10 January 2020
President Donald Trump thinks NATO should be expanded to include nations in the Middle East and even suggested a new name for the 70-year-old alliance: "NATO-ME" short for NATO-Middle East. “What a beautiful name — NATO-ME,'' Trump said on 9 January.
The president's suggestion came a day after he issued a vague call for more NATO involvement in the Middle East during a phone call with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (see NATO Watch News Brief, 9 January).
Trump described the NATO Secretary General as “excited” about the prospect of a Middle East expansion. “I think that NATO should be expanded, and we should include the Middle East. Absolutely,” the president told reporters, contending that the alliance should take over for the US in the region, “because this is an international problem”. “And we can come home, or largely come home and use NATO,” he continued, portraying such a move as a trade-off for Washington’s role in eliminating the Islamic State’s caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
Over the weekend, NATO announced a temporary suspension of its anti-IS training mission in Iraq, in the aftermath of a US drone attack that killed Iran’s top military commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Iran retaliated with missile strikes against bases in Iraq housing US and coalition troops.
Stoltenberg also spoke on 8 January with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the US State Department said, issuing a summary almost identical to NATO‘s description of the earlier call. Pompeo and Stoltenberg “jointly condemned Iran’s destabilizing violence and remain committed to countering international terrorism,” department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said, including through NATO‘s missions in Iraq and Afghanistan aimed at countering any resurgence of the Islamic State.
The US Ambassador to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchison, said the fight against Islamic State is important to both the United States and its NATO allies. "I think what the president is looking for is more of our allies working with us in Iraq," she told CNBC. "And that is something that our NATO Council will have to discuss and decide that we would do more".
The president did not clarify which countries in the Middle Eastern he would want to invite into NATO. NATO currently has two partnership arrangements with countries in the region: Mediterranean Dialogue (which was initiated in 1994 and currently involves Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia) and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (which was launched in 2004 and currently involves Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE). However, moving from these loose, informal arrangements to full membership of the alliance is a guaranteed non-starter.
NATO’s ‘open door policy’ is based on Article 10 of the Alliance’s founding document, the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty, which states that NATO membership is open to any “European state in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area”. It also states that any decision on enlargement must be made “by unanimous agreement”. Thus, any enlargement process to include countries in the Middle East would probably require an amendment to the treaty and agreement of the other 28 NATO member states—neither of which is remotely likely.
Since 1949, NATO has undergone seven rounds of enlargement and gone from 12 original members to 29 today. However, there is little appetite for further enlargement in Europe (beyond North Macedonia that will join later this year)—as witnessed by the protracted membership processes that have stymied aspirants Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia and Ukraine—let alone to the Middle East.
Moreover, President Trump’s earlier efforts to create a new Sunni Muslim security and political alliance in the region—tentatively called the Middle East Strategic Alliance, but often referred to as the ‘Arab NATO’—has withered on the vine. This nascent security alliance, under the de facto leadership of Saudi Arabia, was expected to include the six Gulf Cooperation Council states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) and Egypt and Jordan, but rivalries in the region (including the ongoing Saudi Arabian-led blockade of Qatar) remain major obstacles to the creation of the proposed alliance.