The Complex

NATO's Make-or-Break Moment

NATO leaders began meeting in Wales Thursday for a high-stakes conference dedicated to finding ways of countering Russian President Vladimir Putin's ongoing military intervention into Ukraine and open contempt for the post-Cold War order. In the run-up to the summit, NATO leaders have talked tough about punishing Putin to prevent him from moving deeper into Ukraine. But it's not clear whether European allies will back up that tough talk with the financial commitments necessary to rejuvenate a faltering military alliance that Putin has openly mocked as a paper tiger.

Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has been in search of a mission. It has served as an umbrella for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but as its historic job of confronting the Soviet Union faded from view and a series of economic crises battered European economies, few American allies were willing to shoulder their shares of the alliance's financial load.

Now, potential missions are everywhere. Beyond Ukraine, the Islamic State is threatening to expand its fight to Turkey, a NATO member. The alliance is also committed to keeping thousands of troops in Afghanistan, despite the political gamesmanship that has prevented the country from installing a new president. Russia, meanwhile, has tens of thousands of troops massed along its border with Ukraine. It is backing separatists along three fronts, and sent a Russian column into one front late last week. Russia's support of the rebels has given the separatists the upper hand against Ukrainian security forces struggling to hold territory in eastern Ukraine.

Yet even with open combat in a country bordering several NATO members, the summit is likely to be dominated by dollars and cents. For years, top officials in the Bush and Obama administrations have angrily called on Europe to spend more on defense so Washington wouldn't be responsible for the lion's share of the alliance's funding. Taken as a whole, the defense budgets of NATO members are down some 20 percent in the last five years. Only three European NATO members -- the United Kingdom, Greece, and Estonia -- meet the alliance's threshold of spending 2 percent or more of their GDP on defense.

In an interview with Foreign Policy, NATO Deputy Secretary-General Alexander Vershbow, a former U.S. State Department official, said NATO's response to Putin's aggression needed to include significant new financial commitments from Europe.

"The credibility of the alliance will be measured by the credibility of the pledge" to spend more on defense, Vershbow said. "NATO needs to send a message that we're taking the Russian threat very seriously."

In 2011, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that the alliance faced "collective military irrelevance" without an increase in European defense spending. In June, as the Ukraine crisis raged on, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned that Europe had to stop playing lip service to defense spending and upgrade out-of-date equipment.

For instance, the Polish air force is still flying Russian MiGs, and has to ask Moscow for parts when they break down. Its second warplane, the Su-22, is in need of upgrades in order to be combat-ready.

The inability of fighter jets from individual NATO members to communicate with one another also complicates coordinated operations. This was on display during the war in Afghanistan, where British jets could communicate with U.S. Navy carrier-based fighters, but could not talk with Air Force tankers.

"We must see renewed financial commitments from all NATO members," Hagel said during a May speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "Russia's actions in Ukraine have made NATO's value abundantly clear, and I know from my frequent conversations with NATO defense ministers that they do not need any convincing on this point. Talking amongst ourselves is no longer good enough."

In the buildup to the summit, British Prime Minister David Cameron echoed Hagel's call for European nations to spend more. According to World Bank statistics, the British spent 2.3 percent of their GDP on defense in 2013, or more than $60 billion. That was compared to 2.4 percent in both 2012 and 2011. The United States, even with the defense spending cuts mandated as part of a budget deal with the Republican-led Congress, spent 3.8 percent of GDP on defense in 2013, compared to 4.2 in 2012 and 4.6 in 2011.

By comparison, in 2013, Germany only spent 1.3 percent of its GDP on defense, compared with 1.3 percent and 1.4 percent in 2011 and 2012, respectively. France spent 2.2 percent, down from 2.3 percent in the 2011 and 2012 (NATO disputes France's 2013 World Bank number. According to NATO, France only spent 1.9 percent of 2013 GDP on defense).  Italy spent 1.6 percent, a drop from 1.7 percent in the previous two years. The Netherlands spent 1.3 percent of its GDP, down from 1.4 percent over the previous two-year period.

In Germany, home to Europe's largest economy, defense spending went down from $43.8 billion last year to $42.8 billion this year, continuing a downward trend. Since 2012, France has spent $41.2 billion annually on defense, a figure that's been frozen until 2016.

And there's little hope that this will change. Ahead of the conference, Ursula von der Leyen, Germany's defense minister, said that the actual dollar amount a country spends on the military is more important than the percentage of GDP, lowering expectations that the alliance would formally commit to the 2 percent rule.

Meanwhile, Russia is in the midst of a military spending spree. Russian President Vladimir Putin is presiding over what he has said will be a $700 billion military modernization effort over the next six years, though many outside analysts question whether Moscow will actually wind up spending that much money and point out that Russia's armed forces use equipment that dates back to the Cold War. Even as Kiev and Moscow appear to be approaching a cease-fire, Putin's actions inside Ukraine and his increasingly belligerent rhetoric have raised concerns in the former Soviet bloc state about what he plans to do with this new military might.

France is doing its part to slow this buildup. Late Wednesday, Paris suspended the delivery of the first of Mistral-class warship to Russia, despite protests from French leaders who argue that the sale of French arms to Russia is necessary to promote growth. It now plans to send the ships in November.

"The president of the Republic declared that, despite the prospect of a cease-fire, the conditions for France to deliver the first warship are not to date in place," François Hollande's office announced Wednesday.

As of Wednesday evening, NATO is not planning a formal mission in Ukraine. NATO officials have said that they would create a rapid response force of some 4,000 troops, reportedly stationed in Poland, as a counter to Putin. Vershbow and other U.S. officials want NATO to commit more money, but it's unclear whether there is the political will to do that in Europe. The eurozone's GDP fell in the second quarter of 2014, and Germany, the EU's economic engine, is starting to sputter; its economy grew just 0.2 percent in the second quarter, down from 0.7 percent growth in the first quarter.

Vershbow said that without an increase in spending by European allies, the alliance would be undermined. He said that he was confident that the alliance would find its way.

"NATO has shown its adaptability. It has been able to adapt when the security environment has shifted," he said. "Everyone is glad that no one is questioning NATO's existence."

WPA Pool/Getty Images News

The Complex

United States Counterterrorism Chief Says Islamic State Is Not Planning an Attack on the U.S.

The United States' senior counterterrorism official said on Wednesday that there is "no credible information" that the militants of the Islamic State, who have reigned terror on Iraq and Syria, are planning to attack the U.S. homeland. Although the group could pose a threat to the United States if left unchecked, any plot it tried launching today would be "limited in scope" and "nothing like a 9/11-scale attack."

That assessment by National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen stands in sharp contrast to dire warnings from other top Obama administration officials, who depict the group formerly known as ISIS or ISIL as the greatest threat to America since al Qaeda before it struck U.S. soil on Sept. 11, 2001.

Mere weeks ago, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the Islamic State, which has conquered territory across Iraq and Syria, establishing a self-proclaimed caliphate, "is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen. They're beyond just a terrorist group." Previously, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned that the Sunni militant group would evolve into a "transregional and global threat" unless directly countered in Syria, its base of operations. Secretary of State John Kerry said that "ISIL and the wickedness it represents must be destroyed"; President Barack Obama warned two weeks ago that "there has to be a common effort to extract this cancer so that it does not spread."

But Olsen, whose organization was set up after 9/11 to assess terrorism intelligence and "connect the dots" about potential attacks, painted a more measured picture of the fundamentalist group. "ISIL is not al Qaeda pre-9/11," Olsen told a Brookings Institution audience on Wednesday, Sept. 3. Osama bin Laden's network had covert cells in European countries and Southeast Asia, as well as a home base in Afghanistan. The Islamic State is "not there yet," Olsen said. There is "no indication at this point of a cell of foreign fighters operating in the United States."

Aside from ratcheting down the rhetoric, Olsen, whom Obama nominated to run the center in 2011, offered a needed degree of political cover for the president, who has been criticized for not addressing the Islamic State threat more aggressively. Even Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Obama was "too cautious" last week when he said that the United States doesn't yet have a strategy for attacking the group in Syria, where his own military leaders agree the United States must strike if he wants to wipe out the Islamist group. By describing the Islamic State not as an imminent threat to the United States, Olsen gave the president some breathing room to develop that strategy over time.

Obama also has to contend with the possibility that Americans will travel to Syria, train with the Islamic State, and return to the United States to launch attacks. Olsen acknowledged that as many as 100 Americans have trained and fought with Islamist groups in Syria but that the United States doesn't know how many actually joined up with the Islamic State in particular. "Left unchecked," the Sunni militants, who so far have limited their efforts mostly to establishing a caliphate, could turn their sights to the West "and potentially to the U.S." But there are no signs that they plan to do so now, he said.

Olsen's depiction deviates from his previous characterization of the group. Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum in July, he warned that the civil war in Syria was a magnet for extremists and was opening a safe haven "reminiscent of what we faced before 9/11 in Afghanistan." He also said that some 100 Americans had traveled to Syria and come back to the United States, though he emphasized that the FBI is monitoring and tracking many of them.

Syria remains a huge draw for potential terrorists, he told his Washington audience Wednesday. But the threat is more pronounced for Europe. At least 1,000 European passport holders have gone to Syria and could return to launch attacks, he said. Last week, the United Kingdom moved to its second-highest alert level in response to the Islamic States, whose ranks include British citizens -- most likely including American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff's executioner.

While the Islamic State may not pose an imminent threat to the U.S. homeland, its advances in Iraq have drawn the Obama administration back into a war it thought it had finished. The Defense Department on Tuesday evening announced that it would send another 350 troops to Iraq, bringing the total number of military personnel there to nearly 1,200. The State Department had requested that the Pentagon send as many as 300 more military personnel to help beef up security around the massive U.S. Embassy complex in Baghdad. After assessing the issue for weeks, defense officials finally decided to honor the request and even upped the number of personnel to 350. Those troops, to include Marines and soldiers and possibly some Air Force personnel, will begin flowing into Iraq from the U.S. Central Command "area of responsibility" over the next few days. In addition to those, nearly 300 troops are conducting assessments and advising Iraqi troops, and another nearly 500 troops are conducting "security assistance." Another 100 troops have long been assigned to the U.S. Embassy as part of the Office of Security Cooperation.

As for the Islamic State's future, Olsen sounded a more optimistic note than many other officials about the United States' ability to stamp out the Islamic State before it can achieve its regional aspirations. "As formidable as ISIL is as a group, it is not invincible," he said. It the United States and international partners take an "all-of-government" approach, including combating the Islamic State's violent online propaganda and shoring up military and diplomatic alliances in the Middle East, then the group could be defeated, he added. (This week, the White House announced that Kerry, Hagel, and Lisa Monaco, the White House counterterrorism advisor, are heading to the region to begin building an international coalition.)

The one area where Olsen said the Islamic State excels beyond any other terrorist organization is propaganda. The group has used social media, including Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, to spread violent images and videos meant to attract followers and intimidate enemies. In the past two weeks, it posted two grisly videos showing the murders of Foley and Sotloff.

"No group [has been] as successful and effective as ISIL is at using propaganda, particularly social media," Olsen said. Combating it will require spreading the word in the Middle East about the United States' successful repulsion of the Islamic State's advance in Iraq by working with Iraqi military forces and Kurdish fighters, he said. That message ultimately has to come from other agencies, like the State Department, because the counterterrorism center's role is to assess the effectiveness of the group's propaganda, not necessarily counter it.

But the center can tell government officials whether that propaganda is working -- and it is. Today, the Islamic State runs "the most significant propaganda machine of any extremist group," Olsen said. On this path, the Islamic State "threatens to outpace al Qaeda" as the "leading voice" among extremists around the world.

Neither Republicans nor Democrats on Capitol Hill -- who have been adjourned since early August -- have offered a unified solution for eradicating the Islamic State. Although a handful of lawmakers are calling for a vote on authorizing military action in Syria and Iraq, many would like to avoid the politically sensitive decision just weeks before the Nov. 4 midterm elections.

John Hudson and Gordon Lubold contributed reporting.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images News