Don't Count on NATO in Iraq

 The American military is strained by its current commitments to Iraq and is ill-positioned to significantly increase its force presence there, especially for prolonged deployments.

 The American military is strained by its current commitments to Iraq and is ill-positioned to significantly increase its force presence there, especially for prolonged deployments.  That predicament leads some observers in the U.S. to clamor for substantial NATO participation to fill in a perceived "troop shortage" on the ground in Iraq.  President Bush called for NATO involvement in Iraq recently at the G-8 Summit at Sea Island, and NATO, at its Istanbul summit, agreed to help train Iraqi security forces.  There is much to be said for leveraging NATO to broaden and deepen multinational representation in Iraq to lend international political legitimacy to efforts to stabilize and rebuild the worn torn country. 

Unfortunately, a major infusion of NATO troops into Iraq is a pipedream and expectations that NATO allies would be willing or able to shoulder major counterinsurgency responsibilities need to be dampened.  NATO allies willing to run combat risks have already sent to Iraq what little they have to send.  The British are fully committed to Iraq and have even taxed their force structure to a greater extent than the Americans.  Some NATO allies have made token military gestures such as the Dutch, Danes, Italians and Poles, but these and other NATO countries do not have much in the way of military forces to tap for Iraq.  At least these NATO allies have shown the resolve to stay in the coalition in contrast to the Spaniards, who are perceived to have "cut and run" with the withdrawal of their contingent to Iraq in the aftermath of the al Qaeda-sponsored attacks in Madrid. 

The major NATO allies that do have large force structures to potentially draw upon are unlikely to send any to Iraq in the future.  France is second only to the British in force projection capabilities among European members of NATO, but it strains the imagination to think that President Chirac would send a division-sized force, the likes of which Paris committed to the 1991 Gulf war.  Chirac would be hard pressed to politically justify any French combat casualties in light of the anti-American sentiment he has assiduously stoked in France for the past two years.  German Chancellor Schroeder too has nurtured anti-American sentiment over Iraq and even managed to ride it to re-election.  The Bundeswehr, moreover, remains entrenched in a Cold War territorial defense posture and has no significant force projection capabilities beyond the token German deployments to Afghanistan that Berlin has undertaken in a feeble attempt to patch tattered relations with the United States.  Although Ankara has a large standing military, a large Turkish deployment to Iraq would be too politically divisive for Iraqis, especially the Kurds, who would fear a Turkish geopolitical land grab for Iraqi territory.      

NATO's European members have in the past enjoyed the luxury of turning to the United States, particularly in the Balkans throughout the 1990s, to shore-up their major security interests and their military capabilities deficits.  Alas, the Americans have no such luxury to look to European NATO allies to help Washington shore-up vital security stakes in the Persian Gulf.  The lack of political and military reciprocity in the Alliance leaves the United States alone to suffer the slings and arrows and disparaging depictions as "hyper-power," "hegemon," and "aggressive unilateral power" from fair weather friends and foes alike.  Regrettably, Washington and London will have to bear the heaviest responsibilities and burdens for constructing some semblance of stability in the Persian Gulf to the benefit of Americans as well as Europeans, the Gulf States themselves and the global community writ large.         

The stark reality is that no substantial infusions of NATO military manpower to Iraq are in the offing.  And that reality would not be altered with a change in White House occupancy from a Republican to a Democrat, despite the political rhetoric bantered about in the United States during this election year. 


Richard L. Russell is Research Associate at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and teaches in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University.