- The Washington Times - Monday, July 15, 2002

Plans to fight Iraq may not yet be sitting on President Bush's desk, but make no mistake: a military campaign against Saddam and his minions will occur, though we will see one more unsuccessful round of U.N. inspections first.
No matter when it happens, war in Iraq is a severe bone of contention in the already caustic trans-Atlantic debate. Europeans skeptically question whether Mr. Bush's true aim is to address a serious threat to American interests or to mete out punishment for a personal vendetta; America sees a weak Europe that could be of little help in the military realm. The trans-Atlantic alliance, already in trouble, is suffering as a result.
Ironically, nothing would do more to strengthen the alliance and curb American unilateralism than if the upcoming incursion into Iraq, was a NATO operation. By participating despite its objections, and initiating capability improvements (the delay will give them time to develop more interoperable communications, at least) that would enable the allies to fight together in Iraq, Europe would give itself a far more decisive military voice, and show America that it is a staunch ally in foul weather as well as fair. Hawkish defense experts assert that, in keeping with the a la carte approach that the administration has favored when building coalitions, only Turkey, Kuwait and the United Kingdom will be invited to participate. But America simply will not turn away a willing NATO, provided it proves able as well.
Indeed, Mr. Bush would be immensely grateful for such participation; so much so that Europe would be in the best position in its history to argue for a better division of labor, in which America commits more resources to "softer" European military priorities such as peace support. NATO itself would demonstrate its ability to perform out-of-area operations, reasserting its legitimacy and quieting the voices that now question the body's relevance. An alliance that fights together stays together.
However, if America goes into Iraq alone, the trans-Atlantic bond will deteriorate to a level of unprecedented acerbity. Discussions of NATO's new complexion and purpose will fade as the alliance becomes too irrelevant to merit debate. America will cease to care about Europe improving its capabilities, and will seek to further compensate militarily for the practical loss of its allies making interoperability impossible as American military technology gets too far ahead for Europe to catch up. Meanwhile, American vulnerability will rise despite its power, as the demise of military cooperation compromises coordinative efforts in other channels, such as law enforcement and intelligence.
The administration, at National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice's urging, will steer American foreign policy towards crafting an alliance with Russia that effectively bypasses NATO. The excitement surrounding Russia's involvement in NATO will be a ceremonial memory, as bilateral alliances will trump the institution. Enlarging to include former communist states will be an event of minimal import. Europe will be stuck in the middle, holding on to policies that are profoundly dangerous in the absence of American military backing. A terrorist attack in Europe in, say, 2007, with Europe five years more obsolete in its capabilities, America five years further down the unilateralist path, and Article 5 five years more hollowed out than it was when invoked after September 11, poses a grave scenario indeed.
If America goes into Iraq, Europe must go, too. The stakes have never been higher.
Engagement in the spirit of soft power alone is not a panacea for threats, and Europe is thus severely remiss in defining and contending with the dangers of the 21st century. Ironically, French President Jacques Chirac whose country is not part of NATO's military structure is the only European leader who has taken a step toward spending more on defense. Because of the capabilities gap, Europe's criticisms of American policy and power seem both disingenuous and duplicitous the latter because Europe relies on the military charity that America provides and will not find an American audience without European action to modernize their forces.
Even in a globalizing world, military bonds where they exist underlie all others. America and the European Union are not striving for a supranational union: the two sides will fight trade wars and continue to battle over corporate mergers and other assorted unpleasantries of globalization. But America shares more with Europe historically and strategically than any other place in the world. Therefore, continued strength in our military partnership is integral to the vitality of our overall relationship.
Because European and American soldiers fought alongside each other at Normandy and Bastogne, America saw a greater stake in the reconstruction of Europe. The Marshall Plan may have never come about if the United States decided not to enter World War II. Had Europe been denied American investment at this critical time, the Soviet Union may have expanded and consolidated its empire beyond the Iron Curtain but it did not, because of the strength of a bond that was fundamentally based on soldiers fighting and dying to preserve the Western way of life.
The threats to that way of life are equally real and dangerous today, and necessitate a bond of equal depth. It is time for America and Europe to reinvest in the most important institutional partnership that either has ever known. With a strong military underpinning, NATO can be a forum for debating foreign policy preferences, not a victim of them. Fighting together in Iraq will remind the allies on both sides of the Atlantic what NATO really means, and why it matters.

Alan L. Isenberg, formerly of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, serves on the Board of Editors of Orbis, a world affairs journal. This commentary is primarily excerpted from his article in the fall 2002 edition of that publication.


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