Monday, June 13, 2011

The US Secretary of Defense Gates in Brussels

Secretary of Defense Gates in Brussels
The outgoing American Secretary of Defense made his final official presentation in Brussels last week. He is, rightly so, liked, respected and considered to have been one of the most outstanding American secretaries of defense.
Still, his intervention raises more questions than answers. His overall statement that NATO risks becoming irrelevant is correct. His implicit criticism of the failures of the common European defense policy is warranted. When the Berlin Wall collapsed, so did, to a large extent, the European will to fight in the absence of a defined, geographically close, identified military threat. The Cold War days were, paradoxically maybe, the good old times when the Alliance was united against a common “enemy”. The pre-globalization world was arithmetically over-simplified into West, East and what was then considered the Third World, a “nuisance” that could nevertheless be of localized troublemaker in particular situations.
NATO is a pact which is geographically defined. Lately, its workings have started to look obsolete or ritualized. The Europeans no longer directly feel the need for an American umbrella and have become “nonchalant” with regard to their obligations and burden-sharing. Meanwhile, by the way, the EU finds itself in a similar, temporary, overall mess. Given the situation in the Middle East - their backyard - they had better think fast about what to do with Turkey, whose strategic importance in the region grows daily.
NATO was not created to deal with a theatre other than in Eastern Europe or in the range of Article 5. Better than let it become a bygone, like the former CENTO (the Baghdad pact) a fresh look is required. Actors have to get the (American) script before agreeing on the scenario. Gates’ criticism about the reluctance of NATO members to get involved in Libya is understandable, but Libya is not NATO’s playground. On the other hand, the common European defense policy shows daily what a sham it still is. The Arab world looks more and more like a hopeless cause where ”a la carte” interventions appear misguided, devoid of any sort of endgame (“the blind leading the blind”). Two short-term questions remain unanswered. How can this latest free-for-all (the French first shot) be readjusted under a NATO umbrella which does not sit well in what many consider not to be its zone of influence (this is not Kosovo)? Besides, how to defend a doctrine of humanitarian consideration which picks the worthy of help in an endless stream of seekers? Is Muammar Qaddafi worse than Bashar Assad, Ali Abdullah Saleh or Mahmood Ahmedinadjad ?
Indeed the EU, as such, should get more involved in what is de facto both its zone of influence and the source of many of its domestic problems (immigration). Accordingly the EU should actively consider if it wants Turkey to be a cooperating stop-valve or, on the contrary, continue to resort to delaying tactics and relegate it to the adhesion waiting-room, while Ankara is a full-fledged NATO member whose turn eastwards might have serious consequences.
Secretary Gates followed in the steps of some his fellow non-European predecessors who suggested the way, which the Europeans were reluctant to take on themselves. Rightly so, he indicated how much the world has changed since 9/11 and how unprepared we are in both political and military terms to confront the new realities, wherein the West risks losing control of its own monetary, financial, political and strategic compass. This results from a denial or misinterpretation of a world in tatters, of “irregular” enemies, of cyber-pirates and of non-states. NATO, in its current configuration, is also not fully prepared to face this hybrid new reality. It has to reform its mandate, review its terms of engagement and take into consideration a linkage with new countries (Russia, Israel, inter alia). This will be all the more difficult because it will have to be done by consensus.
When the American Secretary of Defense argues that Afghanistan is an essential element to US security interests, I tend to disagree. I am in favor of a disengagement of American troops “hic et nunc”. The result will be that Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Baluchs and other tribes will return to their former ”modus vivendi”. The pathetic efforts of NGOs aiming to bring some rationality to this madness leads to nothing. Meanwhile Karzai and Co. harvest the poppies that kill and that have nothing in common, alas, with “the poppies which grow in Flanders fields”. The US has no alternative but to continue dealing with Pakistan, the subcontinent Janus-faced player, more for reasons of control than trust. Afghanistan can become the black hole again, where some other power, after so many, can lose its face (the Chinese?), and, more important , the lives of men and women in arms. Arguments about nation-building, civil society, women’s rights, anti-corruption, look mundane compared to the money spent, the lives lost, the unconvincing arguments repeated over and over. Besides, the war started because the Taliban refused to “deliver” Osama Bin Laden to the US. The latter having taken care of this poisonous relic should return the Afghan wasteland to the Taliban who might even resort to their tribal arsenal to make some half-baked peace deal which could be legitimized by a Loya Yirga.
Iraq was useless and will be proven counter-productive. Afghanistan is becoming regionally infectious. America and Europe have enormous financial problems. Wars can be just. When they become a perverse misfeasance they must be stopped.
Meanwhile, NATO should review its workings, scope and reach. In the absence of a common identifiable treat it needs to return to its original, more metaphysical roots and shared values which seem to have evaporated after it lost its nemesis and was enlarged. This is almost a repeat of what is happening to the EU: “enlarge till you choke”. The future battles will not follow Bismarckian principles. They are going to be vicious, hybrid and dispersed. Current strategies will have to be reviewed accordingly. In the future, a commonly accepted universal set of values risks being hacked or contaminated by “bacterial” attacks which will try to undermine inbuilt defense mechanisms, if NATO or EU members were to decide to go their separate ways, when convenient. When the US does not lead, the allies tend to disband.
Secretary Gates had some deservedly hard words for the member states. Now we need a pep talk which underlines a commitment both to addressing together given situations and an Atlantic spirit, which gives too often the impression of being in a Spengler downward mode. The Atlantic commonwealth is more or less still homogeneous, while the Pacific galaxy is one of colliding powers which, unlike what happened in Europe, cannot find in themselves the moral strength to forgive past feuds and are suspicious of current divergent ambitions. Meanwhile, the Arab nightmare should be monitored from some distance. It takes without returning favors, it cheats without changing, it oppresses without second thought, it condones what is inacceptable. The time has come for the prayer mats to be just that, and not be diverted to serve as shrouds for the victims of a seemingly arbitrary barbarim.

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