Libya No Fly Zone Shows NATO's Usefulness Has Ended

There's nothing more corrosive to national security than military alliances that have become ends in themselves.

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It’s time to put NATO out of its misery.

In spring 1999, I was a Middle East correspondent whisked from my regular beat to Brussels, where the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was administering air assaults on Serbian forces as they advanced on poorly equipped Kosovars. Of course, the NATO aegis was nothing more than fig leaf for what was in fact a nearly exclusive American operation. With the exception of plucky Great Britain, alliance constituents were scandalously unprepared to do their bit. Their defense budgets had declined precipitously with the collapse of the Soviet Union--the sine qua non of the alliance, after all--and the weapons systems they did employ were incompatible with each other and often redundant.

In cubicles and corridors throughout NATO headquarters, members of the U.S. delegation complained fulsomely about this. The Europeans are not taking the alliance seriously, they sniffed. The Germans are not holding up their end. The Italians and the Greeks are conspiring against us. NATO must reform itself or else. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the Middle East protests.]

Or else what?

Silence.

A generation later, the resilience of bureaucratic lethargy and its consequences are fairly preening for all to see. The chaos in Brussels over who should run the war in Libya is symptomatic of an alliance that is, to paraphrase Churchill, nearly all jaw-jaw and no war-war. A confederation of democracies formed to deter a massive Soviet thrust through the Folda Gap has become a talking shop, a cocktail circuit, a ticket-puncher for modestly ambitious European technocrats. Having dodged the bullet of the Kosovo fiasco--it was not so much allied bombs but cajoling and coercion from Moscow that ultimately forced the Serbs’ retreat--NATO returned to business as usual. Its lack of interoperability has forced alliance-member troops in Afghanistan to operate in isolation of one another, lest they risk friendly fire casualties, and Washington routinely disparages member commitments to the war there. Two decades after the Soviet implosion, the United States insists on being the sun to NATO’s unstable constellation of unruly sovereign states, so that when it transfers authority for the Libyan campaign to NATO, it will be doing so to itself. [See photos of the Libyan uprising.]

In a May 2010 interview, Anthony Zinni, a retired four-star Marine General and a former Centcom commander who knows a thing or two about alliance warfare, complained of NATO’s “failure” in Afghanistan and suggests the alliance be dissolved along with America’s “legacy” deployments in South Korea and Japan. Zinni was right. There is nothing more corrosive to national security than military alliances that have become ends in themselves rather than means to an end. [See photos of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.]

In Thursday’s Financial Times, Anne-Marie Slaughter, who last month stepped down as a senior State Department policy planner, implied an “Obama Doctrine” in which “other countries are going to have to do more in a more diverse international order.” This sounds like a good idea, just as it did in 1967 when Richard Nixon, writing in Foreign Affairs, warned of public weariness with “unilateral American intervention” and the need for Washington’s allies to erect “an indigenous … framework for their own future security.” [See photos of the unrest in Libya.]

At a time when self-styled libertarians are baying for the dismantling of the welfare state at home, why not extend the conceit to include America’s outdated alliances abroad?

  • See photos of the unrest in Libya.
  • Check out a roundup of political cartoons on President Obama.
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