It’s hard to see the rationale for Donald Trump’s call on the NATO alliance to increase its involvement in the Middle East. He’s dreamt up a name for the mission – NATOME (NATO plus the initials of Middle East) – but beyond, there’s no clarity on anything very much.
NATO is primarily focused on collective defense in Europe – its attention being fixed on Russia at this point in time. It isn’t resourced to take on America’s increasingly erratically borne responsibilities in the Middle East. And its 13-year combat operation in Afghanistan – its first deployment outside Europe or North America and its longest and most challenging mission – meant high human and monetary costs, as well as a very mixed record to show for it.
So, why does Mr Trump think NATO might be a suitable replacement for the US? Is this a manifestation of a neo-imperialist mindset?
John Deni, a research professor at the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute and author of ‘NATO and Article 5’, recently wondered if “when referencing NATO the president really means European allies and close partners”. If so, it suggests an old-world way of paternalist thinking, which requires the Middle East to permanently have a European power to keep it from self-harm.
Whatever Trump’s logic, it’s not going to work. NATOME would be a hard sell. Now it is set to come to pass, in a rudimentary fashion – i.e. no renaming to NATOME and only the rebadging of anti-Isis military trainers but not necessarily an increase in troop numbers – and it will probably still be reviled by Mr Trump and not do much more than it already did.
That said, there is a limited acknowledgement from other foreign policy bods, not least Ana Palacio, a former Spanish foreign minister and senior vice president and general counsel of the World Bank Group, that NATO may have a role in the Middle East.
Ms Palacio recently said expressed concern about a likely “large-scale US withdrawal from the Middle East”. She said a withdrawal “would undermine efforts to keep the Islamic State in check and push regional powers even closer to Russia, reinforcing the Kremlin’s strategic position”. The answer, she suggested, was for NATO’s European members to “increase the Alliance’s presence in the Middle East, thereby bolstering security and providing tangible evidence of NATO’s value (and some political cover) to a US president who has consistently doubted it”.
And that, she said, “is just the beginning” and it is incumbent on Europe to develop its own security identity, especially with respect to Middle Eastern issues.
That sounds like a call to European action on security. I’m not sure it’s a full-throated welcome for NATOME.