The Bigger Picture
Published on June 15th 2011 in Metro Éireann By Charles Laffiteau
In my previous column about President O’Bama’s visit to Ireland, I mentioned that the primary purpose of President Obama’s other stops in the UK, France and Poland during his trip to Europe, was to reassure his European neighbours that America’s longstanding alliance with Europe was still very important to him. So today I’m going to discuss why America is also questioning Europe’s commitment to that same longstanding alliance.
Since Defense Secretary Robert Gates is retiring at the end of this month, he used his final trip to meet with his NATO counterparts in Brussels to take some of America’s European NATO allies to the proverbial ‘woodshed.’ Secretary Gates made his public remarks following two days of intense and even more critical private meetings with NATO representatives.
Secretary Gates used the recent NATO airstrikes on Libya to drive home his point that America’s European allies are not doing their fair share by noting that less half the NATO allies are engaged in Libya and less than a third are involved in the airstrikes. This is in spite of the fact that NATO ministers voted unanimously to launch air strikes to protect Libyan civilians from Khadafi. As a result, Gates said “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.”
Make no mistake, Secretary Gates remarks were not just another airing of private grievances by a soon to be retired American government official. His comments were a very accurate reflection of President O’Bama’s feelings as well as those of members of Congress from both parties and American voters, because President O’Bama and Congress are under increasing pressure to cut defense spending as part of a larger plan to rein in America’s budget deficits.
Secretary Gates noted that while America’s defense spending had doubled during the past decade, European defense spending had fallen by 15%. Secretary Gates then warned NATO that the American people and US Congress have a “dwindling appetite and patience for continuing to spend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.”
Since the purpose of his final trip was to discuss America’s plans to begin withdrawing American troops as well as NATO forces from Afghanistan, Secretary Gates also complimented Germany, France, Canada and the UK for increasing their troop commitments in line with America’s increase of military forces as part President O’Bama’s 2009 troop ‘surge.’ But Gates also noted that many NATO members rely on the US to provide helicopters to evacuate their wounded, yet place restrictions on where their forces can be deployed and if they can be used in combat despite pleas from America and other NATO allies for them to become more involved.
Nor is America alone in its thinking that many NATO allies are not carrying their own weight. NATO ministers from Canada, France and the UK also expressed their support for Secretary Gates critiques of NATO allies for not doing their part as members of the alliance during the two days of private consultations that preceded Secretary Gates public remarks. Many NATO allies like having the security blanket that being a member of NATO provides, but they are simply ‘free riders’ because they are unwilling to pay their share of the costs of membership.
Unfortunately for America, I don’t think the Secretary Gates blunt assessments will have much effect. Too many of our NATO allies have become complacent about defense issues ever since the ‘Iron Curtain’ was lifted. So as long as they do not feel any eminent security threats, I think they will continue to enjoy their ‘free ride’ at the expense of nations like France, Canada, the UK and America.