Robert Gates Shrugs

Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates has told Europeans that in joint military and defense matters, the United States increasingly wants to take a pass on leadership.  Gates' remarks were front page news in Friday's Washington Post.

Gates aimed criticism at European countries for not wanting to pull their own weight in military affairs.  Similar criticisms have been leveled at allied European countries for years.  Gates expressed consternation over NATO's ongoing failure in Libya.  The Post quotes Gates as saying:

"[T]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."

The Secretary may want to have added the qualifier "floundering" before the word "operation." 

Were President Obama and Secretary Gates unaware or misled about NATO's munitions inventories prior to action in Libya?  Or has there been misuse or mismanagement of munitions since action started in Libya?  Is no one in the Defense Department monitoring NATO's drawdowns on munitions, other supplies, and equipment? 

More importantly, are President Obama and Secretary Gates really surprised that such an ill-defined mission as the Libyan venture is turning into a comically protracted affair absent strong American leadership?  Why the chagrin on the Secretary's part that the U.S. is once again becoming the go-to for Europeans to help them through the Libyan mess? 

There is, of course, validity to the Secretary's charges that Europeans are shirkers in military matters.  The United States led Western Europe through the Cold War under a strongly American-resourced security umbrella.  With the United States as the military Atlas, Western Europeans busied themselves building outsized and overreaching social welfare states -- states that today are proving unsustainable, thanks to costs and declining populations.  Europeans wanted butter; the U.S. furnished the guns -- and the rest, as they say, is history.

Like it or not, where there's strategic overlap with European allies in national security concerns, the U.S. has no choice but to lead.  The Russians are always a potential threat; Islamic extremism threatens Western Europe and the United States. 

Without robust American leadership, NATO is likely to slide into a shell organization.  If much of Western Europe can't or won't step up to provide its share for mutual security with the U.S., then the U.S. needs to develop a coalition of the willing, which would include the Brits and Eastern Europeans who rightly fear the Russian Bear.  But always -- always -- the U.S. must lead.  That's the price paid for greatness.  American greatness isn't something that Mr. Obama and the left want -- as Gates reflected in his departing remarks. 

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