“The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress, and in the American body politic writ large, to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources ... to be serious and capable partners in their own defense,” he said in an address to a think tank in Brussels.
The speech comes as the United States prepares to begin withdrawing some of its forces from Afghanistan this summer and as it and other NATO powers engage in an air campaign against the forces of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi. In both cases, Gates said, budget cuts and sheer reluctance among European partners to fight have made the missions significantly more difficult and shifted the burden onto the United States.
The challenges facing the Libyan campaign were underscored just hours after Gates spoke, as Norway announced it would pull its forces out of operations by the beginning of August because of the burdens on its small military.
The country’s F-16 jets have carried out about 10 percent of the airstrikes on Libyan soil since the NATO operations began at the end of March, according to Norway’s air force.
This week, NATO carried out the most intensive bombardment of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, to date. But the airstrikes are depleting NATO munitions, forcing the United States to supply more, Gates said.
U.S. officials have been unhappy with Germany in the months since it refused to support a U.N. Security Council resolution to intervene in Libya, but President Obama feted German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday at the White House, presenting her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In response to Gates’s speech, the German Foreign Ministry dismissed the notion that it was not sufficiently contributing to NATO and noted the celebrations earlier this week in Washington.
“Germany makes a considerable contribution to NATO and NATO-led operations,” said a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, speaking anonymously under diplomatic ground rules. “Germany’s engagement is very emphatically valued,” as evidenced by Merkel’s new medal, she said.
Official reaction in other European capitals appeared muted Friday. The French Defense Ministry had no immediate comment.
But NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen shares Gates’s concerns about European willingness to contribute to its own defense, an alliance spokeswoman said. “There is clearly a long-standing concern about the transatlantic gap in defense spending,” Oana Lungescu told reporters in Brussels.