Pushing NATO into the Persian Gulf

Mark Esper (Department of Defense via Wikimedia Commons)

by Paul R. Pillar

Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper is in Brussels this week for a meeting of NATO defense ministers, with the Turkish incursion and related events in Syria likely to figure prominently in the discussions. But Esper has another item on his agenda that stems from the Trump administration’s obsession with confronting Iran: getting the allies to contribute more to the defense of Saudi Arabia. Esper already had raised at a meeting with his NATO counterparts in June the administration’s request for more contributions to meet what it describes as an Iranian threat in the Persian Gulf, and he was met with a lack of enthusiasm for the idea.

NATO is no stranger to out-of-area operations. The purposes of those operations have generally been easy to understand from the alliance’s point of view, even when they have gone far afield from NATO’s original purpose of meeting conventional military threats in Europe. The alliance’s significant effort in Afghanistan, for example, has been seen as a counterterrorist operation. Another activity aimed at non-state threats that could affect the economic and security interests of member states has been an anti-piracy operation off the Horn of Africa. As for the Persian Gulf region, the U.S.-led operation in 1990-1991 that reversed Iraq’s aggression against Kuwait was not conducted under NATO auspices but did include all major members of the alliance.

No such circumstances apply to the current U.S. attempt to get the allies involved in its face-off against Iran. Neither Iran nor any other Persian Gulf state has committed aggression as naked as what Saddam Hussein’s Iraq did to Kuwait. The European allies see that it was the actions of the United States—its reneging on the agreement restricting Iran’s nuclear program, and its initiation of unrestricted economic warfare against Iran—that led directly to this year’s heightened tensions and risk of war in the Persian Gulf. They see that it was the United States that began a campaign to take oil from the Persian Gulf (i.e., Iran’s oil) off the market. More broadly, the allies see no reason to take sides—especially to the extent of weighing in with their own military resources—in regional quarrels and competitions such as that between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Pressing for greater European involvement in that dispute is thus probably a poor way to spend whatever political chits Esper may be spending with the allies on this subject. The United States also could benefit from learning a lesson or two from the allies, in that rigid side-taking in regional quarrels in the Gulf does not benefit U.S. interests any more than it benefits European interests.

This topic represents a subset of a more general U.S. tendency, not limited to the Trump administration, to assume that other states see threats and lines of conflict the same way the United States does, or to insist that other states see the threats that way and that they respond the way the United States wants to respond. This myopia underlies the current administration’s failure to get traction for its idea of a NATO-like alliance of favored Sunni states in the Middle East. Disputes among the Gulf Arabs are a major reason for this failure. The failure is fortunate, in that the division between those who are in or out of the proposed alliance does not correlate with any division between those who are or are not destabilizing the region, and such an alliance would be another instrument for dragging the United States into other people’s quarrels.

This type of myopia also is involved in a contretemps involving the redeployment of U.S. troops being evacuated from northeast Syria. Esper announced that those troops would be going to western Iraq and would use that as a base for continuing to fight ISIS, but the government of Iraq evidently didn’t get the memo. That government, which has sound security and political reasons to minimize any U.S. troop presence on Iraqi soil, stated that the troops can redeploy via Iraq but are not welcome to stay there. This is another example of how U.S. foreign relations would be smoother and more effective if those running it would devote more effort to understanding how other states and other people perceive their problems and perceive the world. 

Paul Pillar

Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community. His senior positions included National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Deputy Chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and Executive Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Dr. Pillar's degrees are from Dartmouth College, Oxford University, and Princeton University. His books include Negotiating Peace (1983), Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2001), Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy (2011), and Why America Misunderstands the World (2016).



  1. A desperate act to save face form the loss in Syria. Arming the Salafis up to their eyeballs may eventually backfire and Saudi Arabia may self destruct itself by uprising. Which isn’t all that bad!

  2. As the name suggests, NATO was established to be an Atlantic alliance and more specifically one that focused on the northern perimeters of the two continents it was meant to protect. Extending it to the former Warsaw Pact countries might have been acceptable as victors’ entitlement when a former adversary’s fortunes had sunk low. But targeting Georgia and later Ukraine was asking for trouble.

    Trying to bring the Persian Gulf under the alliance’s umbrella would require a name change to something like the Global Imperial Protection or GIMP.

  3. The Iraqi government also stated that it would not allow US forces to make attacks from Iraq for any other purpose than combatting ISIS. That means no attacks by US forces in Iraq on Iran, or on Assad’s forces in Syria. Bravo!

  4. In a reversal today, some of the US groups were sent back into Syria for protecting the Syrian oil fields!
    1. A good way of protecting the terrorist who have been selling the Syrian oil to our friends in the region to continue with their mission
    2. Obviously NATO has responded negatively to the US request by saying that NATO isn’t charged with getting involved in the ME wars or civil wars.

  5. Well, Turkey is a NATO member and is now replacing the U.S. entering illegally in Syria. The U.S. wants now to ‘protect’ the Syrian oil fields… which are financing directly Turkey. Shame over shame. I hope Syrians, Kurds, Hezbollah and Shi’ite militias will push together for the Turkey/U.S. forces to scamp away soon.

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