Give NATO a Role in Post-war Iraq

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

April 10, 2003

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As we contemplate the tremendous challenges of maintaining order and beginning reconstruction in Iraq, it is worth thinking about how the United States can avoid the burdens and risks of what may come to be seen as unilateral occupation. Wouldn’t it be nice, for example, if we had at our disposal a multilateral organization to which we could turn for help, a body more effective and efficient than the UN but that would still confer legitimacy on the operation and help spread some of the costs? Imagine, in fact, a grouping composed of over two dozen democracies, including our most prosperous European allies, that had interoperable military forces, experience with peacekeeping and disarmament tasks, an available pool of troops, and existing command arrangements. Imagine further, while we’re really fantasizing, that this organization had close institutional links with several dozen partner countries and a proven track record of promoting defense reform and civil-military relations in former authoritarian states. If such an organization did not exist, we would certainly want to invent it.

Fortunately, such an organization does exist. NATO has all these attributes and there would be many advantages to giving it a key role in post-war Iraq. First, nowhere else is there a large group of available and experienced peacekeepers who could gradually replace the thousands of exhausted American and British soldiers currently deployed in Iraq. The United States should not wish to keep (or pay for) a substantial part of its army in Iraq for the foreseeable future, especially given other military challenges that could suddenly appear somewhere else around the world. And it is implausible that we will be able to quickly draw down our current force presence, given the political vacuum in Iraq and the potential for ethnic strife, retributions, looting, or outside meddling in the country. Fresh troops will have to come from somewhere, and no organization is better placed to provide them than NATO.

Involving NATO in post-war Iraq would also help to legitimize the reconstruction process in the eyes of many around the world—making a UN mandate more likely and clearing the way for EU reconstruction funds. Having launched the war without explicit UN authority and against the will of much of world opinion, there is already much skepticism about American motives and little trust that Washington will take any but its own interests into account. Putting the Pentagon in sole charge of maintaining security, hunting weapons of mass destruction, and reconstituting an Iraqi army would only heighten that global skepticism, no matter how much confidence Americans might have in their own judgment or fairness. Putting the UN directly in charge of security in Iraq might be reassuring around the world, but as it showed in the Balkans, the UN is ill-prepared to play an effective security role in a potentially hostile environment. Giving a role to NATO—some of whose members have recently proven their willingness to stand up to Washington—would prove that Iraq was not a mere American protectorate, while still giving us confidence that security would be ensured.

Finally, involving NATO in post-war Iraq’s security arrangements would be a vital step toward giving our European allies—including Russia—a stake in the successful reconstruction of Iraq. One of the most negative consequences of having to fight this war without support from France, Germany, Russia and most of European public opinion was that those countries and many individuals overseas now see the creation of a democratic, stable and prosperous Iraq as our project, not theirs. Although they would never say so, they even have an almost subconscious stake in our failure, if only to prove the merit of their opposition to the war. To reverse that destructive dynamic, the United States has a strong interest in involving as many European allies as possible in the effort to make a new Iraq; a collective NATO commitment to that goal would be an important first step.

There is, of course, no guarantee that even if Washington seeks to involve NATO in Iraq—and many in the Pentagon will fight the idea of relinquishing any control, especially to French and the Germans—the project will succeed. France, in particular, has long opposed efforts to endow NATO with a global security role, given Washington’s dominant role in the Alliance and Paris’s preference for the UN or EU. But it was interesting that when the issue of NATO in Iraq was quietly broached at the time of Secretary of State Powell’s April 3 trip to NATO headquarters, several allies strongly supported the idea, and no ally—not even France—flatly opposed the idea. France also has been quietly lowering its opposition to a NATO role in Afghanistan beginning next summer, when the current Dutch-German force in Kabul is scheduled to leave. While it would be premature to see these moves as a major opening, it would also be a mistake not to explore that possibility. Getting NATO involved in Iraq would not only help share the burden of what could be a difficult and costly occupation, but it could be a first step toward repairing a vital transatlantic relationship currently in tatters.