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Islamic State Isn't NATO's War

Tobin Harshaw writes editorials on national security, education and food for Bloomberg View. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper's letters editor.
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Now that France achieved its immediate revenge on Islamic State with a series of bombing raids on Raqqa, Syria, it has to come up with a meatier, long-term response to the Paris terrorist attacks.

One idea making the rounds is France asking NATO to invoke its Article 5, which holds that if one nation in the Atlantic alliance is attacked, each member will take "such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”

Technically, this seems within bounds. The definition of the North Atlantic "area" is pretty squishy: The only time Article 5 has been invoked was after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. This eventually resulted in the broad NATO presence in Afghanistan.

Plenty of people who know what they are talking about feel the Paris massacre rises to the same level. "Formally, I do believe that the attacks in Paris qualify for an invocation of Article 5," said Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who headed the alliance from 2009 to 2014. "I have no doubt that a NATO operation would be militarily successful."

James Stavridis, a retired U.S. admiral and former NATO supreme commander, agrees: "The fundamental purpose of a NATO mission should be to defeat the Islamic State in Syria and destroy the infrastructure it has created there." 

Some U.S. politicians, including Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, feel that if French President Francois Hollande declines to the make the request, the U.S. should do it for him. "Invoking Article 5 of the North Atlantic treaty paves the way for a truly joint and international response to ISIS," said Representative Ted Poe, a Republican of Texas. "The time to act is now, not after American blood is shed in our homeland.”

Let's think this through. Assume for a moment that, given the precedent of 9/11, and given that the Paris attacks were also carried out by a foreign-based group, Article 5 is merited. This leaves two major questions: Is France likely to do it? And would it help the West be better prepared to ramp up the fight against Islamic State?

Hollande has not indicated so far that he is considering making the invocation request, which would go to the alliances' decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council. On Monday he invoked article 42.7 of the European Union treaty, which obliges all members to offer "aid and assistance by all the means in their power" to any EU country that is "victim of armed aggression."

That article has never been invoked, and for good reason: because Europe has no real collective defense system outside NATO, that article would do more good as a piece of wallpaper than it would in keeping France safe.   French officials on Wednesday began pushing for a measure at the United Nations Security Council to authorize the use of force against Islamic State, but Russia seems likely to block it.

The French have always had a difficult relationship with NATO, pulling out of its military alliance from 1966 to 2009. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy objected to NATO taking over the Libya support campaign in 2011, saying it would complicate matters with the Gulf nations involved. Russia, with whom any new offensive would have to be coordinated, is always suspicious of the alliance. (The George W. Bush administration likewise didn't welcome the invocation of Article 5 in the aftermath of 9/11, and only resorted to NATO assistance as the scope of the mission in Afghanistan became clear.)

Above all, Article 5 commits member states to taking only such action as they deem necessary, and with the U.S. and U.K. unwilling to send in ground troops -- even, ostensibly, if France does -- it's not clear what invocation would really accomplish.

Let's imagine (it's hard, I know) that France did invoke the measure and somehow persuaded those reluctant leaders to put boots on the ground. This doesn't necessarily mean that the war effort would be placed under NATO's command structure, but that would become a real, and problematic, possibility. 

The experience in Afghanistan is cautionary. Many European allies were trained for peacekeeping, and were caught by surprise to find themselves in a counterterrorism mission. There were rival chains of command. "Because there was no unified picture, you weren't necessarily putting the right troops in the right place," said Eliot Cohen, who was a counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice from 2007 to 2009.

Involving NATO might also be bad for Europe. Russian aggression in Ukraine and threatening behavior toward the Baltic states should be the alliance's main concern right now, and having to negotiate with Russia over coordination in Syria raises all sorts of conflicts.

About the only real benefit of using Article 5 is the legal basis it would provide for the fight against Islamic State. Obama has relied so far on the 2001 authorization for the invasion of Afghanistan, and less so on the 2002 measure regarding Iraq and his constitutional authority as commander in chief, which is a pretty flimsy justification. But a far better solution is for Congress to take up the administration's proposal for a new authorization specifically tailored to this phase of the struggle against Islamic terrorism.

The best way for France's NATO allies to come to its aid is to get over their fear of sending even a small number of troops into the combat zone to work with our Kurdish and Arab proxies. We can debate whether battling Islamic State on the ground should be America's fight. But it certainly shouldn't be NATO's.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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Tobin Harshaw at

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Philip Gray at