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Would Trump Really Push NATO to Help Confront Iran?

November 1, 2019 Topic: Security Blog Brand: Paul Pillar Tags: NATOIranSaudi ArabiaTrump

Would Trump Really Push NATO to Help Confront Iran?

NATO is no stranger to out-of-area operations. However, this would be a really bad idea.

Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper was recently in Brussels for a meeting of NATO defense ministers, with the Turkish incursion and related events in Syria figuring prominently in the discussions.  But Esper had another item on his agenda that stems from the Trump administration’s obsession with confronting Iran: getting the allies to contribute more to the defense of Saudi Arabia.  Esper already had raised at a meeting with his NATO counterparts in June the administration’s request for more contributions to meet what it describes as an Iranian threat in the Persian Gulf, and he was met with a lack of enthusiasm for the idea.

NATO is no stranger to out-of-area operations. The purposes of those operations have generally been easy to understand from the alliance’s point of view, even when they have gone far afield from NATO’s original purpose of meeting conventional military threats in Europe. The alliance’s significant effort in Afghanistan, for example, has been seen as a counterterrorist operation. Another activity aimed at non-state threats that could affect the economic and security interests of member states has been an anti-piracy operation off the Horn of Africa.  As for the Persian Gulf region, the U.S.-led operation in 1990-1991 that reversed Iraq’s aggression against Kuwait was not conducted under NATO auspices but did include all major members of the alliance.

No such circumstances apply to the current U.S. attempt to get the allies involved in its face-off against Iran. Neither Iran nor any other Persian Gulf state has committed aggression as naked as what Saddam Hussein’s Iraq did to Kuwait. The European allies see that it was the actions of the United States—its reneging on the agreement restricting Iran’s nuclear program, and its initiation of unrestricted economic warfare against Iran—that led directly to this year’s heightened tensions and risk of war in the Persian Gulf. They see that it was the United States that began a campaign to take oil from the Persian Gulf (i.e., Iran’s oil) off the market. More broadly, the allies see no reason to take sides—especially to the extent of weighing in with their own military resources—in regional quarrels and competitions such as that between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Pressing for greater European involvement in that dispute is thus probably a poor way to spend whatever political chits Esper may be spending with the allies on this subject. The United States also could benefit from learning a lesson or two from the allies, in that rigid side-taking in regional quarrels in the Gulf does not benefit U.S. interests any more than it benefits European interests.

This topic represents a subset of a more general U.S. tendency, not limited to the Trump administration, to assume that other states see threats and lines of conflict the same way the United States does, or to insist that other states see the threats that way and that they respond the way the United States wants to respond.  This myopia underlies the current administration’s failure to get traction for its idea of a NATO-like alliance of favored Sunni states in the Middle East.  Disputes among the Gulf Arabs are a major reason for this failure.  The failure is fortunate, in that the division between those who are in or out of the proposed alliance does not correlate with any division between those who are or are not destabilizing the region, and such an alliance would be another instrument for dragging the United States into other people’s quarrels.

This type of myopia also is involved in a contretemps involving the redeployment of U.S. troops being evacuated from northeast Syria. Esper announced that those troops would be going to western Iraq and would use that as a base for continuing to fight ISIS, but the government of Iraq evidently didn’t get the memo. That government, which has sound security and political reasons to minimize any U.S. troop presence on Iraqi soil, stated that the troops can redeploy via Iraq but are not welcome to stay there. This is another example of how U.S. foreign relations would be smoother and more effective if those running it would devote more effort to understanding how other states and other people perceive their problems and perceive the world. 

Paul R. Pillar is Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University and Nonresident Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution. He is a contributing editor to The National Interest.