Why expanding NATO to the Middle East is a terrible idea

In his White House speech on Jan. 8 following Iranian ballistic missile attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq, President Trump announced he would try to get NATO more involved in the Middle East. A day later he reiterated this goal, even suggesting a new name — NATO-ME — to emphasize the Middle East (ME). While fairer transatlantic burden-sharing remains important, pushing NATO further into the Middle East is a recipe for failure. The alliance is not built to do much more than it’s already doing.

Instead, Washington could focus on getting specific European allies and partners to take on greater responsibility in the region as the United States focuses on China and Russia — though even this step is unlikely to yield results.

During Trump’s televised address, he said he would “ask NATO to become much more involved in the Middle East process.” It is unclear what “process” the president was referring to, but the broader intent fits well with the administration’s focus on fixing the transatlantic burden-sharing imbalance. Moreover, it’s a necessary step in fulfilling the president’s National Security Strategy, which calls for less involvement in the Middle East and greater focus on competition with China and Russia.

In response, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg dutifully agreed that the alliance could contribute more to regional stability and the fight against terrorism. (A White House official also emphasized that Trump didn’t mean adding new members to the alliance from the Middle East.)

Two main problems immediately present themselves. First, the alliance is already stretched to its limit in conducting surveillance overflights in the region, facilitating intelligence-sharing on terrorism, promoting the development of counterterrorism capabilities and training Iraqi military personnel. Squeezing more out of an organization that is primarily focused on collective defense in Europe will necessarily mean other missions will suffer — an unhelpful outcome at a time when Russia remains aggressive as ever and fighting rages in Ukraine.

Second, NATO isn’t resourced, manned, trained or equipped to take on the responsibilities of the United States in the Middle East, or even just in Iraq and Syria. Operation Inherent Resolve, as the U.S.-led military operation in Iraq and Syria is known, involves training and equipping Iraqi security forces, much as NATO does today. But it has also involved thousands of airstrikes as well as large-scale counterterrorism operations. Although all NATO member states are part of the coalition against the Islamic State, only a small handful have conducted airstrikes or participated in ground operations — the United States has provided the lion’s share of combat power. Meanwhile, there’s reason to conclude the Islamic State is attempting to regroup.

Could NATO fill the gap created by a U.S. withdrawal and finish the job? Here it’s important to note the difference between NATO as an organization and NATO as shorthand for American allies in Europe. As an organization, NATO isn’t the right tool for this job. Beyond some surveillance aircraft, the alliance organization simply doesn’t have combat power of its own — no fighter jets, no troops and no Special Forces. Instead, it relies on its member states to temporarily lend it these things for specific operations. Alliance members have zero appetite, however, for yet another large-scale military mission beyond Europe. Memories of NATO’s 11-year combat operation in Afghanistan are still fresh.

If, when referencing NATO the president really means European allies and close partners, then he might be on to something. Clearly, Washington cannot ask Lithuania, Albania or Portugal to do much in the Middle East — they have neither the capacity nor the capability to operate there independently, and their interests in the region aren’t sufficient enough to overcome these limitations. But some European allies and partners (Britain, Sweden) have the necessary capacity and/or capability, while others (Greece, Hungary) have vital interests at stake in preventing refugee flows from the turbulent Middle East. A few (Italy, France, Germany) have both.

Nonetheless, the president is unlikely to see many Europeans stepping forward as he calls for volunteers. First, few show any appetite for tangling with Turkey, which has forces on the ground in Syria and which Europe needs to keep happy, lest Ankara decide to loosen controls on millions of Syrian refugees and allow them to enter the continent. Second, apart from Boris Johnson, few European leaders are enamored of Trump, and they’re unlikely to want to do him any favors during this U.S. election year. Third, European countries weren’t consulted or warned of the strike that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani last week, and they appear uninterested in getting involved in a conflict they believe has been instigated by the United States.

Finally, even among those allies with the greatest potential or rationale to do more in the Middle East, European military wherewithal remains in short supply given only modest defense budget increases of recent years. More pressing threats — such as Russian aggression, domestic terrorism and the risk of illegal migrant flows from Libya and sub-Saharan Africa — mean that Europe is unlikely to seriously heed the president’s wishes.

John R. Deni is a research professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute and the author of “NATO and Article 5.” The views expressed are his own.

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