Kacper Pempel / Courtesy Reuters Participants stand during the opening ceremony of NATO tactical exercise in Poland, September 2014.
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The Hollow Coalition

Washington's Timid European Allies

Three months since U.S. bombs first struck Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) targets in Iraq, the Obama administration has touted its 62-country coalition as a crowning achievement. Although this number might seem impressive, however, it is misleading. Of the 62 nominal allies for Operation Inherent Resolve (as the campaign is now called), only 16 have actually committed military forces, and only 11 have conducted offensive operations to date. Many appear willing to pay lip service to U.S. President Barack Obama’s condemnation of ISIS, only to ignore his subsequent call to arms. 

Most disconcerting is the meekness of Washington’s supposedly stalwart European allies. The European countries that have deployed forces to fight ISIS are contributing less today than they did three years ago in Operation Unified Protector in Libya—and even in that conflict, the United States was indispensable to the mission. France is a case in point. It fired the opening shot in the Libyan campaign and sent to the front 29 planes and six warships, including an aircraft carrier. Today, however, it has devoted only 11 planes and one warship to fighting ISIS. Similarly, the United Kingdom sent 28 planes to Libya in 2011 but only eight to Iraq this year. And whereas a total of 13 European countries had contributed either ships or planes to the struggle against the Muammar al-Qaddafi regime, only five have done the same in the war on ISIS. 

Nowhere is European reticence more apparent than in the share of airstrikes. In Libya, 90 percent of the air raids were carried out by Washington’s coalition partners, destroying more than 6,000 targets. This percentage puts the U.S. allies’ current share—approximately 10 percent of over 800 strikes conducted so far in Iraq and Syria—to shame. The share of the EU is even smaller, since some strikes were conducted by other coalition partners: Australia, Canada, and five Arab states. And this time around, the European countries are openly admitting that their contribution would be mere window-dressing. As British Foreign Secretary acknowledged in a particularly candid testimony in early September, the British contribution aimed primarily at bolstering “a political coalition of nations” rather than changing the military tide. Seventy years after British and American soldiers landed in nearly equal numbers on the beaches of Normandy, even the United Kingdom, which has Europe’s most powerful military, recognizes that it can no longer be decisive on the battlefield.

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