"The most successful alliance in history," it was called at the end of the Cold War in which NATO, for 40 years, deterred the Red Army from overrunning Berlin or crashing through West Germany to the Channel.
And when that Cold War was over, Sen. Richard Lugar famously said, "Either NATO goes out of area or goes out of business."
In Afghanistan and Libya, NATO went out of area. And given the trend in both conflicts, NATO may soon be going out of business.
NATO faces "collective military irrelevance," said Defense Secretary Robert Gates on his valedictory visit to a stunned Brussels last week:
"The mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country -- yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the U.S., once more, to make up the difference."
Gates' patience with the Europeans is, understandably, just about exhausted. Two decades after the Soviet Union disintegrated and the Red Army went home, America is still carrying 75 percent of the NATO burden for the defense of Europe.
Only five of 28 members invest in defense the 2 percent of gross domestic product required by NATO rules. Major members like the Netherlands, Spain and Turkey refuse to fly air strikes in Libya. France and Britain have run so low on munitions in a war against a sandbox country on the African coast that they have had to borrow U.S. munitions. Germany and Poland are AWOL.
With an air operations command capable of handling 300 sorties a day, the allies are struggling to put half that many in the air.
Another reason besides European malingering why NATO is in trouble is the fiscal crisis and sea change taking place in the United States.
Gates alluded to it. In America, "the reality is changing. ... Choices are going to be made more on what is in the best interests of the United States."
With GOP conservatives joining congressional Democrats in seeking to cut off funds for the Libyan war, John Boehner has been forced to take the lead in charging the president with violating the War Powers Act. He is demanding Barack Obama come to Congress to get authorization to continue U.S. participation in the Libyan war.
Should the Americans pull out, NATO loses.
The first Republican debate in New Hampshire was astonishing for its anti-interventionist tone. While front-runner Mitt Romney said he would listen to the generals about when it is safe to get out of Afghanistan, he spoke out against any more wars to win independence for nations not vital to the United States.
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