- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Ex-Marine James N. Mattis‘ experience operating in hostile territory could come in handy this week as the U.S. defense secretary travels to Europe at a time of unusual strain between the U.S. and its allies, over trade, Iran, energy policy, sanctions — and U.S. demands for more defense spending and more help in such crisis spots as Iraq and Afghanistan.

The latest summit of NATO’s defense ministers, which begins Wednesday at alliance headquarters in Brussels, will again have Mr. Mattis pressing alliance members to do more on and off the battlefield — a reoccurring theme of the Trump White House’s national security and foreign policy.

The U.S. pressure for more defense spending and support from key NATO allies is having an impact, analysts say.

“The U.S. has been beating up on NATO to do more since 2011, not just in one place but in a number of places,” said Hal Brands, a defense official in the Obama administration. While those previous talks strayed into some contentious exchanges, there was an understanding on both sides that the issues raised and the pressure applied by the American delegations to the NATO were in the for the greater good for the alliance, said Mr. Brands, now a senior analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

“U.S. officers were beating up on the alliance from a place of love,” during past negotiations, he explained, noting tone and message from the Trump White House to alliance members has become sharper and much more aggressive.

But analysts will also be closely watching to see if political tensions between Washington and its major European allies — on issues such as the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and Mr. Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on European steel and aluminum producers citing “national security” concerns — spill over into Mr. Mattis‘ talks on defense issues with his counterparts in Brussels.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Trump famously bandied the notion that the U.S. could pull out of the Cold War-era alliance if other allies did not meet the goal of devoting 2 percent of their GDP to defense.

That approach, which Trump supporters argue was long overdue in dealing with the Cold War-era organization, has led to “a bit more apprehension on the European side of the relationship,” in regards to meeting Washington’s demands, Mr. Brands explained.

“It may be hard to get more blood out of that stone,” he added, referring to the new package of proposals Mr. Mattis is expected to bring before NATO leaders during this week’s ministerial.

Mr. Mattis is also expected to outline a major overhaul of the U.S. campaign in Iraq with plans to reshape it into a longer-term, more multinational operation akin to the American-led mission in Afghanistan.

But officials say the American effort in the country will remain focused on bolstering the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces, ensuring those troops will be able to battle back remaining elements of the Islamic State or other extremist groups looking to gain a foothold in the country.

In addition to requesting more support for transitioning the Iraq mission, the Pentagon chief will also request additional troops commitments for Afghanistan, sources say. The request will be targeted at NATO allies who had made only nominal troop contributions, in response to the administration’s request for alliance support on the White House’s South Asia strategy, released in August.

Mr. Mattis is likely to race raising doubts among alliance leaders over whether Washington has a viable national security strategy underpinning their requests.

The administration’s list of demands to Iran are widely seen in Europe as a thinly-veiled attempt to undermine the nuclear deal and clear the field for a more aggressive approach. Mr. Trump’s recent calls for the accelerated withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria has also left many allies confused.

“Anytime we ask the allies to do more, they want to know rightfully whether we have a long-term strategy that makes sense,” Mr. Brands said.

The Trump administration “has had a heck of a time outlining how they are going to wind down … the fights” in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, he said, adding “there may be some trepidation [among allies] the U.S. has a strategy the president has bought into” in those conflicts.

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