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.
The attempt is not working well. NATO endured partly because for decades, it never had to go to war. Once it did, in Afghanistan, it was exposed as flimsy and unreliable.
In 2007, Gates accused our European pals of shirking their duty against the Taliban. He reiterated his gripe in 2008. In 2009, more of the same.
How much good did all this grousing do? The other day, on Capitol Hill, Gates called the European contribution to training Afghan security forces "a joke."
Libya is more proof of the futility of trying to rouse equal motivation among 28 different countries. It confirms that the alliance has become an obsolete luxury.
Our insistence on preserving it anyway means we have to take an oversized role, which frees our partners of the need to attend to their own defense. Only five NATO governments spend more than 2 percent of their gross domestic product on the military -- while the U.S. shells out 5 percent.
The defense secretary fumes that too many countries "enjoy the benefits of membership" but "don't want to share the risks and costs." Of course they do. If you let people join a nice club without paying dues, how many would turn it down? And if you later asked them to mop the floors, how many would grab a bucket?
Our allies are behaving rationally, and we keep wondering why. Gates may enjoy continually pounding his head against a brick wall. But the rest of us might find it feels really good to stop.
Steve Chapman blogs daily at newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/steve_chapman.
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