How Much Should Washington Subsidize European Defense?

Illustration by John Camejo for the Washington Times

Illustration by John Camejo for the Washington Times

In today’s Washington Times, I argue that commentators should not take a victory lap—especially for NATO—in the wake of the Libya campaign, and instead should ask what, if anything, the costly commitment does for American security. NATO, I argue,

now constitutes a transfer payment from U.S. taxpayers (and their Chinese creditors) to bloated European welfare states. If the current Washington climate of austerity can serve any fruitful end, surely it should be to reconsider such foolish alliances.

NATO was created to counter the Soviet Union, but its broader purpose in Europe was summed up in an apocryphal quote attributed to Lord Ismay: to keep “the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” It helped accomplish those objectives, but not without significant costs. Today the benefits to American national security have disappeared, but the costs to taxpayers remain.

The Libya campaign exposed the alliance’s imbalance. Germany and other NATO members sat out the fight. The U.S. military provided most of the surveillance capabilities, largely via drones, that enabled NATO pilots to bomb Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s loyalists. European air forces ran out of precision-guided munitions and had to come begging for Uncle Sam to provide some. Thus, Washington essentially borrowed money from China to buy ordnance to give to Europe to drop on Libya. The post-Cold War NATO rationale is that we agree to spend and fight and the Europeans agree to support us - sometimes.


Instead of taking a victory lap when Col. Gadhafi falls, American policymakers should consider the fruits of NATO’s decades-long policy of infantilizing its allies. Now that America is broke, Europe is safe and the Soviet Union is gone, American policymakers ought to acknowledge that NATO in the 21st century constitutes a costly commitment with little benefit for Americans.

Whole thing here. And thanks to the Times and its illustrator John Camejo for providing the terrific illustration seen above.

U.S. Must Resist Military Role in Post-Qaddafi Libya

After weeks of very little movement either militarily or diplomatically in Libya, there are apparent developments on both fronts in recent days. Rebel forces, aided by NATO’s air support, finally appear to be advancing into western Libya and cutting off supply lines to Tripoli, the long-time stronghold of support for Muammar Qaddafi. And reports are swirling about secret negotiations that might provide a peaceful exit from the country for the aging dictator.

Those developments underscore that U.S. and NATO officials urgently need to consider what strategy they intend to pursue if Qaddafi’s more than four-decade hold on power finally comes to an end.  That is more crucial for the leaders of the European members of the alliance, since Libya is located on Europe’s Mediterranean flank, but because the Obama administration unwisely chose to involve the United States in Libya’s internecine conflict by launching air strikes, it has become a pertinent issue for Washington as well.

The outlook for a post-Qaddafi Libya is midpoint between sobering and depressing.  It is possible that the warring parties will accept a de facto division of the country between the eastern and western tribes, although a formal agreement to that effect is unlikely. Even an informal partition would more accurately reflect the demographics, politics, and history of that territory than an insistence on keeping Libya intact. Moreover, the most probable alternatives to a peaceful territorial division would be a continuous, simmering civil war or a rebel victory that would merely breed resentment in the western part of the country and pave the way for a new round of fighting a few years from now.

The NATO powers must confront the question of how much they are willing to assist the insurgents in maintaining control of western Libya once Qaddafi is gone. Prospects are not good that a government formed by the eastern-dominated rebel forces would be able to win even a modest number of influential converts from the western tribes. And if the problem of achieving and maintaining political control was not enough of a challenge for the insurgents and their NATO sponsors, there is the matter of repairing the infrastructure damaged in the fighting and replenishing the now largely empty Libyan treasury.

A new government in Tripoli cannot count on oil revenues in the short or medium term to remedy those problems. Experts estimate that it will be at least three years before oil production can return to pre-war levels.

Libya’s probable security and economic difficulties will create tremendous pressure on NATO to provide extensive financial aid and deploy peacekeeping forces. Therein lies the danger to the United States. Logically, if NATO does deploy ground forces, they should come overwhelmingly from France and some of the other countries bordering the Mediterranean. Those nations have the most at stake in trying to stabilize Libya. NATO members in central and northern Europe (with the exception of Britain) have shown little desire to engage in such a mission. So far, the Obama administration has indicated that the United States will not put ground forces into Libya —a wise exercise in restraint.

But given the financial woes of Italy, France and other key European members of the alliance, and given the habitual desire of the Europeans to off-load security problems onto the United States as NATO’s leader, it is all too likely that we will see a concerted campaign to get Washington’s participation in a post-Qaddafi peacekeeping mission. The Obama administration should firmly reject such overtures.  Washington’s agenda is already more than full with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the NATO nation-building missions in Bosnia and Kosovo provide ample evidence that a similar venture in Libya could prove extremely lengthy, expensive, and frustrating. President Obama should resist any temptation to involve the United States further in Libya’s domestic quarrels.

Cross-posted from the National Interest.

Gates to NATO: Man Up!

My title above can’t really top the one DOD Buzz gave its summary of Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s comments to NATO ministers yesterday.

Here is the passage from Gates’s speech that is getting the most attention:

The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress … to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.

The gist of his comments were quite clear: the NATO allies must do more, spend more, and take their security responsibilities more seriously.

A parade of U.S. presidents, dozens of secretaries of defense and state, and countless lower-level officials have begged, pleaded, cajoled, threatened, and whined about our NATO allies’ unwillingness to spend more on defense. Gates’s remarks yesterday fit this pattern, and isn’t all that different from a speech that he gave last year. So his comments shouldn’t come as a surprise.

What is surprising, to me at least, is the fact that apparently none of these people have ever read any of the scholarly literature on the economic theory of alliances. If they have read it, they obviously don’t understand it. This research, as Justin Logan explained, conclusively shows that weak countries have a very powerful incentive to free-ride when one very large partner in an alliance spends far more. I also wrote about this in my book.

If you read the rest of the speech, the tone was not quite as pessimistic as the headlines have suggested. The outgoing secretary of defense reflects, like most people, a general confidence that the alliance will survive, despite recent setbacks. And most importantly, Gates believes that it should survive. His aim is to save the alliance, not kill it.

That is a mistake. While the alliance might have made sense in a different time, and in very different strategic circumstances, it now persists largely by inertia. Saving the alliance becomes the leading rationale for countries to participate in wars, both for Europeans who have no great desire or interest to actually be fighting in Afghanistan, and now for Americans who have no desire or interest to be fighting an undeclared war in Libya. We should have allies for wars, not wars for allies, as Ben Friedman says in the Cato video below.

NATO is both costly and unnecessary, and Secretary Gates has missed an opportunity to shift the burdens of defense to other countries. Talking about why the Europeans should do more — even in blunt terms — isn’t going to change anything.

Congress Debates the Libya War

Better late than never.

The House of Representatives today debated two different resolutions purportedly aimed at forcing the Obama administration to comply with its statutory and constitutional obligations to secure formal authorization for the ongoing military campaign in Libya.

I say “purportedly” because it seems quite clear that the real intent of House Speaker John Boehner’s resolution was to lure away a sufficient number of Republicans who otherwise would have been inclined to vote for Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s (D-OH) measure. Whereas the Kucinich resolution would have compelled the Obama administration to withdraw from all military operations in Libya within the next 15 days, Boehner’s resolution bars the administration from deploying ground troops, but allows current operations to continue.  The resolution stipulates that the administration must explain what the U.S. military is actually doing, and calls on the president to justify his decision to launch the campaign without first obtaining congressional approval.  Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern suggested that a strongly worded press release would have the same effect. Others noted that similar language has already been written into the defense authorization passed late last week.

Boehner’s gambit worked, for now. His resolution carried, with overwhelming GOP support. The House failed to adopt the Kucinich measure, although more Republicans than Democrats voted for the bill.  The detailed vote totals for both measures signal a growing willingness on the part of even many Republicans to question the country’s many wars.

Indeed, many were prepared to go beyond merely voting for the measure; about a dozen House Republicans (including resolution co-sponsor Dan Burton of Indiana) spoke out in favor of the Kucinich resolution. Many of these House members seemed quite eager to reassert their authority and to defend the principle of legislative control over the war power, even if that meant allying with one of the most liberal members of Congress.

At one level, it shouldn’t surprise that a number of Republicans voted for the Kucinich resolution. The war is unpopular with the American people, and their elected representatives are reflecting that sentiment. A number of speakers this morning made this point explicitly. But leaving public opinion aside, and conceding that the constitutional question has been practically rendered moot by the parade of presidents and Congresses who have summarily ignored its clear intent, there are ample opportunities for questioning the Libya war on strategic grounds, and not many solid arguments that prove the war to be serving a vital national interest.

The least compelling argument in support of the Libya intervention, in my mind, is the one offered up by Defense Secretary Robert Gates earlier this week, and repeated several times  in the floor debate this morning: we need to stay in Libya, not because it is in our national interest to do so (it isn’t), and not because the Libyan civil war poses a clear and present danger to U.S. security (it doesn’t); rather, we are waging a war in Libya because our allies want us to. To leave them holding the bag, as Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI) explained this morning, would betray a sacred trust. Boehner echoed those sentiments, warning against a vote for the Kucinich resolution because our NATO allies have stood by us in Afghanistan, and we owe it to them to do the same in Libya.

I discussed why this rationale is particularly flimsy over at TNI’s The Skeptics earlier today, and it is featured in a just-released Cato video. As the ever-quotable Ben Friedman explains, “we should have allies for war, not wars for allies.” Meanwhile, Justin Logan notes the absurdity of U.S. taxpayers borrowing money from China to buy precision-guided munitions for Europeans to drop on Libya. If that sounds like a Rube Goldberg foreign policy, it is.

Get Out of Libya, Get Out of NATO

As Justin Logan puts it, we borrow money from China to make precision-guided munitions which we then give to the Europeans so they can drop them on Libya. This is a product of U.S. involvement in NATO.

In this new video, Christopher A. Preble, Benjamin H. Friedman and Justin Logan provide analysis about our involvement in NATO with specific respect to the Libya campaign.

Read more of Cato’s work on NATO.

NATO: Theater of the Absurd

I don’t know what the right word is here, but there is something remarkable about the fact that the United States is currently borrowing money from China to buy precision-guided munitions to give to the Europeans to drop on Libya, isn’t there?

At AEI on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates responded to a question about removing U.S. troops from Europe by saying that bringing them back home and having to build facilities to base them here actually would be about a wash, money-wise. That’s probably correct, but the real question is why we shouldn’t bring them home and disband their units. On that logic, Gates remarked that Europe “is one of the places where an American presence has a significant impact on our allies, on our friends, and on everybody for that matter.”

He’s right. It does have a significant impact on our allies: it encourages European countries to let their defenses atrophy to the point where they aren’t even capable of beating up on a third-rate military like Libya’s without our help. The irony here is that this phenomenon is something Gates has whined about previously. But until an American defense policymaker can put two and two together and figure out that if we defend Europe, Europeans won’t, we’re going to be stuck in this ridiculous feedback loop.

Let Europe Be—and Defend—Europe

In the midst of difficult domestic political battles, Barack Obama begins a lengthy European trip today.  He should encourage the continent to increase its defense capabilities and take on greater regional security responsibilities.

Presidential visits typically result in little of substance.  President Obama’s latest trip will be no different if he reinforces the status quo.  His policy mantra once was “change.”  No where is “change” more necessary than in America’s foreign policy, especially towards Europe.

Despite obvious differences spanning the Atlantic, the U.S. and European relationship remains extraordinarily important.  The administration should press for increased economic integration, with lower trade barriers and streamlined regulations to encourage growth.

At the same time, however, Washington should encourage development of a European-run NATO with which the U.S. can cooperate to promote shared interests to replace today’s America-dominated NATO which sacrifices American interests to defend Europe.  Americans no longer can afford to defend the rest of the world.  The Europeans no longer need to be defended.

Although World War II ended 66 years ago, the Europeans remain strangely dependent on America.  Political integration through the European Union has halted; economic integration through the Euro is under sharp challenge; and military integration through any means is reversing.

Indeed, the purposeless war in Libya, instigated by Great Britain and France, has dramatically demonstrated Europe’s military weakness.  Despite possessing a collective GDP and population greater than that of America, the continent’s largest powers are unable to dispatch a failed North African dictator.

President Barack Obama starts with visits to Ireland,  the UK, and France.  In the latter he will consult with the heads of the G8 nations, which include Germany and Italy.

His message should be clear:  while America will remain politically and economically engaged in Europe, it will no longer take on responsibility for setting boundaries in the Balkans, policing North Africa, and otherwise defending prosperous industrial states from diminishing threats.  Washington should expect the continent to become a full partner, which means promoting the security of its members and stability of its region.

The president should deliver a similar message when he continues on to Poland.  Part of “New Europe,” which worries more about the possibility of revived Russian aggression, Warsaw has cause to spend more on its own defense and cooperate more closely with its similarly-minded neighbors on security issues.

In fact, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, members of the “Visegrad Group,” recently announced creation of a “battle group” separate from NATO command to emphasize regional defense.  The president should welcome this willingness to take on added defense responsibilities.