Why Trump's call for an expanded NATO presence in the Middle East will be a hard sell

A NATO team has been meeting at the U.S. State Department in recent days to draft proposals on what an expanded alliance presence in the Middle East would like.

But Canada's foreign affairs minister says NATO's acceptance of a redefined mission could depend upon how willing the Americans are to stick around — particularly in Iraq.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking to reporters in Washington on Friday, said the Trump administration is looking to carry out military missions in the region "with fewer resources" and is calling on NATO to help.

The team, he said, will develop a plan "which will get burden-sharing right in the region ... so that we can continue the important missions to protect and defend and keep the American people safe while reducing our cost, our resources, and our burden, and the risk to our soldiers and sailors ..."

The use of the phrase "burden sharing" led to some raised eyebrows in Canadian government and defence circles — because that's the language U.S. President Donald Trump has used for years to hound allies into spending more on collective defence.

Tony Dejak/The Associated Press

Trump mused earlier this week that it's time for NATO to take a bigger role in the region beyond the military training mission in Baghdad, currently suspended.

The president's remarks came days after the Iraqi parliament passed a non-binding resolution to expel U.S. forces from the country in retaliation for the targeted killing of top Iranian military commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

Iraq's caretaker prime minister reportedly asked Pompeo, in a telephone call Thursday, to send a military team to Baghdad to discuss terms and a timetable for withdrawal.

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said the Liberal government is waiting for the results of NATO deliberations in Washington before staking out a position.

U.S. presence 'essential': Champagne

He noted, however, that an American withdrawal from Iraq — or even a wider U.S. effort to step back from the region — would make an expanded NATO mission and the resumption of the current training mission difficult. 

"The U.S. presence in Iraq is essential in terms of logistics and security," Champagne told CBC's The House in an interview being broadcast today.

"So if they want us, the coalition and NATO to continue to serve, to be able to provide the kind of stability which leads to safety, the American presence is essential."

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was equally circumspect when asked Friday about an expanded NATO footprint in the region on his way into a meeting of the European foreign affairs council.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

NATO, he said, has a wide range of tools and expertise to draw on, from capacity-building to military operations.

But Stoltenberg reminded the Americans that an expanded NATO mission could only happen with the consent of local governments.

"It's very important to remember that this isn't decisions NATO just makes alone," he said. "We're working with countries in the region. This is not only about what NATO wants to do, but also about what countries in the region want us to do together with them."

A defence expert suggested some alliance countries might be baffled by the notion that Trump now wants NATO to play a larger role in a country originally destabilized by the U.S. invasion in 2003 — and in the midst of a fresh crisis inflamed by his decision to kill Soleimani.

'Good luck'

Steve Saideman, director of the Canadian Defence and Security Network and a professor at Carleton University, pointed out that NATO operates by consensus.

"Good luck getting consensus on this, given Trump's attitudes about NATO and what he's done with NATO the past four years," said Saideman, "And given that this would be asking NATO to take over this situation at a time where Iraq is getting more and more dangerous."

Trump has spent the better part of his presidency questioning NATO's relevance, telling its member nations they don't pay enough of mission costs and hinting the U.S. might not come to their defence in a crisis unless they pony up more cash.

Meanwhile, said Saideman, allies like Canada and others operating in Iraq are irritated about not being given a heads-up about the Soleimani killing.

They might not be in the mood to do Trump any favours, he said.

'Cleaning up Trump's messes'

"I find hard to believe that a lot of [allied] governments will be able to get enough people on board to agree to do these things," Saideman said, noting that most NATO members require parliamentary votes before deploying troops.

"It's not even just about a matter of cleaning up Trump's messes, and that we've been through this movie before. I just don't think it's very likely to get consensus."

Stefanie von Hlatky, an associate professor of political studies at Queen's University, said NATO's leadership could flip the situation on its ear and use Trump's sudden plea for help to remind the president of the alliance's continued importance.

She said she's still struggling to understand how the alliance could help, given the extraordinarily complex politics and geopolitical rivalries at work in both Iraq and throughout the region.

"When Trump first made the statement, I thought that was crazy, especially in terms of how he framed it with the new name," Von Hlatky said, referring to the president's puzzling comment about rebranding NATO as "NATOME" for "NATO in the Middle East."

"I'm sure there's a way to utilize this moment in a way that sort of makes NATO a more favourable partner in the eyes of this president and administration. But the practical aspects, that's very thorny."

And the aftermath of Soleimani's targeted killing and threats of war with Iran "is the worst possible time to be asking allies to be spending more troops and playing a greater role in the region," she added.