The Perfect Army for Iraq: NATO


Sep 13, 2003

This commentary originally appeared in New York Times on September 13, 2003.

"Let NATO do it."

This admonition has become a standard response to military challenges, from Bosnia to Kosovo to Afghanistan. It should now be applied to Iraq.

President Bush's address on Sunday acknowledged that America needs help from other countries. American and British casualties continue, postwar costs have prompted Mr. Bush to seek more than $70 billion from Congress, and occupation troops are increasingly required to carry out police work and other tasks they are not trained to perform. This comes after Secretary of State Colin Powell praised NATO for taking on "new responsibilities it must meet in parts of the world that could never have been contemplated" when it was formed.

So what are we waiting for?

First, there are still some doubts in Washington that key allies will be prepared to take part, and also concern that some might use their veto power within NATO to thwart effective action. But these fears have more to do with the bitter prewar debate than with current reality. In fact, much of French, German and popular European opposition to the war stemmed precisely from concern that postwar Iraq would pose the challenges it does now. Proved right, many Europeans are sympathetic to the Iraqis' plight.

And whatever our NATO allies thought of the war, they know that the old security system in the Middle East has been shattered. They—and every other country with a stake in oil, global stability, Israel-Palestine peace, ending terrorism and stopping weapons of mass destruction—have no choice but to support the thrust of American policy. Furthermore, several allied states have more experience than America does with "nation building"—for instance, France in West Africa, the Scandinavians in the Balkans and elsewhere—and they can deploy their well-trained paramilitary forces.

Yes, France could always play dog-in-the-manger. But President Jacques Chirac has sketched out terms under which it will be involved—the direction of France's policy is decided; only the price is in doubt. And, as the American ambassador to NATO during operations in Bosnia, I know that France performs militarily as well and as faithfully as any other ally, even when NATO runs the operation.

The administration is also concerned that NATO will become involved only under a broad United Nations mandate, which could cause America to lose control and be replaced by United Nations bureaucrats. Yes, if Washington simply turned matters over to the United Nations, that fear could be realized. But almost no one suggests that the United Nations would take operational control.

Rather, we have plenty of precedents for an effective NATO intervention that starts from a far-reaching United Nations mandate. In 1995, the Security Council created a force to go into Bosnia but made clear it would be run "through the NATO chain of command." NATO thus acted as the United Nations' agent, and the arrangement worked. Something similar was done in Kosovo, with equal military success.

It is also clear that when NATO is formally in charge, America dominates operations under the organization's supreme allied commander, now a Marine general, James Jones. For half a century, every ally has accepted this—including France, which has deployed forces under our leadership even in engagements falling outside the organization's charter.

For several weeks, the administration has debated whether it should modify the view that as sole superpower, it can do whatever it wants wherever it wants. To get needed help in Iraq, including major financial support from European Union countries, returning to the last half-century's commitment to working with others seems the obvious choice. NATO is the answer, and the sooner the better.

Robert E. Hunter, a fellow at the RAND Corporation, was United States ambassador to NATO from 1993 to 1998.

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