The Bush administration’s hopes for a major NATO military presence in Iraq this year appear doomed, interviews with allied defense officials and diplomats show.
The Western military alliance had expected to announce at a June summit that it would accept a role in the country, perhaps by leading the international division now patrolling south-central Iraq. But amid continuing bloodshed and strong public opposition to the occupation in many nations, allies want to delay any major commitment until after the U.S. presidential election in November, officials say.
The clear shift in NATO’s stance deals another blow to U.S. efforts to spread the military burden as it grapples with a deadly insurgency in Iraq, fury in the region over its endorsement of Israeli plans for Palestinian territories and the unfolding abuse scandal at the American-run Abu Ghraib prison.
The Pentagon’s announcement last week that it intends to keep 135,000 U.S. troops in the country was a sign that the administration does not expect to be able to shift more of the burden to other nations anytime soon.
One U.S. hope had rested with NATO. Within the alliance, there seemed to be “a sense of inevitability about the mission” as recently as a few weeks ago, said one NATO official. “But it’s just not there anymore.... Any enthusiasm there was has drained away.”
Compounding the allies’ wariness is the fact that some countries with troops already in Iraq are unhappy with the U.S. war strategy. Some British leaders and officials of other countries in the occupying coalition have felt that the Americans have been too quick to resort to overwhelming force against insurgents, according to NATO and European defense officials. Some countries also have complained that the U.S. military has been slow to consult with coalition partners on planned moves, including some that have put coalition troops under fire, the officials said.
Although the friction does not amount to a major rupture, said one European defense official, “it’s hard to talk other people into joining a mission when those who are there already aren’t 100% happy.”
U.S. officials have been courting NATO as a potential partner in Iraq since launching the war last March. Some U.S. lawmakers, as well as the likely Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, continue to push the administration to draw in NATO, hoping a partnership with the well-equipped 26-nation alliance would give the effort enhanced military capability and international legitimacy.
Kerry called on President Bush this month to work harder on the necessary diplomacy “to share the burden and make progress” in Iraq. He said NATO member nations must be treated with respect and said their involvement and other steps to internationalize the reconstruction could be “the last chance to get it right.”
But there have been indications of the administration’s awareness of potential problems. Bush said at a news conference last month that the administration was “exploring a more formal role for NATO,” but national security advisor Condoleezza Rice said afterward that the involvement of the alliance would have to come “in the right time.”
U.S. officials are still pressing for a NATO commitment as soon as possible. R. Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, said in a speech in Luxembourg this week that defining such a mission would be “a leading issue” at the NATO summit next month.
But officials of several allied countries said that even if NATO accepts a role at that time, it is more likely to be a supporting one, such as training police or dealing with unexploded ordnance, rather than peacekeeping. Guarding Iraq’s borders, another proposal, also may be rejected as too ambitious, some officials say.
If NATO takes on a peacekeeping role, it would provide only a few hundred headquarters personnel to serve as leaders for the current force rather than contribute the tens of thousands of new troops sought by the United States, some officials said.
The reluctance of NATO to commit troops was confirmed in interviews over the last several days with European defense officials from several nations along with NATO administrators and others who work closely with the alliance. Most declined to be identified, in keeping with diplomatic protocol.
U.S. officials had hoped that NATO could be convinced to accept a role through the influence of a core group of NATO members -- Spain, Poland, Italy and Britain, with encouragement from the United States. Many European leaders believed opposition to sending troops would recede in their countries if the United States transferred sovereignty to a new Iraqi government and gave the United Nations a leading role in the effort.
But the U.S. hopes faded after the March 11 train bombings in Madrid, which upended the political equation in Europe by motivating voters to elect a Spanish government that sided with Germany and France, which opposed the invasion of Iraq and have been skeptical about the Iraq war and the occupation. The death of one of several Italian hostages taken by insurgents has made it more difficult for Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to argue for a NATO mission that would increase Italy’s commitment.
Amid the violence of recent weeks in Iraq, there has been increasing public opposition to the war in other countries that had supported the postwar effort, such as the Netherlands, Norway and Denmark, diplomats said.
Now, instead of being able to push for an expansion of the European role in Iraq, American officials have their hands full simply trying to maintain the participation of those who are there. International outrage over disclosure of mistreatment of Iraqi inmates at Abu Ghraib prison have added to allied discomfort.
“The tide is still ebbing,” said one European official, describing the regional enthusiasm for sending troops.
In addition, NATO has struggled to provide enough troops and equipment for its mission in Afghanistan, which holds a considerably higher priority with most members than any future assignment in Iraq. NATO officials have been trying to cajole members for months to contribute more to the Afghan effort, but continue to be rebuffed by officials of governments who say they are overstretched in other peacekeeping missions and do not have equipment designed for southwest Asia.
Even so, most members take the view that “Afghanistan is where NATO’s credibility is on the line,” said a NATO official. “In Iraq, it’s the U.S.’ credibility that’s on the line.”
Some officials said they would want to work out some of the wrinkles in recent coalition operations before NATO troops were sent to Iraq. Some Polish military officials, for example, have felt their troops have been placed in danger. In one recent engagement, U.S. forces attacked insurgents in the Polish zone of control without advance notice, bringing Polish troops under fire, NATO officials said.
Nevertheless, a Polish diplomat in Washington, Michael Wyganowski, said he knew of no operational problems between the military units, and he insisted that Polish troops will remain to at least the end of 2004.
“We don’t cut and run,” he said.
Operations in Iraq have increasingly brought out differences in approach between the American and British forces. The British, for example, believe the Americans are applying excessive force when they use heavily armed AC-130 Spectre gunships to destroy individual buildings being used for cover by insurgents, one NATO official said.
“The Americans are wedded to the use of overwhelming force,” a British defense analyst said. “They’ve got strict rules about collateral damage, so that’s not indiscriminate force. But sometimes when you use overwhelming force, it’s hard to make it not indiscriminate.”
Jeremy Greenstock, the British diplomat who formerly was the second-ranking official in the Coalition Provisional Authority, told the BBC last month that whereas British troops have been conditioned by low-intensity fighting in Northern Ireland and the Balkans, “the Americans have been trained to hit hard and conquer large areas quickly.”
“Their reaction to violence has sometimes been too strong, in my view,” he added.