The Weekly Standard Online
October 4, 2007*
By Alan W. Dowd

Later this month, officials from Canada and the Netherlands plan to lobby their NATO counterparts to do more in Afghanistan. If the past 12 months are any indication, they shouldn’t expect much. 

A year ago, then-NATO commander Gen. James Jones reported that alliance members had only contributed 85 percent of the forces they pledged to stabilize Afghanistan’s broken and battered landscape, noting that NATO’s Afghanistan force needed as many as 2,500 more soldiers.  

Not much has changed. After a closed-door meeting with Defense Secretary Robert Gates earlier this week, Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.) reported that Gates “expressed his concerns about the issue of resources and that Afghanistan is under-resourced, both in terms of equipment and personnel…He wants to see more help from NATO.” 

Compounding the problem of inadequate resources, NATO allows member states with military forces in Afghanistan to opt out of certain missions. These “caveats,” as they are euphemistically called, make it difficult to field a cohesive force—and strike at the very heart of the alliance’s effectiveness and cohesiveness. After all, an ally that promises to help only when the guns are quiet, only where the scenery is serene, is not much of an ally.  

Yet that’s an accurate description of what some NATO members are doing by steering clear of southern Afghanistan, where Canadian, British, Dutch and American troops have taken heavy casualties. Among the allies who caveat their way out of certain missions are Germany, France, Spain and Italy. 

Gen. Ray Henault of Canada told The National Post that his government has lobbied NATO allies to lift their caveats. “We encourage nations to reduce their limitations on troop movements,” he explained. “Reduction of caveats, especially in the geographic sense, are what we consider to be a force multiplier and help our commanders on the ground to do their jobs that much better.” 

“I’m disappointed,” added NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer last month, “that not all allies, and some major allies included, do not want to go to the places where the fighting is.” 

“Within NATO, the responsibility must be shared better,” according to Dutch Defense Minister Eimert van Middelkoop. 

But Henault’s encouragement, the secretary general’s shaming and van Middelkoop’s common sense were not enough to persuade Germany, which reiterated in September that its 3,000 troops will remain garrisoned in the safer, more stable north. 

On top of the problems in Afghanistan, the alliance is now rethinking its much-trumpeted NATO Response Force (NRF), a rapid-reaction, multi-branch, multi-national unit of 25,000 men ready to deploy into war zones on short notice. As AP reports, various commitments made by NATO members to Afghanistan, the Balkans, Lebanon and Africa have strained several of the militaries in the alliance, and the NRF is paying the price.  

Perhaps the saddest aspect of the NRF mess is the fact that the decision to reevaluate (i.e., scale back or even scrap) the NRF comes just a year after it was declared operational. And perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the Europeans’ failure to send more troops to Afghanistan—and to send them with no strings attached—is the fact that they have the ability to do so. As Lt. Col. Stephen Coonen detailed in a 2006 essay in Parameters, NATO’s European contingent fields some 2.3 million active-duty troops and another 3.04 million reserves. The U.S., by comparison, has 1.4 million troops on active duty—and active is the operative word for the American military these days—and less than a million reserves.  

These problems are related. Simply put, they are a function of either the will or the priorities—or both—of some key members of the NATO alliance. 

Why won’t these members send more or do more? Perhaps, as Robert Kagan has suggested, the world wars changed Europe’s DNA to the point that its governments are simply unable to wield hard power. Or perhaps, as Victor Davis Hanson has argued, 60 years of U.S. paternalism have permanently stunted countries like Germany and Italy and France.  

Whatever the cause, the reality is not going to change. A postmodern, post-heroic worldview, as Kagan calls it, means that Europe’s legions will, by and large, stay in Europe. And miniscule investments in defense mean that NATO’s continental contingent doesn’t have much more than troops to contribute. Put the two together, and the result is Kosovo, where the U.S. Air Force did virtually all the precision bombing, since only 10 percent of NATO’s European aircraft are capable of precision bombing; or Afghanistan, where most non-U.S. troops had to hitch a ride with the U.S. Air Force or rent Russian transports to deploy; or the NRF, which was probably doomed from the start because only seven of NATO’s 26 members have mustered the will to meet the alliance’s set standard of investing two percent of GDP—two percent—on defense. 

We shouldn’t be surprised by any of this. Even in the good old days, as Derek Leebaert reminds us in his essential history of the Cold War, The Fifty Year Wound, the European members of NATO often had—ahem—different priorities than Washington. 

In 1954, as Leebaert details, U.S. taxpayers were covering 75 percent of the French war in Indochina. Yet France often parlayed U.S. assistance and equipment into financial payoffs. For example, after using a U.S. aircraft carrier earmarked for the war effort in Vietnam to ship and sell fighter jets, the French government had the gall to ask Washington for additional aircraft carriers.  

In 1956, France and Britain diverted equipment intended for NATO’s European defense to launch their war in Egypt. Eisenhower found out about British preparations for war from U.S. reconnaissance photos.

In the middle of what was arguably the Cold War’s most dangerous decade, Charles de Gaulle withdrew from NATO’s military structure and pursued a separate peace with Moscow. Forty years later, we gloss over this stunning repudiation of, and challenge to, the transatlantic alliance. Consider it in context: France, an allied regent of postwar Germany, founding member of NATO, and anchor of the West, effectively quit the Cold War, spurning Washington and rupturing the alliance.  

By the late 1970s, NATO had devolved into “a military museum, and one with a poorly run endowment,” in Leebaert’s words. 

In short, as Leebaert concludes, NATO was always said to be in disarray. “Decade in, decade, out,” he writes, the alliance was forever “at the crossroads.” 

And so it is today.  

This is not to say that NATO serves no purpose. As the spotty success in Afghanistan highlights, the alliance remains an ideal place for building political consensus and military coalitions of the willing—“alliances within the alliance.” But as the late Manfred Woerner, who died while serving as NATO secretary general, reminded President George H.W. Bush at the end of the Cold War, “The United States should not expect others to deliver much. They are waiting for the Americans.”

*This piece was republished by CBS News and FrontPage Magazine.