Belmont Club

"Send him the bill"

The Times Online describes NATO’s response to Barack Obama’s impassioned plea to make a stand in Afghanistan. The Allies listened politely, left some small change on the table, then smiled and waved.

Barack Obama made an impassioned plea to America’s allies to send more troops to Afghanistan, warning that failure to do so would leave Europe vulnerable to more terrorist atrocities. But though he continued to dazzle Europeans on his debut international tour, the Continent’s leaders turned their backs on the US President.

Gordon Brown was the only one to offer substantial help. He offered to send several hundred extra British soldiers to provide security during the August election, but even that fell short of the thousands of combat troops that the US was hoping to prise from the Prime Minister.

Just two other allies made firm offers of troops. Belgium offered to send 35 military trainers and Spain offered 12. Mr Obama’s host, Nicolas Sarkozy, refused his request.

The derisory response threatened to tarnish Mr Obama’s European tour, which yesterday included a spellbinding performance in Strasbourg in which he offered the world a vision of a future free of nuclear weapons.

Two effects may be observable here. Since Europe knows that America has to fight radical Islam to defend Washington, New York and Los Angeles — even if America were alone in the world — then they know that Obama will pick up the slack if he is determined to defeat the Taliban. They can “free ride” secure in the knowledge that in so doing, America will secure Europe as a byproduct. Maybe they’ll make a token contribution, but no more. But on the other hand, if European politicians feel that Obama isn’t determined to defeat the Taliban after all, then there’s no sense coming along for the abortive ride. Either way the incentives are to leave the US twisting in the wind.

Long ago, the mice had a general council to consider what measures they could take to outwit their common enemy, the Cat. Some said this, and some said that; but at last a young mouse got up and said he had a proposal to make, which he thought would meet the case. “You will all agree,” said he, “that our chief danger consists in the sly and treacherous manner in which the enemy approaches us. Now, if we could receive some signal of her approach, we could easily escape from her. I venture, therefore, to propose that a small bell be procured, and attached by a ribbon round the neck of the Cat. By this means we should always know when she was about, and could easily retire while she was in the neighbourhood.” This proposal met with general applause, until an old mouse got up and said: “That is all very well, but who is to bell the Cat?” The mice looked at one another and nobody spoke.

One of the more interesting things about the troop commitment is how differently newspapers are covering it. For example, the NYT says, “STRASBOURG, France — With protesters raging outside, NATO leaders on Saturday gave a tepid troop commitment to President Obama’s escalating campaign in Afghanistan, mostly committing soldiers only to a temporary security duty. … As expected, European allies agreed to provide up to 5,000 new troops for Afghanistan, the White House said Saturday. But 3,000 of them are to be deployed only temporarily to provide security for the August elections in Afghanistan.”

The Washington Post seems to agree with the New York Times that it amount to a good luck handshake from allies before sending their regrets. The WaPo write, “NATO Backs Obama’s Afghan Plan but Pledges Few New Troops”. Other papers put a more positive face on the numbers. The BBC, for example, writes:

The reason for the smiles – the Obama effect. The new US president has enthused, galvanised and re-invigorated Nato at one and the same time. He has spoken the kind of language Nato countries have been wanting to hear from Washington for several years. … Making the case for the Afghan war at home is still a problem for many Nato governments – pressure from the Americans is not going to let up even if Washington’s positions are couched in an accent more acceptable to European ears.”

But as Mandy Rice Davies once put it, ‘they would say that, wouldn’t they?’ Smiles, while welcome, are not the same as money or troops. Unless Europe comes up with more than a temporary number of limited duty reinforcements — about a brigade’s worth — the logistics may be stressed far more out of proportion to what they will actually be allowed to do. Let’s see what happens, but for now, it looks like not much has happened.