05/23/2012 07:15 pm ET Updated Jul 23, 2012

Does NATO Matter?

Does NATO matter? After all, this is a 60-year-old institution, created in the aftermath of WWII to keep the Soviets out, the Germans down, and the U.S. in [Europe] as the quip goes. Today, Germany is a critical ally rather than a wartime aggressor. The Soviet Union doesn't exist. (Although Putin is doing his best to recreate some of its glory days). And the U.S. is trying to extract forces from Europe to pivot towards Asia.

Shouldn't we put NATO out of its misery?

To answer that, just look at Libya -- and then Syria. In Libya, the hated dictator Qaddafi threatened to hunt down his own people in their homes and closets. At the request of the Arab League and Libya's opposition, NATO helped local Libyan forces fight back.

Very few Libyans were killed in the fighting. A madman who fomented war throughout Africa, funding noxious war criminals such as Charles Taylor and terrorists who brought down the plane over Lockerbie, no longer rules his people through fear. Civil society groups, debating organizations and meetings have appeared in a society formerly closed with an iron fist.

Libya isn't perfect. Tribal rivalries are flaring a bit in the South. Militias only recently gave up their guns. But it is largely peaceful, human rights abuses are minimal and democracy is starting to take hold.

Meanwhile, in Syria, we watch in horror as Bashar-al-Assad has killed more than 10,000 of his people. Many hoped that the apparently mild-mannered, British-educated ophthalmologist would change his country. He did not. Ruling a structure set by his dictatorial father and henchman, he rules through torture and murder.

Hope and naiveté does not fight such methods. Militaries do.

Sometimes, in other words, it takes a military alliance to bring peace and to protect innocent people. That idea is not popular in my adopted home of Boulder, CO -- where "a world without war" rivals "a kitchen without gluten" as the city mantra. But peace signs and good intentions do not protect people facing murder at the hands of their governments or rebel armies.

Boulderites are right that war is never good for children and other living things. It always has unintended consequences, and should not be undertaken lightly. Acting through NATO means that when military force is necessary, that decision is not made at the whim of a single country -- but by a group that shares values and intelligence, that can argue, debate and come to a strong and unified conclusion. That process is what makes a standing alliance so much more valuable for legitimacy than a coalition of the willing.

In Syria's case, of course, even NATO can't intervene; it is blocked from acting by the United Nations, the lack of Arab League mandate, and military realities. In the UN, China cravenly supports state sovereignty and Russia even more callously supplies arms to Assad. Meanwhile, those Russian weapons and the fractured state of Syrian forces preclude outside help, due to worries over casualties, and the possibility of accidentally helping extremists working amidst the rebels.

But it is better to stop one mass-murderer than none. In just my lifetime, NATO has helped to end genocide in the former Yugoslavia. It prevented Qaddafi from the slow-motion destruction that Assad has unleashed on his people. And it has allowed Europe to maintain its military force more cheaply, with integrated equipment and forces -- so that it could rebuild itself after WWII, keep peace on its own continent, and maintain smaller militaries in each country.

If I have that kind of track record at 60, I'll feel pretty damn good. So should NATO.