NATO should assume the military burden in Iraq, and a partnership of the U.S. and the European Union should assume the non-military burden. The reasons for this shift in responsibility for Iraq's future are compelling. The U.S. was able to win the war, with the support of Britain. But it should not—and perhaps cannot—win the peace alone.
Since the end of major combat operations, American soldiers have been killed at a rate that may ultimately produce casualties beyond the wartime total. The cost of military occupation has soared to Dollars 4bn a month, with the total cost of removing Saddam Hussein rising to Dollars 100bn this year. The skills required to rebuild Iraq—politically and socially as much as economically—are in short supply in the U.S., beginning with a shortage of Arabic speakers. The U.S. has assumed responsibility for the future of the greater Middle East, which will preoccupy its foreign policy for a generation or more.
The American people may be prepared to pay the price—first to ensure that Iraq does not return to the ranks of states that threaten neighbours and set a savage standard for oppression; and, second, to take the Middle East off the list of unstable regions, a breeding ground for terrorism and deficit in both development and democracy.
But for the U.S. to do this by itself is neither desirable nor necessary. Americans want to know that their efforts in Iraq and beyond have broad international support. There are forceful reasons for avoiding a "made (only) in America" label. Britain, America's most important partner, is still tainted by memories of its colonial past; and the U.S. risks being singled out, however unfairly, as the sole source of all of Iraq's troubles.
Whatever some European governments and publics thought of the motives for war, they cannot escape the consequences—and they know it. The Middle East is physically closer to Europe than to the U.S.. Europe depends as much on Gulf oil as does the U.S.. Middle East-based terrorism is unlikely to pass Europe by. The rise in Muslim populations in Europe makes Europeans sensitive to the need to promote social stability throughout the greater Middle East. Europeans also need a viable settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—as witnessed by the EU's co-sponsorship of the "road map".
NATO countries have already demonstrated their capacity for peacekeeping, most recently in Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia and Afghanistan. Indeed, Europeans have decades more experience than the U.S. in the complex and arduous task. The EU has also demonstrated a capacity to deal with non-military tasks of "nation-building". With few exceptions, it would not be viewed with hostility in the region. Large-scale engagement by NATO and the EU would blur the role of the U.S. (and Britain), reduce their role as lightning rod for deflected grievances, provide greater international legitimacy and be perceived internally as a more neutral presence.
The U.S. government still resists roles for NATO and the EU. Some of this resistance represents continued pique that allies such as Germany and France opposed the U.S. strategy for dealing with Saddam Hussein. But that is yesterday's quarrel and must give way to today's and tomorrow's needs.
Some of America's resistance is also about control: the U.S. is on the hook for Iraq, it will pay the bulk of the costs and it wants to prevent fragmentation of authority. But it has to accept that asking others to help means including them in decision-making. Others will not write cheques simply to support a Washington plan. The U.S. should not fear that sharing decisions will weaken it. It is likely to do the opposite.
NATO's 54-year history demonstrates that its political and command systems work; it has never failed in any task it has set itself. Just as important, the U.S. continues to dominate the alliance. A NATO force in Iraq, perhaps drawing on other nations, as in Bosnia and Kosovo, will still take most of its direction from the U.S.. The EU, meanwhile, has a strong incentive to work in partnership rather than at cross-purposes with the U.S..
From every perspective—including the future relevance of NATO and the reforging of links among the world's powers—engaging NATO and the EU in Iraq makes sense. It is difficult for any government to reduce its grip on what it perceives to be the reins of power. But when faced with reality, doing so is the true test of leadership.
The writer is senior fellow at the RAND Corporation and was U.S. ambassador to NATO 1993–98.
This commentary originally appeared in Financial Times on July 21, 2003. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.