- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 10, 2009

NATO members’ reluctance to assume a larger role in Afghanistan is partly the legacy of U.S. military protection, which allowed Europeans to stress social programs over defense for decades, the Greek ambassador to the United States said.

“For 40 years, you have a system [of] not bothering about military, security and stability expenses,” Vassilis Kaskarelis told editors and reporters of The Washington Times. “Because these issues were handled by the United States after World War II … everybody was happy.”

Mr. Kaskarelis, 60, served as Greece’s ambassador to NATO from 2000 to 2003, before a five-year stint as his country’s top envoy to the European Union.

The Obama administration is weighing whether to send thousands of additional American troops to augment the 68,000 already in Afghanistan. Other NATO members are contributing about 40,000 troops. Only Britain has agreed to send more. The Netherlands and other nations have announced that they intend to withdraw troops in the next two years.

European nations have been watching with concern the Obama administration’s prolonged deliberations over Afghanistan strategy and have been waiting for Washington to make up its mind before announcing their own troops decisions.

U.S. commanders, meanwhile, have complained that some European forces have rules of engagement so restrictive that it makes it difficult for them to conduct combat missions.

Mr. Kaskarelis said during the interview on Friday that most European governments support the war in Afghanistan but lack the military infrastructure to contribute as equal partners.

“They don’t have the capabilities, because in the last 50 years, the U.S. offered an umbrella in terms of military, security and stability,” he said. “You had the phenomenon [in which] most of the successful European economies — countries like France, Germany, the Scandinavians — channeled all the funds they had on social issues, health care, pensions, you name it.”

Mr. Kaskarelis noted that this system grew out of the wreckage of World War II and that without U.S. aid, his own country “wouldn’t exist today” as an independent, democratic state. But to readjust is difficult, he said.

“Can you imagine how a government can sell such … an idea to its general public without having a revolution? They cover the expense of the hospital, but to say, ‘We won’t cover 100 percent of your medical expenses, we will start covering 80 percent, because the other 20 percent [will be used] to upgrade our military capabilities to be used in NATO and Afghanistan. Can you imagine this?”

Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of “The Return of History and the End of Dreams,” agreed with the ambassador’s analysis.

“The Europeans have lived in a very benevolent situation for decades in which the United States provided a security umbrella under which a very happy lifestyle — including high government expenditures on domestic health and welfare programs — were made possible,” he said.

“It’s difficult to imagine that European publics could be persuaded to give up this deal, and few European politicians are urging them to do so.”

Mr. Kaskarelis faulted the George W. Bush administration for giving the impression that it could wage war and peace in both Iraq and Afghanistan without much assistance from other nations. He was particularly critical of the U.S. decision to offer contracts for Iraq reconstruction only to U.S. firms after the 2003 invasion.

“I am not going to criticize the initial decision [to topple Saddam Hussein], but this idea was not helpful,” he said. He said he personally had offered to provide plans for the Baghdad sewage system, which was built decades ago by a Greek company. He said a senior Bush administration official rebuffed the offer. The ambassador would not identify the official.

Mr. Kaskarelis also said tense U.S. ties with Russia during the Bush administration hurt U.S. efforts in both Iraq and Afghanistan and that he strongly supported the Obama administration’s decision to change plans for a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic.

I strongly believe you cannot do business in the Caucasus and in Central Asia without the Russians, because they are there,” he said. “This is the reality.”

He praised the Obama administration’s willingness to consult foreign countries on key policy issues and said Greece wanted to offer help on matters such as Arab-Israeli peace that go beyond the traditional Greek portfolio of Cyprus, Turkey and the Balkans.

Mr. Kaskarelis also said he was optimistic about improved relations between the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity.

In 1054, in what is known as the Great Schism, the Orthodox Church, based in what is now Istanbul, broke away from the Vatican in Rome.

“I believe the situation is more than good,” the ambassador said. “The two churches and the patriarch in Istanbul and the Vatican have established close relations for the past 10 or 15 years. There is a dialogue going on. There are results that are not spectacular, but positive.

“I am optimistic at a certain point, it would take some time, we could talk about a reunification of the two churches: Eastern Rome and Western Rome.”