- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 21, 2010

The North American Treaty Organization has been history’s most successful alliance. It protected Western Europe from Soviet communist engulfment, halted intra-European civil wars that almost destroyed Western civilization and underpinned unparalleled prosperity for 400 million people. And, of course, monumentally, NATO outlived its designated enemy, the Soviet bloc.

Ironically, NATO’s finest hours came after the fall of the Soviet empire. In 2003, NATO assumed the U.N. Security Council mandate to cleanse Afghanistan of Islamic terrorists. The alliance’s credo - an attack on any member was an attack on all - may sound idealistic, but the pragmatic consequences brought 28 nations together to prevent future atrocities. After 9/11, European newspapers ran headlines proclaiming that “we are all Americans,” and subsequent terrorist attacks across Europe justified that universal concern.

But the fight in Afghanistan called for much, much more. It carried NATO beyond its nominal European Theater to a worldwide stage. There was a moment of hope that, finally, the world had found its policeman. It would no longer be the Americans, who, often alone, willy-nilly shouldered the burden of maintaining world peace, whether in Korea, Vietnam, the Balkans or the Mideast, with mixed success at best.

But could the Afghanistan decision have been NATO’s last magnificent flowering? NATO’s annual summit this past weekend in Lisbon, dedicated to finding an Afghanistan exit strategy, may have been the alliance’s nadir. It certainly only added to the conceptual confusion.

Truth be told, whatever mistakes Washington has made pursuing a non-state but potent international enemy in Afghanistan, the Europeans - with notable exceptions - once again have not held up their end of the bargain. European forces, deployed with political “caveats” that left them fighting with one arm tactically tied behind their back, have frustrated the effort.

With the mission far from accomplished, the Lisbon summit waffled around a handover of the fighting to Afghanistan’s government. Clearly, the alliance has not delivered Islamic terrorists the psychological and strategic coup de grace that would halt attempts to repeat their 2001 success from other dark corners, whether it is Yemen, Somalia or, even closer to Europe’s heartland, North Africa. Europeans, far more than Americans, fear rising terrorist recruitment even among their own Muslims.

What’s at issue is NATO’s viability. Luckily, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, for all his bare-chested huffing and puffing, represents a demoralized, rapidly declining military power. As a leader of the Russia’s beleaguered and melting domestic opposition has said, economics and flagging technology will further reduce Russian strength, whether the Senate ratifies the nuclear missile START pact or no.

For all the noble language, last week’s summit skirted pressing problems, even more deliberately than usual.

For starters, a meeting dedicated to Afghanistan strategy did not have any presence from neighboring Pakistan, which is crucial to the overall war effort.

Turkey, a NATO member in hot pursuit of its own clout as a regional power, is playing footsie with everyone from terrorist-sponsoring Syria to Moscow to China. By its moves, Ankara cheapens if not completely devalues NATO membership.

Then there is the unfinished business of the alliance’s Eastern European expansion that might have protected Georgia from Russian depredations, a threat that still endangers Ukraine.Also, there are still the perennial defense coordination matters. And, last but not least, the Bush administration’s abandoned European anti-missile shield has been replaced by President Obama with a nominal 10-year proposal, obviously behind the curve of the threat posed by rapidly developing Iranian and North Korean missiles.

True, Europe’s Afghanistan ambivalence was spurred by Mr. Obama’s earlier promise to march U.S. forces back down the hill on a fixed timeline. It will be left to the military historians to judge the mistakes made by U.S., U.N. and NATO leaders. But a new French minister of defense is already calling Afghanistan a “trap.” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle wants withdrawal of Berlin’s no-night-warfare, beer-guzzlers from the theater.

With American taxpayers facing new budget trials and tribulations, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’s presummit pep talks were a cry from the heart. But Mr. Obama came encumbered by a string of recent political setbacks and what Europeans regard as his disdain for them.

Another day, another international conference.

If there is a new NATO aborning, somewhere, somehow, it was hard to see or hear through the fog of war - and mindless rhetoric - in Lisbon.

- Sol Sanders, veteran foreign correspondent and analyst, writes weekly on the convergence of international politics, business and economics. He can be reached at solsanders@cox.net.

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