June 10 (Bloomberg) -- Defense Secretary Robert Gates returned home today from a sometimes emotional round-the-world farewell tour during which he hit his signature themes involving “the wars we’re in” and the trans-Atlantic alliance.
Gates arrived in Washington from Brussels, where he had exhorted European allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to shore up their defense spending or risk the alliance’s “collective military irrelevance.”
The military missions in Afghanistan and Libya exposed yawning gaps, he told a meeting organized by the Security and Defense Agenda group in Brussels, in his last policy speech as defense secretary. The U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday held a confirmation hearing for President Barack Obama’s choice as his successor, CIA director Leon Panetta.
The security of Europe has been “the consuming interest of much of my professional life,” said Gates, who has a graduate degree in Russian and Soviet history and was for years an analyst with the Central Intelligence Agency.
“If current trends in the decline of European defense capabilities are not halted and reversed, future U.S. political leaders -- those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me -- may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost,” he said.
The blunt talk, which he said was in the spirit of “true friends,” followed similarly emphatic public messages during more than three days of troop visits in Afghanistan. There, he set out his parameters for the drawdown that the president has promised to start next month and thanked the troops in a voice choking with emotion.
Farewell to Troops
“More than anybody other than the president, I’m responsible for you being here,” Gates told the soldiers, airmen, sailors and marines at each of four forward operating bases and a combat outpost. “I’m the guy that signed the deployment orders that brought you here. And that has weighed on me for four and a half years.”
He said he thinks about them “every day” and respects the sacrifice they and their families make.
“I think you are the best America has to offer. My affection and my admiration for you has no limits,” Gates told the camouflage-uniformed men and women gathered, often in the blazing heat. “I will pray for each and every one of you every day for the rest of my life.”
He also urged at every opportunity on the trip that the U.S. and its coalition partners pursue a measured withdrawal when a scheduled drawdown begins next month.
“While President Obama is still considering the size and pacing of the troop drawdown beginning in July, I can tell you there will be no rush to the exits,” he said in Brussels. “The vast majority of the surge forces that arrived over the past two years will remain through the summer fighting season.”
Gates commended the Europeans for sticking with the fight in Afghanistan and doubling the number of their troops there during his time in office, which began in December 2006 under President George W. Bush.
Still, European members of NATO have struggled to maintain their 25,000 to 45,000 troops in Afghanistan, Gates said. They also lagged behind in providing equipment such as helicopters, transport aircraft, maintenance and intelligence capability, he said.
The U.S. provides two-thirds of the almost 150,000 NATO-led troops in Afghanistan. The Pentagon also sold allies more than $24 million of ammunition, spare parts and technical aid to help the Libya operation.
The apparent weaknesses are symptoms of the shortage of will and capability among the European allies, Gates said.
“There will be dwindling appetite and patience in the United States Congress -- and in the American body politic writ large -- to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense,” Gates said.
Gates issued the warning as both continents struggle with the remains of the global recession and Obama seeks $400 billion in defense spending cuts over 12 years to reduce the federal budget deficit. While Gates and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen have cautioned European members not to reduce defense spending further, his implicit threat that the U.S. may withdraw support for the alliance marks a hardening of the U.S. position.
The U.S. share of NATO defense spending has risen to more than 75 percent from 50 percent during the Cold War, Gates said.
Meanwhile, total European defense spending has dropped 15 percent since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S., according to one estimate, Gates said.
Only five of the 28 NATO allies exceed the agreed standard of spending at least 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense, Gates said, naming the U.S., the U.K., France, Greece and Albania.
He cited “serious capability gaps and other institutional shortcomings laid bare by the Libya operation,” which was spurred largely by European countries. In addition to filling a shortage of basic ammunition for the European allies, the U.S. had to come through with targeting specialists for the NATO air operations center in Italy, Gates said.
He said Europeans could help fix the problem by protecting defense budgets from further cuts in the next round of austerity measures, by better allocating and coordinating existing resources, and by following through on commitments to the alliance and to each other.
--Editors: Terry Atlas, Leslie Hoffecker
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