Commentary

When Allies Should Just Shut Up

America’s allies: so willing to urge Washington on, so unwilling to pull their own weight. It’s enough to make you wonder why they’re called “allies” in the first place.

The United States bombed Syria earlier this month after President Trump said he was outraged by a supposed chemical weapons assault that killed a maximum of 70 people, while ignoring hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by bullets and bombs. He said he wanted to deter a future chemical weapons attack, yet his second one-off imposed no penalty on Damascus other than apparently destroying weapons that would have been of no value if not used.

He blamed Russia for aiding the Syrian government’s war on its own people, while backing Saudi Arabia’s brutal air assault on Yemeni civilians. He said he still wanted to bring U.S. forces home from Syria, but his strike on the Assad regime ultimately drew America deeper into the Syrian civil war.

America’s “friends” are taking credit for the strike on Syria-to which they contributed very little, if anything at all.

Joining the president’s ill-considered assault were the United Kingdom and France, whose leaders spoke grandly of the minuscule mission upon which they embarked. While presented by Washington as partners, their contribution was an afterthought. They would not have bombed Syria absent the Trump administration leading the way.

Washington policymakers have long maintained that support from governing elites elsewhere legitimizes their wars, no matter how foolish or disastrous. President George W. Bush preened before the cameras when announcing that the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau backed the invasion of Iraq. Other amazing supporters of America’s disastrous misadventure there were Albania, Eritrea, Honduras, Tonga, Uganda, and Uzbekistan.

Urging Americans on to their deaths probably won a few of these and other governments more American foreign aid. But exactly how the U.S. benefited was less clear. This is a common Washington tactic. In 1991, after Yemen voted against authorizing war against Iraq, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker opined: “It was the most expensive vote they’d ever cast, when in fact their assistance disappeared.”

Far more irritating than countries enhancing their budgets at America’s expense, however, are nations that should contribute to national, regional, and global security but that leave the job to the U.S.—all while applauding Americans for so generously risking their lives and committing their wealth.

For instance, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg offered his support for Trump’s strike on Syria, declaring that it “will reduce the [Syrian] regime’s ability to further attack the people of Syria with chemical weapons.”

Fine sentiments, but where were the other 25 members of NATO? Irrelevant or busy, apparently. After all, the most recent member, Montenegro, was a joke candidate, modeling the Duchy of Grand Fenwick that was featured in the novel and movie The Mouse that Roared.

Most other members didn’t have the capacity to participate even if they wanted to. Indeed, outside of the UK and France, most European powers can do little more than contribute to peacekeeping missions or send a few troops into combat with a multitude of caveats restricting their actual use. As always, NATO stands for North America and the Others. It is not of much use to the United States.

The Italian and Spanish governments, which could be serious European military powers, also endorsed the attack on Syria—from the safety of Rome and Madrid. Spain’s foreign minister called the strikes “legitimate and proportionate.” The German government did essentially the same from the comfort of Berlin.

Chancellor Angela Merkel is supposedly committed to the Bundesrepublik spending more on the military and increasing its commitment to NATO. However, when faced with the challenge of confronting Syria in its supposed flaunting of all that is good and right in international law, her government ran in the other direction.

“Germany will not be militarily involved,” she explained, surprising no one. However, before the attack, she said “We recognize and we support the fact that every effort is being made to signal that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable.” After the event, Merkel explained: “The military response was successful and appropriate.” Bloomberg called this “unequivocal support.”

How generous. Bloomberg might have also observed that the Germans felt no obligation to actually do anything. Deutsche Welle’s Marcel Fuerstenau noted that it is “safe to assume that the U.S., British and French did not need German help in destroying supposed sites for the production of the Syrian government’s chemical weapons.” So why shouldn’t Berlin take credit for an action to which it did not contribute?

After the attack, European Union foreign ministers gathered and endorsed “all efforts aimed at the prevention of the use of chemical weapons.” Their verbal support was both abundant and cheap.

Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, two of the European Union’s three presidents (of the Council and Commission, respectively), backed the lawless attack. They are unelected bureaucrats who represent a pseudo-country noted for its “democratic deficit.” The EU has no military and a foreign policy in theory only. No one salutes the EU flag, sings the EU anthem, or roots for a European football (soccer) team. Tusk and Juncker are despised by average folks who believe European peoples should be able to choose those who rule over them. However, the two leader-wannabes still wished Americans well in going to war.

Antonio Tajani, president of the European Parliament, also wanted in on the action and scheduled a legislative debate on the attack. He explained: “The use of chemical weapons is unacceptable. Europe must play a greater role in security peace and preventing the aggravation of humanitarian crises like the suffering of the Syrian people.” Great sentiments, but Tajani and what military are going to take such measures?

Instead of seeking rhetorical backing from nations unwilling to contribute anything practical to America’s military efforts, the U.S. should dismiss allied wannabes who want military credit on the cheap. This is one issue that candidate Trump seemed to understand. America’s feckless allies are a drain on, not a benefit to, her national interest. If President Trump has since forgotten that, the Syrian strike should serve as a jarring reminder.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and coauthor of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.