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NATO vs. Rogues?

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Institutions rarely vote themselves out of existence. Not if they still have money in their budgets. Large institutions in particular have an almost genetic propensity to cling to life even after their reasons for being have vanished.

That’s why I don’t expect NATO, which will gather in Chicago later this month, to suddenly declare game over and disband -- even though the alliance’s rationale has become wafer-thin. The Soviet Union is no more, al-Qaeda is a spent force, and NATO members are rushing for the door in Afghanistan. Indeed, most of Europe is cutting back on military spending, and the debt-saddled region has a diminished appetite for intervention.

But instead of initiating its own “mission accomplished” moment, NATO is about to hold its largest summit ever, with representatives from 60 countries and international organizations. In Chicago, NATO will be spending over $40 million on a meeting to talk about how to do more with less. Even without a mind reader in attendance, it sounds like a greater waste of money than the General Services Administration get-together in Las Vegas.

And NATO’s new raison d’etre sounds awful weak. “With the financial crisis in Europe, severe deficit reduction measures in the United States and increased pressure on defence budgets, NATO’s added value is to help countries work together,” announces the NATO website. “NATO has the capacity to connect forces and manage multinational projects.”

In other words, NATO is repositioning itself as a combination party planner and life coach for the military-industrial complex. It will no longer identify a larger civilizational goal for the alliance. It will simply connect members and help them work together. Maybe the next NATO secretary general should be Mark Zuckerberg.

But all this emphasis on connecting and togetherness will not keep NATO in business. NATO is designed to wage war, not make nice, and threat is the oxygen that keeps the alliance breathing. That’s why the Libya operation, which officially ended last October, was so critical. It was for NATO what the Grenada invasion was for the United States back in 1983: a relatively rapid operation to wipe away the stain of ignominy associated with past failure (Vietnam, Afghanistan). NATO officials not surprisingly hailed the operation as a huge success. Damon Wilson of the NATO-friendly Atlantic Council called the effort “a shot in the arm for the alliance. Libya’s an operation that shows our allies can step up and take a leadership role in military operations.”

Although Gaddafi is indeed dead and gone, the Libya conflict revealed that NATO is held together by little more than duct tape and caulking. Only eight of the 28 members participated in the operation, and the United States did the bulk of the heavy lifting. NATO without Washington lacks surveillance capabilities, unmanned drones, and air-to-air refueling. A period of further austerity will only deepen the political and technological cleavages that the Libya attack revealed.

Two years ago, I argued that NATO was suffering from a “terminal illness” as a result of its failures in Afghanistan. The Libya “treatment,” despite its woeful side effects, suggests a different method of saving the patient. It’s not a fancy new drug. It’s something that kept the alliance alive back in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Libya represents the return of the rogues. But as with most sequels, this one lacks even the marginal plausibility of the original.

Back in the 1990s, the Clinton administration identified a set of countries as “rogue states” that threatened global security. These were not just governments that behaved badly toward their own citizens; they posed much wider risks of terrorism, WMD proliferation, and conventional war. It was a flimsy concept, particularly since the United States was happily partnering with all manner of rogues by any other name (Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, and so on). Since Anthony Lake articulated the concept in a 1994 Foreign Affairs article, the United States with NATO assistance has knocked off Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. The current list is shorter, but the names are familiar: North Korea, Iran, and Syria.

Iran is a key concern of NATO, but it’s a concern expressed rather elliptically. Although the United States speaks of keeping all options on the table, including military ones, in its efforts to restrain Iran’s nuclear program, NATO focuses instead on building a missile defense system against largely unspecified enemies. After tweaking the Bush administration’s controversial plan for Europe, the Obama team has begun to roll out the new system, with an early warning radar station going on line in Turkey in January. Poland and Romania will also be hosting Aegis radars

But missile defense may be more divisive than unifying for NATO. The latest incarnation of the Reagan-era dream of zapping incoming missiles faces the same problems that have plagued this boondoggle from day one. “Reports by the Defense Science Board, an advisory group to the U.S. Defense Department, and the U.S. Congress' Government Accountability Office, indicated the system is plagued by technological problems, delays and cost overruns,” according to the Associated Press. “The reports say missile interceptors are running into production glitches, radars are underpowered and sensors cannot distinguish between warheads and other objects.”

Moreover, no one really knows how much the overall system will cost. One early prediction was $4 billion, but this is likely to be a wild underestimate. Whatever the cost, Congress wants the Europeans to pay more of it. It recently held back 25 percent of certain system expenditures until these NATO members pony up more of the tab. Expect even more bickering as the costs go up in tandem with budget-cutting pressures on both sides of the Atlantic.

Next on the list is Syria. Back in February, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was categorical in his insistence that the alliance would not intervene in Syria. It wouldn’t intervene even with a UN mandate; it wouldn’t intervene even to provide logistical support for “humanitarian corridors.” By April, however, the possibility of a NATO role increased as Turkey began to broach the option of invoking the alliance charter articles on consultations and collective defense.  Everyone knows that Syria is not Libya, that a military intervention to dethrone Bashar al-Assad would look more like Afghanistan or Iraq. But Rasmussen might not be able to fully dig in his heels if both Ankara and Washington are eager to rush in where NATO fears to tread.

North Korea is far from NATO’s usual field of operations. But despite the alliance’s financial challenges, the “global NATO” option remains appealing to some key officials. Ivo Daalder, co-author of an influential essay in favor of NATO spreading to all corners of the globe, is the Obama administration’s ambassador to the alliance. Rasmussen has been talking global threats since he took over as secretary general in 2009, and the alliance continues to build an outward ripple of partnerships (Mediterranean Dialogue, Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, “partners across the globe”). The “Pacific pivot” that is at least rhetorically reorienting U.S. foreign policy away from the Middle East will necessarily affect NATO as well. The head of the Libyan operation, Admiral Samuel Locklear, has already shifted over to the Pacific Command.

Other potential rogues could fill out the list: Belarus, Cuba, Somalia, Venezuela. But they are a ragtag bunch, with little or no capacity to influence events beyond their borders. Some analysts, like the the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, would have us believe that Osama bin Laden’s legacy lives on in such organizations as the Muslim Brotherhood and the anti-Assad forces in Syria. But this attempt to sustain political Islam as the ultimate rogue power finds favor only in the foreign policy lunacies of the political fringe.

As such, it will be tough for a Rogues Part 2 scenario to give new life to the NATO franchise. The bickering over missile defense, the hesitations around Syria, the geopolitical distance of North Korea -- not to mention the considerable pushback from Russia and China -- all make a revived “rogue state” narrative pretty threadbare material. Moreover, the Obama camp has intermittently attempted diplomacy in all three cases, with the P5 + 1 negotiations with Iran, the failed bilateral discussions with North Korea, and the hesitant support for the UN peace plan in Syria.

Such diplomacy has already become fodder for the Republicans, in an election year, to paint the president as ineffectual and insufficiently martial (despite all the evidence to the contrary). Mitt Romney has identified Russia as the number one geopolitical foe of the United States, which suggests a desire to return to the glory days of NATO. More characteristic of the party’s position, however, has been vice-presidential hopeful Marco Rubio’s calls for unilateral U.S. military action against Iran and Syria. Neither of these scenarios has captured the imagination of an electorate that wants jobs, not wars.

NATO will continue to limp along after its multi-million-dollar bash in Chicago. The alliance means jobs for generals and contracts for military exporters. Absent credible threat, it will make do with inertia. But come November, someone’s going to have to tell the next president the hard news: the emperor has no alliance.

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