Politics

Lawmakers to Obama: Press Allies at NATO Summit

White House official: 'Inflection point' as alliance faces old, new threats

Republicans and Democrats are urging President Barack Obama  to use his final NATO summit to press European leaders to be more aggressive against an old threat from their eastern flank and a new one to their south.  

White House officials see the gathering coming at "an inflection point" for NATO and Europe. Beginning Friday in the Polish capital of Warsaw, Western leaders will discuss what seems to be an ever-swelling list of threats that includes a more aggressive Russia, Islamic State attacks and a flood of migrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa.  

Member of Congress who focus on national security and foreign policy matters want Obama to press his NATO partners to increase the amounts they contribute to the alliance’s budget, to secure commitments to stay on in Afghanistan after the president on Wednesday slowed a U.S. withdrawal, to agree on a way to put further pressure on Russia, and to “recalibrate” the alliance to counter 21st century threats.  

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Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger , a former House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence ranking member, said the most important thing is for Obama to reassure European leaders that America has their collective back.  

“I was just there three months ago. And I think [for Obama], it’s about unity, let them know that we will stand behind them,” said the Maryland Democrat, now a member of the Appropriations Defense, and State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs subcommittees.  

New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez , a Democrat and a senior Foreign Relations member, says the president should “reinforce with our allies their obligation to raise the amount of their participation.”  

“And I’d like to see some type of effort to look at some of the NATO enlargement that would send an important message about our reactions to the instability now in Europe,” he said. “I’d like to see NATO talk about a strategy that deals not only [with] defense but also sends a clear message to Russia that that type of aggression, not only in Ukraine but elsewhere, is not acceptable.”  

Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain  has his own wish list of summit outcomes, but on the topic of Obama moving the alliance toward a new strategy, the Arizona Republican said, “Knowing him, he won’t be tougher on anybody.”  

McCain would like member states to commit to continuing their efforts in Afghanistan, as well as establishing a tougher collective stance against Moscow. “There’s a lot of issues out there,” he said.  

The alliance has already announced its intention to beef up its military deployment along the eastern border with Russia, a move aimed at sending a message to Russian President Vladimir Putin after his takeover of Ukraine’s Crimea region in March 2014.  

But, for the first time since a spate of terrorist attacks in Europe , alliance leaders also will spend ample time on what Charles Kupchan, senior director for European Affairs at the National Security Council, calls “a Southern strategy” — to address issues including countering the Islamic State and the migration crisis. In fact, Kupchan expects “you will see leaders focus equally on both” the alliance’s threats from the east and south.  

Obama departed Thursday for Poland, where he will join the conference on Friday, before departing for Spain on Saturday evening.

 

Kupchan told reporters on a Wednesday conference call, though without going into details, that key aspects of the “southern” plan should be “completed in Warsaw.”  

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Julianne Smith , a former senior aide to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., told a Senate panel on Thursday that she expects NATO leaders will likely announce two moves aimed at countering threats to the alliance’s south.  

One is a plan to ramp up training and overall NATO capacity inside Iraq, a shift in its tendency to conduct such work outside areas where conflicts are waging, Smith said. The second is the deployment of alliance aircraft to Iraq and Syria equipped with powerful sensors to help coalition troops find Islamic State targets, she added.  

The new necessity to do more in the Middle East is why Douglas Lute , the U.S. permanent representative to NATO, told reporters that “this summit comes at a real demarcation point.”  

“All these factors in multiple directions combine to really mark this as different in NATO’s long history,” Lute said. “By my count, there hasn’t been another inflection point like this for the Alliance since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in [19]89 to ’91.”  

That crossroad will make NATO’s equipment and operating costs climb , which has many U.S. lawmakers and experts calling for other alliance members to contribute more to the organization’s military budget.  

NATO data spanning 2014 and 2015 found the United States contributing 22.2 percent of the alliance's military budget, with Germany chipping in 14.6 percent, and both the United Kingdom and France contributing about 10 percent each. Countries most at risk of Russian aggression, like Lithuania (0.2 percent) Estonia (0.1 percent) throw in much less — to the frustration of Obama and others.  

Each member country is supposed to spend 2 percent of its gross domestic product on NATO. Obama, in an Atlantic magazine article this spring, described European countries as “free riders ” on America’s massive defense budget and military prowess.  

Obama and White House aides say they are encouraged that most NATO members last year contributed more to the alliance, raising its military budget for the first time in years. But administration officials are preparing what Lute described as some “show-and-tell,” by displaying on large charts for all to see at the summit depicting where each member state stands in relation to the 2 percent pledge.  

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“So there’s no hiding here,” Lute said. “We’ll be quite transparent with one another.”  

James Jones , a retired Marine general and Obama’s first national security adviser, said the organization must become a “more proactive” military coalition with a greater mission to “fight and win.” But it also must do more to “prevent conflicts,” he said, adding that can only happen if all 29 members are “active” — and spending more.  

While lawmakers and experts say the alliance merely needs to change to reflect new threats, Michael Rubin , a former Pentagon official now at the American Enterprise Institute, said it’s “on life support, even if diplomats and generals won’t admit it.”  

“The Warsaw summit might provide a rhetorical Band-Aid but that can’t undo the damage the alliance has suffered over the past eight years,” Rubin said. “No one trusts NATO [because] it is more a jobs program than an effective defensive alliance. That is a tragedy for which we will eventually pay a high price.”  

Contact Bennett at johnbennett@cqrollcall.com. Follow him on Twitter @BennettJohnT.

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