemen. So, I think we have to think a little more broadly here about what our strategic interests are and what NATO can and can’t do.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, let me go back to something else, though, that you’re very familiar with and Secretary Gates raised, which was Afghanistan. Now, there, NATO voted to make this a NATO mission, even though, of course, it was at the U.S. instigation. You were there.

What does explain the fact that the U.S. has 100,000 troops, and NATO has currently 40,000, which is a step up?

LT. GEN. DAVID BARNO: Well, I was there from 2003 to 2005, and NATO had a much smaller role during that era. But even then, they had great difficulty mustering what we would consider very small military resources.

I watched NATO’s secretary-general and the SACEUR at the time, Gen. Jones, spend six months taking a tin cup around Europe to try and generate six helicopters to be stationed at the Kabul International Airport, and fail in doing that, and have those helicopters be missing for a month at a time. So, it really sent some signals, even very early on, that NATO’s military capabilities had decayed significantly.

MARGARET WARNER: So, you were ambassador to Germany. I mean, in Germany, they’re doing actually well economically. You go back to the beginning of this decade, I think they were doing well.

Is it essentially that it just has a more pacifist impulse than, say, here in the U.S.? In other words, it’s a question of political will, what political leaders want to spend their money on?

RICHARD BURT: Well, Margaret, you have got to begin by recognizing that NATO was created and sustained in a very different strategic era.

There were over 500,000 Soviet forces deployed in Eastern Europe arrayed against NATO. And NATO’s forces were designed to deter and defend against an attack in Europe. Now, when the Cold War came to an end, for many Europeans, that existential threat came to an end.

And when we think about Afghanistan, we Americans think about Afghanistan as the place where we were attacked by al-Qaida. And so it had very special relevance in terms of their — of American thinking about its security.

That’s not the case in Europe. And in the special case of Germany, the Germans don’t believe, given their special history, that military force is necessarily a solution to every problem. And I’m amazed, just to tell you the truth, that there are 45,000 European troops fighting in Afghanistan, and some of those are Germans.

The idea of German forces being deployed outside of Europe, 20 years ago, would have been politically unthinkable.

MARGARET WARNER: So, very briefly, the last — the major — other major point he made, that the U.S. political consensus for defending Europe, for supporting NATO could disappear in coming decade or two?

LT. GEN. DAVID BARNO: I think he’s right. And I think there’s a new generation of military officers in particular who don’t see the value of NATO.

My generation served in Europe, remember the Cold War, remember the Soviet threat, as the ambassador pointed out. The new generation is experiencing NATO in Afghanistan. And what they’re seeing is very troubling. The NATO logo there is the ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force.

Americans in Afghanistan often call that “I Saw Americans Fight.” And so they’re walking away from their experience with the Germans and with other European militaries, not in all cases, but in many cases, really questioning what the value of these military forces are and questioning the future of this alliance.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Gen. David Barno and Ambassador Richard Burt, thank you.