National Review Online, November 20, 2002               
American Outlook Today, November 21, 2002
By Alan W. Dowd

NATO is undergoing yet another facelift. The unveiling will take place at the Prague Summit later this week. While most of the attention will be focused on NATO's seven newest members (Slovenia, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and the three Baltic republics are the likely invitees), the alliance is changing far more than its membership roster. For the second time in just three years, NATO is tweaking its mission to respond to new challenges.

When NATO's founding fathers gathered in Washington to create the alliance in 1949, their primary concern was protecting Western Europe from the Red Army. NATO executed this mission so well that its troops never even fired a shot in anger. But by the time NATO turned 50, it was in need of an overhaul. With the Balkans smoldering and Eastern Europe clamoring for security, NATO embraced a new mission in 1999: No longer would the alliance simply defend Western Europe, it would stabilize Eastern Europe, making "full use of every opportunity to build an undivided continent by promoting and fostering the vision of a Europe whole and free."

The alliance put its words into action by adding Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary into the fold — and then by going to war over tiny Kosovo. Three years later, Europe is a better place because of NATO's decision to march eastward. Indeed, the continent is arguably freer and more united than it has ever been. But the same cannot be said for the rest of the globe. September 11 shattered the post-Cold War illusion of a united world, and it ended the running argument over NATO's role beyond Europe. As French Ambassador to NATO Benoit D'Aboville observes, that dispute "has fallen away with the twin towers."

NATO is not yet prepared to become the top cop in the global fight against terror; however, according to U.S. Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns, the alliance is willing to join the posse, albeit reluctantly. "We're deconstructing the old NATO to build a new one to meet the threat of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction," Burns explains. Among other things, this new NATO will be characterized by streamlined command procedures and new capabilities, including a 21,000-man rapid-reaction force. The ad hoc force will be something like a NATO all-star team: Countries will voluntarily contribute specialty units, thereby accentuating their strengths and enhancing flexibility. Deployable both in Europe and beyond, the force will be outfitted with the very latest in high-tech weaponry. As alliance Secretary General George Robertson puts it, "NATO's credibility comes from its capability." Hence, NATO is prepared to acquire heavy-lift cargo planes to move troops and equipment rapidly, mid-air refuelers to extend the range of warplanes, precision-guided weapons to limit both civilian casualties and the duration of war, and modern communications assets to speed the movement of information.

The only NATO member that currently possesses all of these 21st-century capabilities is the United States, as illustrated in Afghanistan. Just days after the attacks on America, NATO invoked its all-for-one collective defense clause for the first time ever. But aside from this sincere expression of solidarity, there was not much NATO could do collectively to help Washington in the campaign against al Qaeda and the Taliban. (To its credit, Great Britain had both the means and the will to join the first counterstroke against the global terror axis.) Although other NATO nations did contribute after the Taliban was routed, their limited use caused hard feelings on both sides of the Atlantic.

This asymmetry of power was a problem long before September 11. A study by The Economist conducted during the Kosovo War revealed that only 10 percent of NATO's European combat aircraft were capable of precision bombing. Over 65 percent of the aircraft participating in the war were American. The imbalance is even more pronounced when only combat sorties are considered. In the words of Lt. Gen. Michael Short, who helped plan the Kosovo air campaign, "We've got an A Team and a B Team now."

Even so, there is more at work here than Europe's relative military weakness. The Kosovo War no doubt left an impression on Washington's confidence in NATO's capacity to conduct war. For example, Short's initial target list of thousands was chopped down to hundreds by NATO's less-hawkish members. Only 53 targets were hit on the war's opening night. In fact, Belgrade was untouched for eleven days. In the first hours of the war, Greece called for a bombing pause. Italy was quick to follow. Germany publicly and tersely dismissed Britain's suggestion of a ground attack.

However, the most-critical internal dispute came as a Russian brigade made a surprise lunge at the Pristina airport. When NATO Commander Wes Clark (an American) ordered General Michael Jackson (a Briton) to seize the airport, Jackson refused. Both men then appealed to their national commanders, a practice permitted under NATO's unwieldy war-fighting conventions. Hours later, Washington and London concluded that NATO's unity was more important than Kosovo's airport. And a humiliated Clark was forced to rescind his order.

The result of these disputes was a war that took weeks rather than days to finish, a peace that was almost lost, and a lingering question mark over future NATO operations, which by definition will be multinational. As Senator John Warner (R., Va.) asked after learning of the Clark-Jackson standoff, "How do you run a military operation if the subordinates can decide they don't want to follow the supreme commander?"

As we wade ever deeper into the war on terror, Warner's question still hangs over NATO's decision-making structures, as do the divergent worldviews of NATO's European members and the United States. For evidence of this, consider Germany, where Washington's determination to disarm and dislodge Saddam Hussein was cynically used by leading politicians to sway the autumn elections. Consider France, which used its seat on the U.N. Security Council not to assist its NATO allies, but to delay and distract them. Or consider how European governments demanded that the United States go to the U.N. for a resolution requiring Baghdad to observe existing resolutions.

Given this record, one can hardly blame Washington for deciding to prosecute the antiterror campaign independent of Brussels.

That's why Robertson is only partly right: New capabilities will not translate into credibility without a workable command structure and more common ground. As Gen. Klaus Naumann, former chief of NATO's military committee, concludes, "We need to find a way to reconcile the conditions of coalition war with the principle of military operations such as surprise and overwhelming force." In other words, when (or if) NATO commits itself to action — which is no small feat for a consensus-based organization now comprised of 26 nations — operational matters such as tactics, targeting, and timing must be left to NATO's commanding general. NATO simply cannot function as an effective military organization in an age of terror if orders are treated as suggestions — and if battle plans are shaped by the lowest common denominator.