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Gates slams NATO allies over share of combat burden

Says US won’t accept uneven load in future

‘Future US political leaders ... may not consider the return on America’s investment ‘Future US political leaders ... may not consider the return on America’s investment
By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post / June 11, 2011

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BERLIN — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates rebuked some of America’s staunchest allies yesterday, saying that the United States has a “dwindling appetite’’ to serve as the heavyweight partner in the military order that has underpinned the US relationship with Europe since the end of World War II.

In an unusually stinging speech, made on his final visit to Europe before he retires at the end of the month, Gates condemned European defense cuts and said the United States is tired of engaging in combat missions for those who “don’t want to share the risks and the costs.’’

“The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the US Congress, and in the American body politic writ large, to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources . . . to be serious and capable partners in their own defense,’’ he said in an address to a think tank in Brussels.

The speech comes as the United States prepares to begin withdrawing some of its forces from Afghanistan this summer and as it and other NATO powers engage in an air campaign against the forces of Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy. In both cases, Gates said, budget cuts and sheer reluctance among European partners to fight have made the missions significantly more difficult and shifted the burden onto the United States.

The challenges facing the Libyan campaign were underscored just hours after Gates spoke, as Norway announced it would pull its forces out of operations by the beginning of August because of the burdens on its small military.

Norway’s F-16 jets have carried out about 10 percent of the airstrikes on Libyan soil since the NATO operations began at the end of March, according to Norway’s air force.

This week, NATO carried out the most intensive bombardment of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, to date. But the airstrikes are depleting NATO munitions, forcing the United States to supply more, Gates said.

US officials have been unhappy with Germany in the months since it refused to support a UN Security Council resolution to intervene in Libya, but President Obama feted German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday at the White House, presenting her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In response to Gates’s speech, the German Foreign Ministry dismissed the notion that it was not sufficiently contributing to NATO and noted the celebrations earlier this week in Washington.

“Germany makes a considerable contribution to NATO and NATO-led operations,’’ said a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, speaking anonymously under normal diplomatic ground rules. “Germany’s engagement is very emphatically valued,’’ as evidenced by Merkel’s new medal, she said.

Official reaction in other European capitals appeared muted yesterday. The French Defense Ministry had no immediate comment.

But NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen shares Gates’s concerns about European willingness to contribute to its own defense, an alliance spokeswoman said.

“There is clearly a longstanding concern about the transatlantic gap in defense spending,’’ Oana Lungescu told reporters in Brussels.

Gates’s criticism drew mixed reactions from European think tanks. Daniel Korski, a senior policy fellow at European Council on Foreign Relations, said the speech displayed ignorance about widespread budget cuts across Europe. But Jonathan Eyal, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said the departing US defense chief delivered a message that Europeans need to hear.

In Libya, Gates said, “the mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country, yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the US, once more, to make up the difference.’’

Gates and other US officials have criticized Europe in the past, saying it is failing to hold up its end of the bargain. But his harsh language in the speech to the Security and Defense Agenda think tank yesterday — delivered after a NATO defense ministers’ summit in which NATO and American top brass tried but largely failed to secure additional resources for the Libyan campaign — was a sign of just how tenuous the military relationships have become.

“Future US political leaders, those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me, may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost,’’ he said.

Gates said he has “worried openly’’ in the past “about NATO turning into a two-tiered alliance between members who specialize in ‘soft’ humanitarian, development, peacekeeping, and talking tasks and those conducting the ‘hard’ combat missions — between those willing and able to pay the price and bear the burdens of alliance commitments, and those who enjoy the benefits of NATO membership . . . but don’t want to share the risks and the costs.’’

“This is no longer a hypothetical worry,’’ Gates said. “We are there today. And it is unacceptable.’’

Gates expressed alarm about “the real possibility for a dim, if not dismal, future for the transatlantic alliance.’’ He added: “Such a future is possible, but not inevitable. The good news is that the members of NATO — individually and collectively — have it well within their means to halt and reverse these trends and instead produce a very different future.’’

Gates said that the best hope for NATO was for European leaders to push harder to protect their budgets from further cuts, and he urged them to work together to coordinate their military capabilities.

“It is not too late for Europe to get its defense institutions and security relationships on track,’’ Gates said.

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