NATO needs Iraq

November 19, 2003|By Tom Lantos

AT A TIME when the United States and our coalition partners need its help the most in Iraq, NATO is missing in action.

If its members don't want it to become a mere historical curiosity and a paper army, they have to get serious about NATO becoming a relevant collective security organization ready to respond to today's challenges. NATO must immediately move to commit forces under its own flag to the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq.

For years, NATO has fretted over its need for a new identity, and it has only recently begun taking serious steps to make itself relevant in a world of global terrorism and security threats beyond Europe's borders. It intends to establish a new 20,000-member "response force" to react quickly to emerging global conflict situations, including counterterrorism and combat operations.

It has peacekeeping and civil police forces deployed in Kosovo and Bosnia. It has assumed responsibility and provided nearly 5,000 troops for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul, Afghanistan, and also (somewhat timorously) agreed to expand that crucial force slightly to one other nearby city.

Iraq, like Afghanistan, needs more troops from more countries to help ensure its security. Some NATO members have made important contributions: Poland has stepped forward, leading one multinational division. Italy has contributed 2,700 personnel. As always, Britain is standing foursquare with us, with more than 11,000 troops still deployed. But because of political pique and a congenital lack of will, NATO as a whole is not bearing its fair burden.

Far more is at stake for NATO's European members than the present-day identity of history's greatest alliance. As the Middle East's closest neighbor, Europe will be directly affected, for good or for ill, by the success or failure of Iraqi reconstruction.

Perpetual instability in Iraq would strengthen the forces of extremism throughout the worldwide Muslim community, which resides on Europe's doorstep and even in Europe itself, where the Muslim population is growing apace. In contrast, the establishment of a peace-loving and prosperous society in Iraq would have a moderating effect throughout the region.

Moreover, dependent as it is on energy imports, Europe's economy may well grow or sputter as a result of events in Iraq.

Europe's strategic interests in the success of the Iraqi experiment are clear. So one would think that all of our European friends would deem it critical to contribute to the success of that experiment and that they would recognize that they no longer can afford to indulge their unhappiness with policies that date to before the war.

On paper, NATO members together have more than 2.8 million military personnel, nearly twice as many as the United States. Of that number, however, only 80,000 soldiers are apparently fit for expeditionary service. With existing deployments of 55,000 in various multinational operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan and elsewhere, that leaves 25,000 available for deployment to Iraq. And as outgoing NATO Secretary Lord Robertson has pointed out, moving them to the field in Iraq simply requires NATO member states "to want to do more than they are doing at the expressed moment."

The disagreement over how to handle Saddam Hussein should be behind us now, but it lingers still in NATO's reluctance to send peacekeeping, police and combat troops to support the stabilization of Iraq.

NATO needs Iraq as much as Iraq needs NATO.

Just as the United States proved itself to be a reliable partner during more than 40 years of confrontation on the European continent, NATO must now prove itself in the streets and countryside of Iraq.

Otherwise, NATO will become ever less relevant, and the United States will become even less convinced that this historic alliance will serve as a reliable partner in the future.

Tom Lantos represents California's 12th Congressional District and is the ranking Democratic member of the House International Relations Committee.

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