In recent months, Russian probing and aggression against NATO has grown both more aggressive and more frequent. While NATO should be treated as a unitary whole and not an alliance of tiers, recent Russian aggression has targeted not only Scandinavia and the Baltics, but also Great Britain and the United States. The Russian navy has recently grown so bold as to shadow U.S. aircraft carriers and other ships as they leave port and enter international waters. The Russian submarine fleet is also growing: the Russian navy will upgrade ten nuclear submarines within the next five years. Alas, many NATO countries have let their capabilities slide. Great Britain, for example, recently had to request U.S. assistance to search for a Russian submarine suspected of infiltrated its waters off Scotland. Such Russian belligerence will only become worse if Russian strongman Vladimir Putin concludes President Barack Obama’s snubs toward NATO suggest ambivalence and weakness.
During the Cold War—that is the one Washington acknowledged rather than denied—Iceland and, specifically the U.S. base at Keflavik, became crucially important to U.S. defense. (Indeed, Iceland was center stage to one of Tom Clancy’s first Cold War thrillers). Soviet submarines heading into the North Atlantic would normally traverse the GIUK [Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom] gap, and American surveillance aircraft and other anti-submarine warfare platforms would operate in the area.
In 2006, I gave a guest lecture at the Naval Air Station Keflavik. As it turned out, I was one of the last ones: The U.S. closed the facility the same year, and the Icelandic government sold off much of the base to developers. At the time, perhaps, it was a tempting way to trim the fat. After all, money needed to come from somewhere to trim the burgeoning army of civilian a short period of time more than a decade ago, I was one of them). Still, with Russia resurgent, capabilities forfeited are once again necessary. Capabilities are not simply about hardware and training, but also an infrastructure of bases from which to operate.
President Obama likes to suggest he is not a unilateralist as he cartoonishly depicts his predecessor. But increasingly he seems to be more of a unilateralist, because rather than acknowledge the reality of the rest of the world, he pursues policies and structures a defensive strategy calibrated more to his personal fantasy of how he would like the world to be than what it has actually become. The lesson of giving up Keflavik should be a lesson against the backdrop of other cutbacks: Bases are essential, even in the 21st century, because the notion of megalomaniacal and aggressive dictatorships did not end at the millennium. It may be necessary to return to Iceland, for once again the Sixth Fleet will become a center for action, rather than simply waters the U.S. Navy transits through. Let us hope the Icelanders agree, for the security of North America depends on it.