Steve Chapman
Defense Secretary Robert Gates went to Europe recently to announce that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization may have a "dismal future" and that before long, American leaders "may not consider the return on America's investment in NATO worth the cost."

Why does he make that sound like a bad thing? "Watch out! We may have to stop spending so much money protecting countries that can protect themselves!"

The prospect is not likely to throw millions of Americans into despair. As Gates himself has pointed out more than once, the United States has been carrying more than its share of the load for a long time now -- and the situation is getting worse, not better. It's hard to see what we would lose from the gradual dissolution of the Atlantic alliance.

It's also hard to see what Europe would lose. NATO has been around more than 60 years, which is an awfully long time for a coalition of sovereign nations to last. That survival is especially notable considering the monumental changes of the past couple of decades.

Its entire purpose was to protect Western Europe from the Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces in Eastern Europe, which were a plausible threat to invade and conquer. But at this point, maintaining NATO is like keeping forts in South Dakota to defend settlers against hostile Indians.

The Western alliance won the Cold War, and in the absence of some major, general threat, Gates would do better to ask why it needs to be preserved.

He certainly doesn't like the way it operates. In his June 10 speech in Brussels, he complained that "while every alliance member voted for the Libya mission, less than half have participated at all, and fewer than a third have been willing to participate in the strike mission."

This may have something to do with the fact that Libya is way outside NATO's traditional responsibility. The centerpiece of its founding treaty is this sentence: "The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all."

But in Libya -- which, you may notice, is not in Europe or North America -- there was no attack on any member. It was NATO that did the attacking. Not surprisingly, some allies haven't had their hearts in the war.

Ever since the end of the Cold War, NATO has been an answer in search of a question. It validates what Ronald Reagan is credited with saying: "Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program."

Everyone understood why we kept huge forces in (West) Germany a generation ago. But today, it's a puzzle. Who are they supposed to fight? The Finns? Missions like Libya are an attempt to justify an organization that has outlived the problem it was created to solve.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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