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Former NATO Commander On President Trump's Changing Messages About The Alliance


This week, President Trump asked NATO to get more involved in the Middle East. He even suggested a new name for the military alliance.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: NATO - right? - and then you have ME, Middle East. You'll call it NATOME. I said, what a beautiful name, NATOME. I'm good at names, right?

SHAPIRO: That enthusiasm surprised people who remember Trump saying this about the military alliance in 2016.


TRUMP: NATO is obsolete. It's old. It's fat. It's sloppy.

SHAPIRO: Admiral James Stavridis spent four years as Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, and he joins us now.


JAMES STAVRIDIS: Good to be on with you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What was your first reaction to the president's enthusiasm for NATO this week?

STAVRIDIS: Well, as a former Supreme Allied Commander, I felt pretty good. It sounds to me like he's finally figured it out that NATO is a global force for good, and he would be smart to take advantage of it. Personally, I don't think NATOME is exactly on the horizon for the alliance, but I'm just glad he's woken up and smelled the jet fuel.

SHAPIRO: Sounds like you're taking this with a grain of salt and a sense of humor.

STAVRIDIS: I think it's important that we do that all the time with this administration. But in all seriousness, there is a great deal NATO could do in the Middle East, and I hope the president pursues some of those options.

SHAPIRO: Like what?

STAVRIDIS: No. 1, we could deploy a NATO standing maritime force. We have such an entity for the Mediterranean in the Atlantic. It's six ships provided by all the different nations, and it could go to the Arabian Gulf and make sure those sea lanes of communication stay open. We could send NATO surveillance craft. We have AWACS, Global Hawks. And third and finally, we could send special forces and/or participate in cybersecurity - a lot to be done.

SHAPIRO: Why would this be better than a mission led by the United States or a coalition that's specifically assembled for these purposes?

STAVRIDIS: Well, when I was Supreme Allied Commander at NATO, I led the mission in Afghanistan, which had not only 28 NATO nations at the time, but another 22 nations. Whenever you get global buy-in for a mission, even if it begins with NATO, we could add some other nations. I think it gets this conflict out of the U.S. versus Iran channel and gets it more into a global sense of containing Iran's activities in the Middle East.

SHAPIRO: Given President Trump's attacks on NATO in the past, do you think there is an appetite among the other allies to do something like this?

STAVRIDIS: I think the appetite is relatively low, but this would not be mission impossible. Good news - we have an excellent U.S. ambassador to NATO, former Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, very competent, well-regarded. She may be able to overcome some of the angst that's been generated by the president's previous comments and pull this thing toward the finish line.

SHAPIRO: As you talked this week with people who are still involved in NATO, do they think that this is likely to actually happen or that it's just a passing idea the president had?

STAVRIDIS: I think most would tell you there will be some level of NATO additional engagement in the Middle East because most of the nations think it's a good idea. Look for something maritime as opposed to boots on the ground. Look for cybersecurity as opposed to airplanes flying overhead. But there will certainly be, in my view, some level of additional NATO engagement in the region.

SHAPIRO: Given that Iraq is asking American troops to pull out of that country, do you think having NATO take over some of the responsibility could be a solution to that problem?

STAVRIDIS: I do, and NATO has had a training mission in Iraq for a very long time. This is where NATO has already been engaged. And I think that expanding that, if the US is forced to downsize its particular footprint, would be a very elegant way to continue engaging with the Iraqis and, I think, would be more palatable to the Iraqi parliament.

SHAPIRO: Admiral James Stavridis is former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, and he's now with the Carlyle Group.

Thanks for talking with us.

STAVRIDIS: Thanks, Ari. Good to be with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.