A fundamental question is
now being asked at NATO HQ:
Is NATO genuinely a mutual
or is it just an instrument to
carry out US foreign policy?
June 2, 2010
I was in the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office for over 20 years
and a member of its senior management structure for six years, I served in
five countries and took part in 13 formal international negotiations, including
the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea and a whole series of maritime
boundary treaties. I headed the FCO section of a multidepartmental
organisation monitoring the arms embargo on Iraq.
I am an instinctively friendly, open but unassuming person who always
found it easy to get on with people, I think because I make fun of myself a lot.
I have in consequence a great many friends among ex-colleagues in both
British and foregin diplomatic services, security services and militaries.
I lost very few friends when I left the FCO over torture and rendition. In fact
I seemed to gain several degrees of warmth with a great many acquaintances
still on the inside. And I have become known as a reliable outlet for
grumbles, who as an ex-insider knows how to handle a discreet and
What I was being told last night was very interesting indeed. NATO HQ in
Brussels is today a very unhappy place. There is a strong understanding
among the various national militaries that an attack by Israel on a NATO
member flagged ship in international waters is an event to which NATO is
obliged – legally obliged, as a matter of treaty – to react.
I must be plain – nobody wants or expects military action against Israel.
But there is an uneasy recognition that in theory that ought to be on the
table, and that NATO is obliged to do something robust to defend Turkey.
Mutual military support of each other is the entire raison d’etre of NATO.
You must also remember that to the NATO military the freedom of the high
seas guaranteed by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea is a vital
alliance interest which officers have been conditioned to uphold their whole
That is why Turkey was extremely shrewd in reacting immediately to the
Israeli attack by calling an emergency NATO meeting. It is why, after the
appalling US reaction to the attack with its refusal to name Israel, President
Obama has now made a point of phoning President Erdogan to condole.
But the unhappiness in NATO HQ runs much deeper than that, I spoke
separately to two friends there, from two different nations. One of them said
NATO HQ was “a very unhappy place”. The other described the situation
as “Tense – much more strained than at the invasion of Iraq“.
Why? There is a tendency of outsiders to regard the senior workings of
governments and international organisations as monolithic. In fact there are
plenty of highly intelligent – and competitive – people and diverse
There are already deep misgivings, especially amongst the military, over the
Afghan mission. There is no sign of a diminution in Afghan resistance
attacks and no evidence of a clear gameplan. The military are not stupid and
they can see that the Karzai government is deeply corrupt and the Afghan
“national” army comprised almost exclusively of tribal enemies of the
You might be surprised by just how high in Nato scepticism runs at the line
that in some way occupying Afghanistan helps protect the west, as opposed
to stoking dangerous Islamic anger worldwide.
So this is what is causing frost and stress inside NATO. The organisation
is tied up in a massive, expensive and ill-defined mission in Afghanistan that
many whisper is counter-productive in terms of the alliance aim of mutual
defence. Every European military is facing financial problems as a public
deficit financing crisis sweeps the continent. The only glue holding the
Afghan mission together is loyalty to and support for the United States.
But what kind of mutual support organisation is NATO when members
must make decades long commitments, at huge expense and some loss of life,
to support the Unted States, but cannot make even a gesture to support
Turkey when Turkey is attacked by a non-member?
Even the Eastern Europeans have not been backing the US line on the Israeli
attack. The atmosphere in NATO on the issue has been very much the US
against the rest, with the US attitude inside NATO described to me by a
senior NATO officer as “amazingly arrogant – they don’t seem to think it
matters what anybody else thinks”.
Therefore what is troubling the hearts and souls of non-Americans in NATO
HQ is this fundamental question. Is NATO genuinely a mutual defence
organisation, or is it just an instrument to carry out US foreign policy?
With its unthinking defence of Israel and military occupation of Afghanistan,
is US foreign policy really defending Europe, or is it making the World less
safe by causing Islamic militancy?
I leave the last word to one of the senior NATO officers – who incidentally
is not British:
“Nobody but the Americans doubts the US position on the Gaza
attack is wrong and insensitve. But everyone already quietly thought
the same about wider American policy. This incident has allowed
people to start saying that now privately to each other.”
Craig Murray is a human rights activist, writer, former British Ambassador,
one time Foreign Office specialist on maritime law and an Honorary Research
Fellow at the University of Lancaster School of Law.