PLANNING TO step down at the end of this month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates feels he can speak freely, and speak freely he did in a valedictory address to NATO at alliance headquarters in Brussels.
Speaking to an audience of European military officers, government officials and diplomats, Gates said that, barring stepped-up support from member nations, NATO faced a "dim, if not dismal" future.
"If current trends in the decline of European defense capabilities are not halted and reversed, future U.S. political leaders -- those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me -- may not consider the return on America's investment worth the cost," he warned.
The U.S. is now bearing 75 percent of that cost, and Gates chided those Europeans who are "willing and eager for American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defense budgets."
The Guardian newspaper said, "The speech was laced with exasperation and contempt for European defense spending cuts, inefficiencies and botched planning." The Associated Press described Gates' words as "unusually harsh and unvarnished."
Good for Gates. NATO is too important an alliance to let collapse from neglect and indifference.
NATO was formed after World War II as a defensive alliance against any attempt by the Soviet Union to move into Western Europe, and by that standard it was a success. NATO, which had 16 members when the Iron Curtain fell, now has 28.
The new members are largely former Soviet-bloc countries that viewed membership as a bulwark against renewed Russian expansionism and a symbol of their new Western European orientation, and because of NATO's strict membership standards -- including rule of law and civilian control of the military -- a way of locking into place their new democratic institutions.
For those reasons alone, the alliance is worth preserving, but those geopolitical benefits of NATO membership perhaps obscure its essential purpose -- to fight wars.
Gates noted that the 28 nations voted unanimously for the Libyan operation, but that less than one-half are participating in the operation and less than one-third are participating in strike missions. Some of those on the sidelines would be willing, but lack the military capacity to do so.
The air campaign against Moammar Gadhafi was supposed to have a capacity of 300 sorties a day, but can only mount 150.
Gates said, "The mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country. Yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the U.S., once more, to make up the difference."
One hopes that the Europeans listened to Gates. He does, after all, have their best interests at heart.