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Barack Obama's presidency

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Israel Attacked a NATO Member's Ship

By Craig Murray
June 3, 2010

Editor’s Note: A complication from Israel’s attack on six boats trying to take relief supplies to Gaza is the fact that the killing of nine activists occurred on a Turkish-flagged ship, the Mavi Marmara, and Turkey is a NATO member with the same right to claim collective defense as the United States did after the 9/11 attacks.

In this guest essay, former British Ambassador Craig Murray, a Law of the Sea expert, recounts what he’s hearing from other diplomats at NATO headquarters:

NATO HQ in Brussels is 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 career.

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 U.S. reaction to the attack with its refusal to name Israel, President Barack Obama has now made a point of phoning President Recep Tayyip 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 organizations as monolithic. In fact there are plenty of highly intelligent - and competitive - people and diverse interests involved.

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 game plan. 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 Pashtuns.

You might be surprised by just how high in NATO skepticism 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 organization 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 defense.

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 organization is NATO when members must make decades-long commitments, at huge expense and some loss of life, to support the United 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 U.S. line on the Israeli attack. The atmosphere in NATO on the issue has been very much the U.S. against the rest, with the U.S. 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 defense organization, or is it just an instrument to carry out U..S foreign policy?

With its unthinking defense of Israel and military occupation of Afghanistan, is U.S. 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 U.S. position on the Gaza attack is wrong and insensitive. 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."

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