War Stories

Talking Turkey

Belgium isn’t sabotaging NATO. Rumsfeld is.

It’s one thing to accuse France and Germany of behaving stubbornly in the dispute over war with Iraq. It’s another thing to wreck NATO in the process. Yet Bush officials seem strangely determined to do just that—or maybe they’re just oblivious of where the latest round of the U.S. vs. “old Europe” kerfuffle might lead.

The bell rang this morning when, acting at America’s behest, NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson requested that the organization send Turkey, one of its members, some NATO stockpiles—AWACS early warning planes, Patriot air-defense missiles, anti-germ-warfare units—in case Iraq attacks when the war gets underway. The Turkish parliament recently voted to let U.S. troops set up base on its territory and invade Iraq across its northern border. It is certainly plausible that Iraq could retaliate against Turkey as a result.

France, Germany, and Belgium blocked the shipment of these weapons, on the grounds—as Belgium’s foreign minister, Louis Michel, put it—that “it would signify that we have already entered into the logic of war”—that any chance of a peaceful resolution was “gone.”

For several days, the three countries have been delaying the request for this equipment. Over the weekend, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld denounced this resistance as a “shameful” violation of the NATO charter, which is built around mutual defense. “Turkey is an ally,” he reportedly said. “An ally that is risking everything. … How can you refuse it help?”

Quite apart from whether France, Germany, and Belgium should let Turkey have the defensive arms—or, for that matter, should join the U.S. alliance against Iraq—a look at the NATO Charter suggests that our European allies have a strong point and Rumsfeld has a weak one (if that) on the question of whether they are shirking their obligations as members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Article 4, which is the article in question, states that the members of NATO “will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.” The key words here are “will consult.”

This morning, in response to the three countries’ refusal to send arms, Turkey invoked this article and called an emergency meeting of the alliance. Initially, according to one U.S. official, Belgium, France, and Germany all tried to block even this meeting—though, toward the end of the day, they relented. Had the three persisted in opposing this meeting, then, yes, they would have been in violation of the letter and spirit of the NATO Charter. (Note that Article 4 says the members must consult whenever there’s a threat merely “in the opinion of any of them.” It could be a threat in the opinion of a psychotic; it doesn’t have to be backed up.)

However, there is nothing in the charter that says the alliance—or every member of the alliance—must agree to send arms as a prudent measure in preparation for a preventive war. Article 5, another key provision, states, “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them … will assist the Party or Parties so attacked …” (italics added).

The Germans, French, and Belgians note—correctly—that this armed attack has not yet occurred. At least under the terms of the NATO Charter, there is currently no attack that obliges them to come to the assistance of Turkey.

This is not merely a legalistic dispute. By invoking the NATO Charter to continue its increasingly antagonistic conflict with France and Germany, Bush officials are behaving disingenuously and dangerously. What’s disingenuous is that this administration has never been especially mindful of the p’s and q’s, or even the ABC’s, of international treaties—NATO included. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, the entire European wing of the alliance offered to come to America’s assistance, invoking Article 5: An attack on one is an attack on all. Bush waved off the gesture—in retrospect, a huge mistake, even if mainly a symbolic one. The reinforcement of the alliance, and of the idea that it still has a purpose after the Cold War, could have helped him a great deal in the subsequent war on terrorism and perhaps even in the current planning for a war against Iraq.

Linking the dispute over Iraq to an interpretation of the NATO charter is also potentially dangerous because it could accelerate the crumbling of NATO itself. This would be a disaster in many ways, but simply on pragmatic grounds (the kind that Rumsfeld understands best), it could sharply limit the kinds of actions that the Bush administration is able to take—some for better, some for worse—in the future. As even Bush has grown to understand, U.S. military intervention goes down more smoothly, in domestic politics and global politics, when it is backed by an alliance. When Clinton wanted to move against Slobodan Milosevic’s aggression against Kosovo, first he tried the United Nations; Russia exercised its veto in the Security Council. So, he turned to NATO. In recent years, NATO has been brought up as a possible multinational organization for supervising a peace accord in the Middle East. It’s one of the few alliances that has widespread legitimacy, widespread attraction (remember how eagerly the former nations of the Warsaw Pact wanted in), deep cultural undercurrents, and a well-oiled institutional machine.

So, yes, keep after France and Germany for their position on Iraq. But don’t drag NATO into it.