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With Iran, Syria looming, can Obama save NATO from disaster at Chicago summit?

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Second, the Obama administration must push NATO to make better progress on addressing its capabilities shortfalls highlighted by departing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates last June. He warned of a two-tiered alliance with a “dim, if not dismal” future if European allies didn’t reverse years of defense cuts. Those shortfalls were brought to light starkly by the otherwise enormously successful Libya operation, where, despite claims of “leading from behind,” the United States supplied virtually all of the targeting personnel, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and air-to-air refueling capabilities.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has been pushing allies to commit to a “Smart Defense” approach that would pool resources and integrate European military procurement to ensure the alliance retains needed capabilities even while individual allies make deep defense cuts. While there has been good work at the technical level, national budget decisions continue to be made in isolation and without a coherent overarching approach.

At minimum NATO should provide a clearinghouse for coordination of defense cuts. But that is not happening, reinforcing fears that NATO would not be able to conduct even a limited operation such as that over Libya if called upon a few years hence. The Obama administration needs to pressure NATO leaders to develop a clear structure for coordinating resources and individual budget decisions – and it needs to be prepared to assist them in doing so.

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