“De Hoop Scheffer - Enough Already!”

1 May 2009

“De Hoop Scheffer - Enough Already!”

An interview with Harry van Bommel, MP, SP parliamentary spokesman on foreign affairs

by Karel Koster and Guido Leemput

Harry van BommelShortly NATO will celebrate its sixtieth birthday. Is this a good reason to throw a party?

On the contrary. NATO finds itself in an unmitigated crisis. There are major divisions over the strategy in relation to the important operation in Afghanistan. There is disunity over the division of costs, and the difference of opinion over the war against Iraq has never really been resolved. In times of crisis you don't throw a party, you have to get round the table with your allies and discuss the problems. This discussion must then lead to a clearer vision of the future regarding questions of security and the role of NATO in these.

The conflict between east and west is over and done with. NATO has welcomed former 'enemies' as members. Nevertheless, the US still dominates the organisation. What should happen now?

If it were up to me, fundamental discussion of NATO's raison d'être as we now know it. This discussion must first and foremost be conducted by parliaments in the member states, as these represent the people.

This goes equally for the NATO parliamentary assembly of which together with SP Senators Tiny Kox and Arjan Vliegenthart, I am a member, and in which we are attempting to kick start this discussion. Our efforts are directed at reducing the dominant American position within NATO. In addition, we must strive for the subordination of NATO to the UN. Not to make NATO into the global police force but rather to ensure a better assessment of the deployment of civil, diplomatic and military methods. Moreover the UN links security to other questions such as the division of wealth, the environment and human rights. NATO falls sadly short in regard to these issues.

What do you think of Russia's proposal for a 'new European security architecture'?

There is a great need for institutionalised cooperation within which Russia, the US and Europe can discuss the problems together which are concerned about. It makes no sense to go at Russia like a battering ram, by for example establishing a rocket shield in eastern Europe, or by enlarging NATO ever further. The conflict in Georgia was a litmus test which showed what we can expect if this kind of pressure is exerted to the east.

The object is to have a discussion in, for example, the OSCE around the problems of energy supply, the quantity of conventional weapons, and of course also the problems surrounding minority groups, as well as ensuring secure borders,. The OSCE, unlike NATO, does a great deal in the way of conflict prevention.

In the meantime, what should NATO be doing?

It should above all be restricting itself to the security and mutual protection of its member states. The alliance must, self-evidently, not become an alternative to the UN or OSCE. NATO armed forces should only be deployed out of area under an explicit UN mandate. For this reason, the 1999 strategic concept, which declared the entire world to be an operational area, must be reversed. NATO's interests are defensive, in the strictest sense of the word. That means that we are also not going to fight a war in order to capture energy sources. It must never happen again that we allow ourselves to be led into an illegal war by the United States or any other ally. Furthermore, we must once and for all be done with the exceptional position of NATO in regard to the matter of nuclear weapons. We take the highest tone at every suspicion that a country such as Iran will ever build a nuclear weapon, but ourselves shelter under a nuclear umbrella, with a nuclear deterrent. The most telling point is that we have ourselves also aircraft and pilots available to make war using American nuclear weapons. No wonder that a large portion of the world sees us as a bunch of hypocrites.

And we are of course with NATO in Afghanistan.

Yes, as far as the SP is concerned we should be getting the soldiers out of there as quickly as possible. A reconstruction mission has become a counter-insurgency war and unfortunately my prediction that President Obama would step it up another notch has turned out to have been correct. But the tens of thousands of extra troops which the United States wants to deploy will be marching up a dead-end street. Afghanistan expert Stephen Tanner endorsed this view recently in an article in the press. Furthermore, this kind of war employs a great deal of fire power in order to spare our own people. This means automatically that many civilian lives will be lost; 2008 was a sad low-point in that respect. And one thing is certain: every civilian casualty is a recruiting sergeant for the Taliban, who are acquiring ever more support. Deploying more troops won't reduce that support, but rather make things worse. The fight for hearts and minds, moreover, which people here talk about so much, is already lost. That was the kernel of the recent press interview with military specialist David Kilcullen, former assistant to the US General Petraeus. He said that it isn't the government in Kabul, but the Taliban which is preserving public order in Afghanistan, and called therefore for negotiations with the Taliban, a position which I support. Another problem is the spread of the war into Pakistan, which threatens the most important supply line for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). That means once again that we must talk to the Russians so that supplies can be brought via a northern route, over their territory and that of other bordering countries. The consequence of this is greater dependence on the Russians' goodwill, while they are in other respects being rubbed up the wrong way by NATO, for example with the rocket shield.

Time to get out then?

Yes, but via a process of negotiations with all involved. Obviously this must include the Taliban, but also the governments of bordering countries. The OSCE could probably also help to regulate the pull-out. We should not allow the Vietnam effect to carry on doing its deadly work. When the soldiers leave, real reconstruction must begin.

Why are there so many repeated references to this 'Vietnam effect'?

It's the tendency to send ever more troops, just like the Americans did in the 1960s in Vietnam, to try to avoid the unavoidable, namely a victory of political forces towards which you don't happen to be well-disposed. Not only that, but it's to be expected that increasing your numbers of troops will come up against extremely hard-to-break limitations.

What sort of limitations?

First of all the Americans don't have enough troops and a major part of the army has been worn out in Iraq. Secondly, the European allies have no taste for extending the war. US Defence Secretary Robert Gates announced after the last NATO defence ministers' meeting that he felt frustrated by the lack of preparedness to send more troops. This is not a result of the economic crisis alone. Thirdly, an increasing number of countries are seriously questioning the American approach in Afghanistan. Of course there is some recoiling also from the enormous costs. With the NATO Parliamentary Assembly I recently visited the headquarters of SHAPE, NATO's European operation, where we spoke with NATO Commander-in-Chief General Craddock. He was extremely concerned about the preparedness of member states to spend money on the military. The agreement is that member states will spend 2% of their GDP on defence. Six months ago only six countries were meeting this target, and now it's down to four. Four out of the twenty-six NATO countries. Craddock expressed the fear that this would shortly be halved to two. That says a great deal.

That will of course have far-reaching effects on the organisation?

Yes, Craddock said that too. It is, after all, countries with democratic systems of government which have taken a decision to spend less on defence. So Craddock is trying to increase efficiency and specialisation on particular tasks, which will mean a more acute division of labour within NATO, which in turn will make it more difficult for countries to refuse to undertake a task in their agreed range as other member states won't have the necessary equipment available. If the Netherlands buys the JSF fighter plane, there will certainly be the likelihood of its deployment in conflicts in which NATO is involved. There's no reason whatsoever why the Netherlands should take the lead in future wars.

Lastly, what advice would you give to your former colleague in Parliament, now NATO boss, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer? His term is formally up.

My advice to de Hoop Scheffer can be summed up in two words: enough already! De Hoop Scheffer is a representative of the world as it was, and not how it could be. He hasn't changed NATO in any fundamental way, despite the fact that after the fall of the Berlin Wall there was every opportunity to do just that. He should pass the baton to the next generation of politicians.

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