Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates lashed out at some of America's closest European allies, complaining that NATO's shaky air assault in Libya had laid bare shortcomings that are pushing the alliance toward "collective military irrelevance."
In an unusual public rebuke Friday, Gates condemned European nations for years of declining defense budgets that he said have forced the United States to shoulder the heaviest load by far in the 62-year-old alliance.
Gates noted with frustration that fewer than half the 28 nations in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are engaged in the Libyan conflict, and that fewer than a third are conducting airstrikes, even though the coalition unanimously backed the decision to go to war to protect civilians from Moammar Kadafi's forces.
"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," he complained.
Gates, who will retire this month, said the United States was tired of engaging in extended, expensive combat missions for those who "don't want to share the risks and the costs."
The "blunt reality," he warned, is that Congress and the American public have "dwindling appetite and patience" to spend "increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources … to be serious and capable partners in their own defense."
Gates described a NATO future that was "dim, if not dismal." But, he said, "it's not too late" for European governments to boost defense spending and strengthen their armed forces.
Gates gave his harsh assessment in a speech in Brussels as the Obama White House begins closed-door deliberations on how quickly to withdraw the U.S. military from the decade-old war in Afghanistan, where forces from a number of other NATO nations also have taken part.
His comments run the risk of alienating allies at a critical time. Pentagon officials worry that when President Obama reveals his plan next month on how quickly to pull back from Afghanistan it may embolden allies to accelerate their own withdrawals, despite a NATO timetable that calls for keeping troops in place until 2014.
In addition to Libya, NATO's involvement in Afghanistan is significant. When the Obama administration sent 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan in late 2009, bringing the U.S. total to nearly 100,000, Britain, France, Germany and Canada also topped up their troop levels, doubling the non-U.S. NATO force level to 40,000.
More than 850 troops from NATO allies have died in that conflict.
Gates praised NATO for that role, but he also pointed out that many NATO nations restrict how their troops may be deployed and sometimes limit their combat roles. Many also rely on U.S. forces for airlift and helicopters, evacuation of wounded and other key support, and they have refused pleas to increase their involvement.
NATO's formal role in Iraq was limited to training Iraqi forces, although British forces fought alongside U.S. troops during the 2003 invasion and were stationed in southern Iraq. Several other countries, including Spain and Poland, subsequently sent troops.
Gates' address came after two days of private meetings with fellow defense chiefs at NATO headquarters in Brussels. His critique was even more blunt during those sessions, U.S. officials said.
According to their accounts, Gates rebuked Germany and Poland for not participating in the Libya war, and he urged Spain, Turkey and the Netherlands — which are aiding the effort but not taking part in airstrikes — to step up their role, according to officials familiar with the discussion.
European officials did not publicly react to Gates' speech, but one noted that several key allies, including Britain, France and Canada, support the core of his argument. Another official said Gates was asking too much, given European political and fiscal realities.
"Many people will simply feel that they don't have much maneuver room on this when they look at public opinion and their budgets," he said.
Several officials said privately that Gates gave too little credit to NATO's role in Afghanistan. Nor, one European official said, was it fair to blame NATO for problems in Libya since Washington has stepped back from the conflict.
U.S. warplanes and missiles led the initial assault on Libya in March, but the Obama administration soon scaled back its involvement. The Pentagon now provides aerial refueling, targeting and surveillance, rescue and other support functions.
When a military stalemate began to emerge, Gates agreed to provide several armed Predator drones, which have been used in airstrikes. U.S. aircraft have flown 75% of the sorties, Pentagon officials said, but the U.S. has resisted pressure to send ground-attack helicopters or aircraft, which are designed to isolate and eliminate small targets.
Gates' critique drew support from both sides of the aisle in Washington.
Some NATO nations "need to have the pressure put on them and be reminded of [their] commitments and what NATO's all about," said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"Our NATO allies are not carrying their weight," agreed Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.).
Such criticism is not new. U.S. officials complained during the Cold War that NATO partners were not carrying their share, but the issue has reached crisis intensity in recent months as tensions grew over Libya and Afghanistan.
Gates pointed out that European military budgets have fallen by 15% since Sept. 11, 2001, while U.S. defense spending has more than doubled. Gates conceded that he sees little prospect of change, especially when most European governments face intense fiscal pressure.
Nora Bensahel of the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington said Gates' speech carried "an important tough-love message" that, if NATO countries don't share more of the load, U.S. leaders will exclude them from strategic calculations and plan more unilateral operations.
But Gates' arguments are unlikely to win much support in Europe, analysts said.
"Calling it a hard sell is putting it mildly — it's a nonstarter at this point," said Charles Kupchan, a National Security Council aide in the Clinton White House.
On the ground in Libya, the NATO assault reached a peak Tuesday, when scores of bombs fell on the capital, Tripoli, in a daylight onslaught. The strikes continued early Friday, with several thunderous explosions near Kadafi's Bab Azizia compound, which has been largely reduced to rubble.
The alliance is now heavily demonized as a confederation bent on installing "a pro-West regime and puppet government and taking all the oil for free," Musa Ibrahim, the chief government spokesman, said after the bombing blitz.
"NATO chooses to side with rebels that said no to peace, and attack a government that said yes to peace," Ibrahim said. He accused the alliance of trying to turn Libya "into an extended arm of Europe."
Times staff writers Paul Richter and Lisa Mascaro in Washington and Patrick J. McDonnell in Tripoli contributed to this story.