Gates speech reveals deep splits in Nato

A decade ago George W Bush and the neo-cons took advantage of 9/11 and combined pseudo-democratic demagogy with a thirst for revenge to launch American foreign policy on the road of brute military force. But after the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the wake of the deepest slump since the 1930s, the mood has changed.

A few months before the tenth anniversary of 9/11, an article published in The Financial Times carried the headline: “US loses its appetite for job as the world’s policeman”. This title sums up the changed position of the US in world politics. It is a reflection of the fact that ten years later the effects of the bombing of the Twin Towers have begun to wear off. The poisonous fog of chauvinism has dissipated, leaving America with a bad headache.

The changed situation is shown by Washington’s attitude to the Libya crisis. The confusion in Washington over how the US should respond to the epoch-making changes in the Middle East signals the arrival of a new era in US foreign policy. The Arab Revolution has thrown the whole of the Middle East and North Africa into the melting pot. It has dissolved all the old certainties, undermined the old safe allies of Washington and thrown its foreign policy into confusion and reduced to ashes the boastful notion of the New World Order. US imperialism was at a loss to understand these events, which it had not predicted and which it did not expect.

Analysts in Washington were shocked to realize that the US administration had no control over the Arab street, and that it is no easy job to re-establish America’s lost influence and authority in what is a key element in its international strategy. Washington is having serious difficulties in reconciling its traditional foreign policy interests with a revolutionary movement in favour of real democracy.

Therein lies the importance of Libya. What started as a popular insurrection in Benghazi degenerated into a civil war. This gave the imperialists the opportunity to intervene in the internal affairs of an Arab country, posing as “humanitarian defenders of human rights.” The most obtuse and reactionary wing of the ruling class is attempting to cling to the old belligerent policy. Senators such as John McCain have urged a more aggressive military response to Libya, aimed specifically at the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi from power. But they no longer get a serious echo in the USA, where public opinion is hardening against foreign military adventures.

The opportunity was too good to miss. But for the USA it entailed a serious difficulty: who was going to do the fighting? After the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American generals were publicly sceptical about the Libyan operation from the very beginning. At a time when the Americans are desperately trying to extricate themselves from these places, the idea of getting sucked into another war in North Africa would be deeply unpopular in the USA.

The Obama administration was publicly seen to be struggling just to keep up with the dizzying pace of events across Middle Eastern countries. Now they are saying in Washington that the White House did not back pro-democracy protesters early enough. Yes, it is easy to criticize. But if Obama had done what is suggested, he would have immediately entered into conflict with America’s main allies in the Middle East: Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Poor Obama! He must have lost a lot of sleep worrying about being caught backing the wrong side in distant civil conflicts.

That is why Obama handed over the control of the bombing campaign to Nato with all the agility of a man throwing a hot potato into the nearest available pair of hands. The Americans tried to hide behind the Europeans. But they immediately hit a new problem. While some European governments (the British and French) were belligerent in their advocacy of military action against Libya, others did not share their enthusiasm. The Germans were famously reluctant to get involved, and they were not alone. Berlusconi, apart from being an old pal of Gaddafi, had enough problems on his plate keeping out of prison without getting embroiled in another war. Others complained of the high cost (remember the public deficit!).

The result has been a very scrappy bombing campaign in which the brunt has been borne by Britain, France and... the United States. It has inflicted enough damage to cause a wave of resentment against the West, but not enough to allow the rebels to defeat Gaddafi’s forces. The result is a messy stalemate on the ground with no end in sight. This fact has not gone down well on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean where the grumbling about “our European allies” has reached a crescendo in recent days. While Washington and its allies are talking about a more forceful response to the Libyan crisis, behind the scenes the North Atlantic Alliance is in crisis and riven with splits.

Gates warns

US defence secretary, Robert Gates was quick to criticize what he called “loose talk” about the West enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya. Such a policy, he reminded Congress in testimony on Wednesday, would start with an attack on Libya’s air defences. He clearly wanted the Europeans, and not the Americans, to take most of the responsibility for this. Now he is clearly frustrated. In the final months of his tenure, the US defence secretary has made a series of provocative policy speeches on American foreign policy that have shaken things up in Washington.

He has warned that the US military is likely to become smaller and able to deal with fewer threats. Gates recently made an outspoken speech at the US Military Academy in West Point, New York, supposedly on how the US army should train modern-day officers. In a surprising declaration, Gates said that any future defence secretary who advised the president to send a big US land army to Asia, the Middle East or Africa “should have his head examined”, quoting the delicate expression of General MacArthur.

The speech to cadets at the academy found only a faint echo in the press, falling as it did late in the weekly news cycle. But it was a remarkable statement from one of the country’s most experienced national security bureaucrats, and all the more remarkable because the man who made it was the one who has overseen the surges in troop deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

In his final policy address before relinquishing his post, Gates issued a stern warning to his European allies. In a remarkable speech delivered after a two-day meeting of Nato defence ministers, he said that the Europeans faced “the very real possibility of collective military irrelevance”. And he warned that Washington was becoming financially unable and politically unwilling to carry the cost of their defence.

In his hour-long address, Gates lectured a gathering of European dignitaries like a headmaster admonishing small boys. He said the continuation of the US’s post-war policy would be called into question if European members of the Nato alliance refused to take on more of their own security burden. He described as “unacceptable” the current state of the Libyan campaign, which had highlighted Nato’s shortcomings:

“The mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country,” said the man from Washington. “Yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the US, once more, to make up the difference.”

He noted that in the Libyan campaign, a “major augmentation” of US targeting specialists was needed to run the air war. But even then, the command centre in Italy, set up to handle 300 sorties a day, could barely find enough aircraft to launch about 150. Gates acknowledged he was predicting a “dismal” future for the Nato alliance, but he added (without much conviction) that European governments could still change course:

“The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the US Congress – and in the American body politic writ large – to expend 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 defence... It will take leadership from political leaders and policymakers on this continent. It cannot be coaxed, demanded or imposed from across the Atlantic.”

But that is just the problem. History shows that it is impossible to win a conflict like that in Libya by air strikes alone. In order to inflict a decisive defeat on Gaddafi, it will be necessary to commit troops on the ground in sufficient numbers. But so far, no one seems to show any enthusiasm for this option. That goes not only for the Europeans but also for the USA. The US defence secretary’s view of Europe sounds ominous. He argued that new American leaders may soon decide that the returns for the US on its transatlantic investment were not worth the outlay.

U.S. share of Nato defence spending has risen in the past twenty years from 50 to more than 75 percent. Only two of the major European countries, France and the UK, spend 2% of GDP on defence. Greece and Albania also spend a similar percentage on defence, but considering how small the GDPs of these two countries are, that doesn’t amount to much. The UK government has introduced plans to cut defence spending UK, while European defence spending as a whole has been cut by nearly 15% since 9/11.

In an attempt to back Gates’ calls for the European members of Nato to play a great role, Nato's Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, yesterday expressed agreement with Mr Gates' concerns about falling defence budgets in Europe, adding that, "If we are to compete we also need proper investments." And to achieve that he emphasised the need for European powers to increase their military budgets, not cut them.

Gates noted, however, that the Americans had made frequent requests that European Nato members meet the alliance’s benchmarks for defence spending. And he regarded their evasive replies “with exasperation.” Washington fears that Nato has become reduced to a two-tiered alliance – with the US and a small group of European allies doing all the difficult tasks, while the others benefit from Nato protection without shouldering any costs or taking any risks. “This is no longer a hypothetical worry,” said Gates, “We are there today, and it is unacceptable.”

Changing mood

In 1945 the USA emerged from the Second World War with its industrial base intact and two thirds of the world’s gold supplies in the vaults of Fort Knox. Half a century later the USA has been transformed from the world’s greatest creditor nation to the world’s biggest debtor. The burden of its huge military expenditure weighs heavily on the bloated national debt.

For about two hundred years Britain ruled over half the world and grew fat on the proceeds of Empire. But that was in the period of capitalist ascent. Now the USA has inherited the mantle of the world’s policeman in the period of the senile decay of capitalism. Instead of deriving vast profits from its imperial adventures, they are a colossal drain on its resources.

Gates’ latest speech was a strong sign of how concerned Washington is becoming about Europe’s military failings. But it was also indicative of the shift in the mood of the American public. For a time, following the shock of 9/11 the ruling class was able to galvanize public opinion in support of an aggressive foreign policy (the “Bush doctrine”). The fog of patriotic flag waving with which the Bush administration succeeded in clouding the minds of American citizens has evaporated, leaving behind something resembling a painful hangover after a drunken binge.

The assassination of Bin Laden gave a boost to Obama’s flagging support, but not enough to win support for the invasion of Libya – something for which, in any case, the present incumbent of the White House has little stomach for. Those right-wing Republicans who used to rule the roost on the national security issue in Washington are now out of tune with public opinion.

The US is a different country today than the one that gazed with horror at the scenes of carnage at the World Trade Centre. Ten years of an apparently endless “War on Terror” representing a massive drain of blood and gold, an unprecedented economic collapse followed by a permanent struggle with record deficits, and the prospect of cuts and austerity for the foreseeable future, have given rise to a major shift in the psychology of the masses in the USA.

The sudden shift from aggressive interventionism towards relative isolationism reflects this change. The American people are suffering from “intervention fatigue”, in the words of Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations think-tank. In such a context, Robert Gates’ statement about the madness of dispatching US ground troops overseas simply seems like common sense. “It is a very rare admission of something that is all too true but very rarely articulated by someone of that stature,” said Aaron David Miller, a former state department official.

The changed mood also explains why a section of the Republican leaders (who want to return to the White House asap) have stopped beating the war drums. For purely opportunist reasons, they prefer to refer to the protests over benefit cuts in Madison, Wisconsin, rather than the rebels in Benghazi, Libya. They are focusing their attention on the budget deficit and making sure that the burden of unpopularity from a failing economy is deposited firmly on Obama’s doorstep. Therefore they have shifted their emphasis from foreign to domestic issues.

In politics it is never a good idea to say what you really think. Probably the outspoken nature of Robert Gates, statements can be explained because of his imminent retirement. Following his West Point speech, Gates and his spokesman fell over themselves in their haste to clarify that the defence secretary’s real intent was to force the army to focus on “how to fight new kinds of wars”.

Whatever message he wanted to send, Mr Gates probably has a better awareness of the problem than anyone else. The people of the USA have no appetite for the job of policing the world, comically misnamed “the New World Order”. That does not mean that there cannot be new military adventures. The world situation is increasingly explosive and the imperialists will be dragged into new conflicts all the time.

However, the main war that will be fought out will be the war between rich and poor, both on a global scale and in the USA itself. We have already seen the first mobilizations on the streets of Tunis and Cairo, Madison and Madrid, Athens and London. The only way to achieve a world without wars is to remove the cause of war itself. That means the overthrow of the banks and monopolies in whose interests wars are fought. The war that must be fought and won to save the human race is the class war.

London, 16 June 2011