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With Iran, Syria looming, can Obama save NATO from disaster at Chicago summit?

The 2010 NATO Summit in Lisbon produced a bold vision for NATO’s future. With one week to the Chicago summit, not nearly enough progress has been made. To avoid the Chicago summit ending up as a total bust, Obama must push NATO leaders to address three key issues.

By Barry Pavel and James Joyner / May 11, 2012

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen addresses a news conference in Brussels May 11. Op-ed contributors Barry Pavel and James Joyner say NATO's progress on 'building partnerships with non-NATO members...has been moving at a glacial pace, constrained by bureaucratic routine.' They urge: 'But this is no time for routine.'

Francois Lenoir/Reuters

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Coming off the heels of a very successful NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal, in November 2010, it looked like President Obama would make the coming NATO summit in Chicago May 20 and 21 – an election-year meeting of America’s strongest allies on American soil – a centerpiece of his campaign, highlighting great successes in his foreign policy.

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The Lisbon Summit had produced an ambitious strategic concept with a bold vision for NATO’s future, including a renewed commitment to the fight in Afghanistan, a robust agreement on missile defense, and deepened cooperation on emerging challenges such as cyber security. Eighteen months later, not nearly enough progress has been made – and certainly not enough for Mr. Obama to tout.

To avoid the Chicago summit ending up as a total bust, Obama must push NATO leaders to address those three major issues on the agenda.

First, a slew of recent events in Afghanistan appears to be hastening a rush for the exits. In Lisbon, NATO leaders agreed on a robust operation through the end of 2014 that would be followed with an indefinite training and support commitment. Now, the talk is about getting many forces out by 2013.

Obama’s newly signed strategic agreement with Afghanistan ensures ongoing security support, but requires a supporting military strategy. NATO needs a plan to guide these efforts and provide a logical plan for forces, their missions, and broad withdrawal rates.

Second, the Obama administration must push NATO to make better progress on addressing its capabilities shortfalls highlighted by departing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates last June. He warned of a two-tiered alliance with a “dim, if not dismal” future if European allies didn’t reverse years of defense cuts. Those shortfalls were brought to light starkly by the otherwise enormously successful Libya operation, where, despite claims of “leading from behind,” the United States supplied virtually all of the targeting personnel, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and air-to-air refueling capabilities.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has been pushing allies to commit to a “Smart Defense” approach that would pool resources and integrate European military procurement to ensure the alliance retains needed capabilities even while individual allies make deep defense cuts. While there has been good work at the technical level, national budget decisions continue to be made in isolation and without a coherent overarching approach.

At minimum NATO should provide a clearinghouse for coordination of defense cuts. But that is not happening, reinforcing fears that NATO would not be able to conduct even a limited operation such as that over Libya if called upon a few years hence. The Obama administration needs to pressure NATO leaders to develop a clear structure for coordinating resources and individual budget decisions – and it needs to be prepared to assist them in doing so.

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