This week’s NATO summit may be the most important since the organization – the world’s mightiest military alliance – was created in 1949. Some 60 world leaders from the 28 member nations and as many non-member states converged Thursday on Wales to begin talks.
In 1990, the last time Britain hosted a NATO summit, the organization seemed to have lost its raison d’etre. The cold war had abruptly ended. Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” had arrived. Liberal democracy was poised to champion the world.
But today, perhaps more than ever, NATO’s relevance is deeply felt. Vladimir Putin’s expansionist aggression in Ukraine threatens a new cold war, if not a full-fledged military conflict, that could spread to the Baltic states. Afghanistan is in shambles.
And there is the threat presented by Islamic State.
The appalling video produced by Islamic State of the beheading of American-Israeli journalist Steven Sotloff is the latest horror committed by an organization that has succeeded in carving out a “caliphate” about three times the size of Israel from areas of Syria and Iraq. By gaining control over lucrative oil fields, water sources, and weapons caches, Islamic State has become a force to be reckoned with.
But US President Barack Obama, ostensibly NATO’s most influential statesmen, has so far failed to articulate a strategy for fighting Islamic State.
“We don’t have a strategy yet,” Obama said of his plans for defeating Islamic State in Syria last week in Washington.
“We need to make sure that we’ve got clear plans. As our strategy develops, we will consult with Congress.”
In recent days, Obama seems to have somewhat hesitatingly begun putting together a plan of action.
In a joint article published in The Times of London, Cameron and Obama said Britain and the US could lead efforts to fight Islamic State.
“If terrorists think we will weaken in the face of their threats, they could not be more wrong. Countries like Britain and America will not be cowed by barbaric killers … We will be more forthright in the defense of our values, not least because a world of greater freedom is a fundamental part of how we keep our own people safe.”
In transit to Wales, Obama seemed to expand his military objectives, saying the aim of the war against Islamic State is to “degrade and destroy” it, not just protect US citizens and vulnerable minorities.
But commitment to the fight seems low. Will US air strikes against Islamic State forces, which have numbered about 130 to date, be expanded and augmented by other military operations? Germany and Italy have begun arming the Kurds in their battle against Islamic State. But will these nations and others be willing to consider additional actions? Central to Obama and Cameron’s strategy is an insistence that intervention in Iraq and elsewhere not be Western-led.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Jordan’s King Abdullah will be at the summit and attempts will be made to court support from them for tougher military action against Islamic State. Meanwhile, pressure is being brought to bear against the Saudis to force them to stop the sort of support for anti-Assad forces in Syria that goes to Islamic State. But if Obama and Cameron fail to put together an Arab coalition, will they refrain from taking action against the terrorist group? Doubts and lack of clarity abound.
On paper at least, NATO has the wherewithal to weaken, if not destroy Islamic State. Its combined troop strength exceeds 3.3 million, the members’ combined military budgets represent well over half of the world’s defense spending, and it boasts the most up-to-date technologies.
Nevertheless, judging from NATO’s track record in the region in recent years, there is little room for optimism.
Anarchy or near anarchy has taken hold in the countries where NATO has gotten involved. Afghanistan teeters as the incoming government struggles for legitimacy in the wake of elections marred by charges of fraud. Iraq and its military are in shambles and its territory has been parceled up. Libya is a virtual failed state, its arms and commercial airplanes seized by Islamists.
Lacking a coherent strategy and dogged by past failures, NATO’s prospects vis-à-vis Islamic State are not encouraging.
There was a time – albeit short-lived – when it seemed NATO was obsolete. Today, even more than in the cold war era, NATO is desperately needed as a stabilizing force. Will NATO rise to the challenge?