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U.S. can’t prop up NATO forever

This April 2 2009 file phoshows shadows cast wall decorated with NATO logo flags NATO countries Strasbourg eastern France

This April 2, 2009 file photo shows shadows cast on a wall decorated with the NATO logo and flags of NATO countries in Strasbourg, in eastern France, before the start of the NATO summit that marked the organization's 60th anniversary. | AFP/GETTY IMAGE

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Updated: June 29, 2012 9:39AM

On the face of it, next week’s NATO Summit in Chicago is a big deal. Leaders of 60 nations will congregate in the Windy City to map strategy on the big issues of the day — Afghanistan, modernizing NATO’s military, and a missile defense system in Europe. But perhaps the fundamental question is this: Will NATO continue to be a big deal for much longer?

On Afghanistan, our NATO partners want out, never mind President Barack Obama’s timetable to wind down fighting and hand it over to Afghan security forces in 2014. France’s new president, Francois Hollande, campaigned on a promise to pull out French combat troops this year.

On the summit agenda is Obama’s goal of securing commitments from U.S. allies in NATO and elsewhere, like Japan, to help pay the estimated $4 billion a year to fund the Afghan army after the coalition troop withdrawal. But with Europe in the throes of the euro crisis and trying to figure out how to save the economies of Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal and maybe others, there’s not likely to be much left to pay for soldiers in a far-away land where success is elusive. Don’t be surprised if U.S. taxpayers aren’t stuck with the lion’s share of the bill.

That question flows to the next issue, the modernization and future of NATO.

Last year’s long campaign to overthrow Moammar Gadhafi in Libya exposed Europe to be essentially a paper tiger. Though European nations took the lead in initiating the fight and its planes flew most missions after the opening weeks, it quickly became apparent that our allies couldn’t muster the equipment, munitions, intelligence and support necessary for success without the United States doing the heavy lifting. America funds up to one-quarter of the NATO budget, but that doesn’t include operations like Libya or the Afghan war.

That imbalance reflects another reality. The NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan is called the International Security Assistance Force. Not to slight the casualties of other nations, but Americans have so shouldered the combat burden that some U.S. military officers caustically said ISAF stands for “I saw Americans fighting.”

With Americans doing the heavy fighting there and the heavy lifting on Libya while European defense budgets shrink, Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned last year that NATO faces “a dim if not dismal future” and “irrelevance.” The U.S. taxpayer rightly increasingly bristles at carrying the burden of being the world’s policeman while the Europeans devote their resources — and in some cases bankrupt themselves — for growing welfare states.

The Libyan campaign convinced European countries they had to work together to acquire surveillance and refueling aircraft, improve intelligence sharing capabilities and add intelligence staff, logistic planners and other specialists. This takes time and money when the European Union is consumed by the euro crisis.

Yet, the defense of Europe will take on a much higher priority should Iran develop nuclear weapons. That’s the focus of the missile-defense strategy at the summit. Russia opposes the shield though it’s aimed at Iran, and Russia’s top military officer even threatened a preemptive military strike against it. That should remind Europeans that one of the original reasons for founding NATO didn’t disappear with the fall of the Soviet Union.

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