Leaders from more than 40 countries will meet in Washington on April
23 for an elaborate three-day celebration commemorating NATO’s 50th
anniversary. As NATO prepares for its self-congratulatory love-fest,
evidence is mounting that instead it should be engaging in critical
This once noble and defense-oriented alliance, which for 40 years was
instrumental in containing Soviet communist expansion, has gradually
adopted an aggressive, pro-active posture that is both morally and
NATO’s original mission was quite clear by virtue of its simplicity:
each member nation was committed to the defense of any other member
nation that was militarily attacked. Because it was defense-oriented,
there was very little opportunity for disagreement.
Now that NATO has “graduated” to an offensive (pun intended)
alliance, its military decisions have become much more difficult. The
Kosovo intervention, NATO’s first experiment in starting a war,
illustrates the inherent difficulties in conducting military operations
by leaderless consensus.
It is one thing to decide democratically whether to undertake
military operations in the first place; it is another to invest a
committee with the authority over the conduct of those military
operations. Our Founding Fathers understood the difference, which is why
they gave Congress the power to declare war but made the president the
commander in chief to lead the military once a war is declared.
Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist No. 74, observed that “of all the
cares or concerns of government, the direction of war most peculiarly
demands those qualities which distinguish the exercise of power by a
The Founders knew that it was absolutely unfeasible and frankly
suicidal to grant an enormous political body, like Congress, the power
to micromanage a war. The same principle applies to the new NATO, and
the Kosovo debacle proves it.
NATO now contains 19 member nations, whose various post-Cold War
strategic and political interests are as divergent as they are common.
This divergence militates against a consensus on any NATO decision,
which its charter requires as a condition precedent to NATO action. The
United States should never surrender its sovereign decisions over
matters that could affect the life and death of its people to a
committee of other sovereign nations. Yet we have done just that with
our Kosovo intervention.
The Washington Post reports that the 1998 National Intelligence
Estimate, the last formal and broad assessment by the U.S. government
prior to beginning air strikes against Serbia, concluded that the threat
of sustained and decisive military power was NATO’s only lever to budge
Milosevic. But the constraints of alliance politics undermined the very
goals the alliance was seeking to achieve.
This fact was made disturbingly clear in the course of Arizona Sen.
John McCain’s questioning of Henry Shelton, the chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff, during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
Shelton allowed that the one thing worse than taking ground troops off
the table was for Clinton to threaten action for which he did not have
Specifically, Washington’s main four European NATO partners, Britain,
France, Germany and Italy, were unwilling to commit the use of ground
troops even though U.S. officials were convinced that the only certain
means of reaching our objectives was to have “ground troops prepared to
invade.” In order to assure allied support (and deflect congressional
and popular opposition to his planned intervention), Clinton made the
reckless announcement that “I do not intend to put our troops in Kosovo
to fight a war.” With that statement, Clinton essentially committed to a
course of action that would embolden Milosevic and undermine the very
Another example further demonstrates the perils of conferring on NATO
war-conduct decisions. On Oct. 13, 1998, NATO formally agreed to
authorize the bombing of Yugoslavia. Incredibly, however, the governing
authority approved only Phase I of the three-phase air campaign,
amounting to only 50 air-defense targets. The Post notes that the “real
punishment of Belgrade would come in Phase II, with ‘scores of targets,’
and Phase III, with ‘hundreds and hundreds of targets,’ according to a
White House Official.”
The new NATO is as ill suited for managing a war as the trigger-happy
pacifists in charge of its primary member nations. The paralyzing
pressures of politics, social concerns and conflicting, raging emotions
render both unfit for the task.
As horrifying as is the prospect of having the current commander in
chief in charge of the military, it is preferable to relinquishing that
authority to his fellow travelers in NATO.
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