The scathing critique of NATO that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates delivered Friday in Brussels was not the first time the Pentagon chief has hammered the alliance.
Four years ago he chastised it for failing to invest enough in its defense, noting that NATO was not even able to produce 16 helicopters needed by the Afghanistan commander for critical operations around Kandahar. The Pentagon was forced to fill the gap.
But on Friday, Gates used one of his last speeches before stepping down to lambaste America’s NATO allies in language that was even more striking than his earlier addresses. “What I’ve sketched out is the real possibility of a dim, if not dismal future for the transatlantic alliance,” said Gates. .
The speech reflected his growing worry that the U.S., which is now facing the possibility of deep defense cuts, may no longer be able to pick up the slack for its NATO allies. “Tough choices lie ahead affecting every part of our government, and during such times scrutiny inevitably falls on the cost of overseas commitments,” he said.
The NATO-led intervention in Libya has also exposed new failings on the part of the allies. Although there is fairly broad support for the mission in Europe, the allies have struggled to sustain the 11-week old war. The allies have fallen short of precision weapons as well as surveillance planes.
“We have the spectacle of an air operations center designed to handle more than 300 sorties a day, struggling to launch about 150,” Gates complained.
Some of the heated language in his Friday speech may also be strategic. Gates has used his valedictory tour during the past few months to unburden himself as he prepares to leave office.
“What he is doing may make it easier for his successors,” said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Because he is leaving he can say things that everyone thinks but can’t always say.”
Senior U.S. defense officials have been complaining about NATO’s failure to invest sufficiently in its militaries for close to three decades. But rarely has a U.S. defense secretary warned so bluntly that the alliance was in peril of failing.
“This really public, very direct statement of concern will force a debate in European defense circles,” said Nora Bensahel, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
Still most defense experts doubted that Gates’s clarion call would make much of a difference. “I just don’t see a whole lot of political will in Europe to invest more in defense,” Bensahel said.
Other analysts also questioned whether Gates’s recent critique was too dismissive of European contributions to Afghanistan over the past decade.
Gates did offer some praise to the NATO allies. “Frankly four years ago I never would have expected the alliance to sustain this operation at this level for so long, much less add significantly more forces in 2010,” he said. But the overall tone of his address was that of a dire warning from a long time friend of the alliance.
“I am not sure I would agree with his last message to NATO being a complaint,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Given the decade long contributions from Germany, France and the United Kingdom in Afghanistan, O’Hanlon said the Europeans deserve a bit more credit.
“It strikes me as a little bit of an unwise choice for what could be his last big speech of all time,” O’Hanlon said.