Rallying America’s Allies

The 9/11 terrorism mended US relations with its European allies, which had cooled after the USSR’s breakdown. Without the Soviet threat, Western Europe became less likely to toe the American line on matters of security and foreign policy. But the 9/11 terrorism stimulated a wellspring of sympathy and goodwill toward the United States, which the Bush administration capitalized on for its plans. The day after the attacks, NATO hastily convened a meeting of transatlantic ambassadors to consider invoking Article 5, requiring a collective defense of a member state under attack by an outside power. The attendees issued a statement: “If it is determined that this attack was directed from abroad against the United States, it shall be regarded as an action covered by Article 5 of the Washington Treaty,” which established NATO.13

After NATO examined the US intelligence findings, the alliance’s General Secretary George Robertson concluded that “it is now clear all roads lead to al Qaeda.”14 Invoking Article 5 meant that NATO members were at war against al Qaeda. In a role reversal of sorts, NATO’s

European members flew planes to patrol the East coast of their ally across the Atlantic. In retrospect, the giant West European reconnaissance planes flew unnecessary missions to defend their American ally from a shadowy terrorist cell. But the gesture heartened America for its display of solidarity. Not all Europeans joined in America’s rush to war in Afghanistan. Anti-American protestors took to public squares to oppose the US counterattack against a terrorist-sheltering regime.

Washington gratefully accepted NATO’s air protection. But the Bush government exhibited much less enthusiasm for NATO military participation in the Afghan military expedition for two reasons. First, the Pentagon recalled the complex and circuitous decision-making process during the 1999 Kosovo air campaign. Selecting targets and getting decisions from NATO allies proved arduous and time consuming. The Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld preferred an unencumbered chain of command, where he and his civilian and military aides made decisions without NATO’s bureaucratic bottlenecks. Second, NATO was notorious for its underspending on defense. What militaries it possessed were orientated toward Cold War’s conventional warfare. The Afghan conflict promised to be one requiring small numbers of specially trained troops, conducting unconventional tactics behind enemy lines and in close coordination with bombing aircraft.

Instead, the Pentagon looked to Britain and Australia for special forces rather than NATO’s armies. Meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels, the members pressed the US Defense Department for combat assignments in the war. In reply, Paul Wolfowitz, deputy to Rumsfeld, bluntly replied to European appeals: “If we need collective action, we will ask for it.”15 America’s standoffishness ruffled European feathers even after the start of the intervention. A French official characterized the secondary role allotted to most NATO countries as “washing up the dirty dishes” after the United States “did the cooking.”16 The metaphor was fleeting, as the United States soon needed its NATO partners in Afghanistan and later Iraq.

Still, by the commencement of the military campaign, President Bush could proclaim: “More than 40 countries in the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and across Asia have granted air transit and landing rights.” Even without participation by Muslim governments in the military operation, Bush held that “we are supported by the collective will of the world.”17 Traditional American friends such as Australia, Britain, Canada, and France were joined by Poland, Denmark, Norway, and Germany, all of which inserted military units on the ground. Even Japan and the Netherlands patrolled warships in the Arabian Gulf.

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