Why NATO to the Middle East Is a Really Bad Idea

This article appeared on The Hill (Online) on January 13, 2020.
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President Donald Trump took a stable though unpleasant Iranian status quo and turned it into a burgeoning crisis. After pushing the Middle East to the brink of war, he urged NATO to get more deeply involved: “we can come home, or largely come home and use NATO.” He even proposed the name: “NATO-ME. What a beautiful name.”

One can imagine European officials barely suppressing their urge to run screaming from whatever room they occupied when they heard his idea. Washington’s policies in the Mideast have been consistently disastrous. America should be getting out, not dragging its allies in.

During the 2016 campaign candidate Trump railed against unnecessary wars. The U.S. is now more deeply entangled than ever. President Trump has increased the number of Americans in Afghanistan and tasks for the U.S. military in Syria.

Worse, the president has fixated on Iran. In January 2017 the Islamic republic was contained, living up to its nuclear commitments and facing internal political strife as its young hoped for greater contact with the West. Tehran was a regional troublemaker, but had the U.S. given full effect to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) by easing Iran’s entry into the world economy further negotiations over regional issues could have ensued.

In January 2020 Washington was increasing U.S. troop levels as it and Tehran teetered on the brink of war. Iran had resumed its nuclear activities, seized Gulf shipping, and attacked Saudi oil facilities. The administration even risked pulling Iraq into the abyss, refusing to withdraw troops as requested and threatening to revive sanctions from the Saddam Hussein era, only worse.

Now the president wants Europe to join America in the mess that he created.

The alliance’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, described by the president as “excited” about the prospect of involvement, mixed flattery with meaningless ambiguity, stating that “NATO has the potential to contribute more to regional stability and the fight against international terrorism, and we are looking into what more we can do.” Trump preened with pleasure: “My biggest fan in the whole world is Secretary General Stoltenberg.”

“Look into” the issue the alliance will do, but not much more. Stoltenberg noted that while NATO had to deploy troops to fight terrorism, “the best way is to enable local forces to fight terrorism themselves.” The Europeans have trained Iraqis and otherwise contributed to the fight against ISIS, but are not looking to become military props for the administration’s anti‐​Iran crusade.

The Europeans know the president will move on to the next issue shortly. The key is to wait after telling him yes. Given his limited attention span and tendency to call everything a “victory,” he is likely to be satisfied with whatever NATO says or does.

The alliance is unlikely to offer troops. After the U.S. turned Iraq into a battleground and, it seems, occupied territory, Canada, Croatia, and Germany began removing their forces. No NATO member wants to be caught in the crossfire or tied to a coercive American occupation. Popular anger is likely to well up across Iraq even without Tehran’s help.

Moreover, with good reason the Europeans abhor what passes for Trump’s leadership. Although he is right to criticize their persistent free‐​riding, his impulsive behavior and ignorant narcissism cannot help but drive them away. On Iran the president arbitrarily wrecked an agreement which they helped negotiate and which was working to contain the Islamist regime. He then demanded that they back his position and launched a commercial and financial offensive against Tehran, conscripting their economies. That aggressive campaign, traditionally seen as an act of war, encouraged Iran to respond provocatively. One diplomat told the Washington Post: “The notion that the Americans are calling this a de‐​escalating, defensive move is frankly surreal. It’s Soviet.” After bringing the region close to war Trump now insists that the Europeans bail him out.

It won’t happen. After the assassination of Qassem Soleimani the president again called on European governments to abandon the JCPOA and submit to administration policy. European foreign ministers met two days later and turned him down. They chose Tehran over Washington. Reported Politico: “so far, the European response has focused on trying to placate Iran instead of displaying solidarity with the U.S.” Who can blame them for not taking responsibility for peace in the Middle East when the president is creating further mayhem?

Nor should Washington want Europeans to focus on the Mideast. They disagree significantly over outside threats and defensive policies in their own continent. They disagree even more about the Middle East. Only France and the United Kingdom have much interest in the region, growing out of their colonial pasts; Germany, Italy, Spain and the herd of smaller European states won’t commit serious military forces. Pushing reluctant governments and their recalcitrant populations to entangle themselves in issues of at best tangential interest would complicate, not expedite, U.S. policy.

It would be even worse if they agreed to devote significant resources to the Middle East. Pressure from a succession of American presidents and concern over Russia’s ambitions after its assault on Ukraine in 2014 led several European governments to slowly hike military outlays, a trend for which the president has taken credit. Despite the welcome increase, most Europeans perceive few threats and are unlikely to raise outlays substantially. It is in America’s as well as Europe’s interest that governments not divert money and manpower from the continent’s defense to the Mideast.

Instead of fixating even more on that ever‐​unstable region, the U.S. should back away. America no longer need worry about the Middle East as an energy source. Conflicts such as Libya and Syria raise humanitarian, not security concerns.

Even at its strongest, Iran is of no threat to the U.S. Washington’s fixation on the Islamic Republic mostly reflects the concerns of allied states, particularly Saudi Arabia, a wealthy and well‐​armed monarchy, which is more repressive politically and radical theologically than Iran, and Israel, a nuclear power and regional superpower, which is well able to defend itself. Tehran shouldn’t be America’s problem.

The president was rightly skeptical of Washington’s seemingly endless wars in the Middle East. Instead of dragging Europe in he should be pulling America out.

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. He is a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan and author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.