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Defense Secretary Robert Gates made the rounds on TV news shows last Sunday to say goodbye. It was a departure filled with blunt language concerning this country’s future, honest assessments where we have gone wrong and the future of war and peace.
He began his very short goodbye by visiting his beloved troops in Afghanistan, but deferred from the usual glad-handing and pontificating that usually marks a high official’s departure from the DC scene. Quite the contrary, his words were brief and to the point.
The soft-spoken national security careerist for eight presidents sounded a warning call that was reminiscent of Eisenhower’s legendary military industrial complex warning in his 1961 farewell address. The dangers of military alliances not carefully maintained.
Gates, who is retiring at the end of June, with CIA Director Leon Panetta replacing him – blasted NATO’s military performance and questioned Europeans’ political will in ways not heard from today’s White House. He went as far as to say, concerning NATO, that there is “the real possibility for a dim, if not dismal, future for the trans-Atlantic alliance.”
The defense secretary minced no words. He was quick to shine a spotlight on NATO’s shortcomings in both Libya and Afghanistan. It is his opinion that these failure are “unacceptable.” He went on to say that NATO has struggled with its recent missions, at times desperately, to sustain 25,000 to 40,000 troops. Not just boots on the ground, but in “crucial support assets such as helicopters, transport aircraft, maintenance, intelligence surveillance and much more.”
It is obviously his hope that the Obama administration and Congress heed his dire warnings about this decades-old alliance before it unravels completely. His own personal opinion and tart directness made it no secret that he views the Libyan conflict with disdain with little chance to fix glaring weaknesses. “It has become painfully clear that similar shortcomings – in capability and will – have the potential to jeopardize the alliance’s ability to conduct an integrated, effective and sustained air-sea campaign.”
Less than half of NATO’s members have joined the Libyan effort, and only one-third have contributed militarily. It is a very dark mark on the leadership of President Obama and his power to coordinate this revered alliance.
Gates warned that the United States cannot continue to pay 75 percent of NATO’s defense spending as it has since the fall of the Berlin Wall. “The blunt reality is that there will be a dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress (note Friday’s vote in the House) – and in the American body politic writ large – to expand increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.”
Whether or not these blunt words of warning will do much to shake the growing apathy among our European allies, Gate’s warning injects the reality that the American people may make the decision for them.
It was important goodbye advice to the president, Congress and the nation. Now it is up to us to heed that dire warning.
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