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Munich Conference Reveals European Complacency

Thursday, 14 Feb 2008 11:34 AM

By Christopher Ruddy

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Last week I had the honor of joining the U.S. delegation to the Munich Conference on Security Policy, held in Munich, Germany.

The congressional delegation was headed by Sens. Joseph Lieberman and Lindsey Graham.

The Munich Conference — closely associated with the NATO alliance — has drawn headlines in recent years.

Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin set off a firestorm with an acerbic speech that evoked fears of a new Cold War.

“The United States has overstepped its borders in all spheres, economic, political and humanitarian, and has imposed itself on other states," Putin said. He stridently rapped the U.S. for its missile defense system plans, its desire for an independent Kosovo, and what Putin called the U.S.’ “hyper-inflated use of force" — a clear reference to Iraq.

This year, the talk was muted over U.S policies, perhaps owing to the fact the Bush administration is soon exiting. Europeans believe the next administration led by Democrats will be more sympathetic to their views.

Today, Europe appears to have a mindset of accommodation and complacency. Appeasement might be too strong of a word, since there is no Hitler-like figure marching through European capitals to acquiesce to.

A U.S. official with NATO told our delegation that throughout Europe, our allies are not making the connection between their own security and the alliance’s work to keep the Taliban out of power in Afghanistan.

In some countries where the mission has been explained well by their governments, such as in Britain and Denmark, support for the NATO effort remains strong.

It is important to remember that NATO was created as a defensive organization to protect the member states against attack. On Sept. 11, al-Qaida, which had found safe harbor and backing in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, attacked a member state.

Though NATO fully supported the U.S. effort to keep the Taliban and their al-Qaida allies from power in Kabul, that support is waning.

Even the French, who early on supported the Afghanistan mission, are having doubts.

"Military is only one element," Herve Morin, the French defense minister, said of the Afghanistan operation, suggesting the NATO alliance had ignored the "civilian element." In a somewhat contradictory statement, he castigated the U.S. for attempting to foster democracy in the region.

The failure of NATO to back the mission in Afghanistan drew a strong rebuke from U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who called Islamic terror a “cancer” that will “metastasize” if it isn’t aggressively attacked.

"I am concerned that many people on this continent may not comprehend the magnitude of the direct threat to European security," he told the European leaders. Gates noted that numerous terror plots aimed at European targets had been thwarted, partly thanks to U.S. efforts to combat terror cells abroad.

Gates also suggested the stakes are extremely high.

"Imagine if Islamic terrorists had managed to strike your capitals on the same scale as they struck in New York," he said. "Imagine if they had laid their hands on weapons and materials with even greater destructive capability . . . We forget at our peril that the ambition of Islamic extremists is limited only by opportunity."

Lieberman Takes on Iran

Europe has been moving toward a similar accommodational approach to Iran, a nation that has been developing weapons of mass destruction. Though there is little doubt that Iran, unless stopped, will acquire nuclear weapons, NATO is unwilling to aggressively tackle the threat.

Iran already has the ballistic missile capability to strike Europe. And its leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has called Israel a “disgraceful blot” that should be “wiped off the map,” adding menacingly that the Jewish state is “heading toward annihilation.”

Sen. Lieberman told the conference that Iran must be reckoned with "before it is too late." He pleaded with European and U.N. member states to use their economic leverage over Iran to stop its nuclear weapons plans.

"The dangers of a nuclear Iran cannot be denied, diminished, or dismissed. There is no room for complacency, and no excuse for inaction, about this threat," he warned.

Lieberman also clarified press reports suggesting that the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate found that Iran’s nuclear program was not a serious threat.

"The NIE itself expresses only 'moderate' confidence that Iran has not already done so,” Lieberman said, referring to Iran’s program to develop nuclear weapons. “And other respected national intelligence services believe that Iran already has restarted its nuclear weaponization program."

Concerted action today could prevent a worse solution, he suggested.

"Military action to destroy or deter Iran's nuclear arsenal is not an option we seek, but it is also not an option that we can eliminate," he said.

The Russia Bear: Follow the Money

Despite Russia’s numerous policy disagreements with the United States over Iran, missile defense, Kosovo and Iraq, a senior Russian diplomat told me, “We are partners with America.”

Russia today is confident and cocky. But it was just over 15 years ago that the U.S. was airlifting food supplies to Russia. The economic situation there has improved dramatically. With skyrocketing oil and gas prices, Russia has developed a remarkable war chest.

One U.S. general told me the Pentagon has been suspicious of Russia because no one knows what the nation plans to do with its vast wealth.

He also noted that Russia is “unquestionably the nuclear superpower of the world,” noting the vast arsenal it has maintained after the end of the Cold War.

Russia’s deputy prime minister, Sergey Ivanov, bragged during his speech in Munich that in recent years Russia had acquired $500 billion in gold and cash reserves, with another $150 billion in a national welfare fund.

To understand the vastness of these $650 billion in reserves, consider that China has about double this amount. But Russia has less than one-tenth the population of China.

Ivanov said that Russia estimates it would need $1 trillion to rebuild his dilapidated country — for airports, roads, water projects, etc.

But then Ivanov made clear to the delegates that Russia had no plans to use these funds for infrastructure. Instead, Russia would rely on private investment for infrastructure projects.

He did say Russia would focus on supporting key industries, which Ivanov noted included “aircraft engineering and production, shipbuilding, atomic energy, missile and space technologies.” It is interesting that all these sectors are closely associated with Russia’s military.

But there’s no reason to worry, Ivanov assured the gathering, since his country’s “revival” was nothing more than a peaceful democracy seeking its place on the world economic stage, adding that Russia had no intention of “establishing military blocs or engaging in open confrontation with our partners.”

Ivanov’s comments would be reassuring if Russia was truly a democracy and partner of ours. The facts suggest otherwise.

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