Leadership: Dutch Courage


April 25, 2012: The Netherlands did not increase their defense spending last year, and it remained at $11.2 billion. Taking inflation into account that means their defense spending actually decreased 2.9 percent. The government is also planning major cuts, especially now that Dutch combat troops are out of Afghanistan (since 2010). Soon the defense budget will be cut over ten percent in absolute terms. As a result there will be major cuts in the number of warships, armored vehicles, and combat aircraft. Personnel will be cut ten percent, down to about 60,000 (for the entire Ministry of Defense).

This is all part of a post-Cold War trend, which has led to East Asia, for the first time in centuries, spending more on defense than Western Europe. For the last six years the Dutch are having a hard time deciding what's worth fighting for. The Netherlands, as part of NATO, was obliged to send troops to Afghanistan, which it did for four years. In 2007, Dutch troops were sent south into Taliban country. This created more risk for the Dutch troops. Before that they patrolled a largely peaceful city. In the south there were plenty of hostile people with guns. An opinion poll in January, 2006, found that 45 per cent of the Dutch favored sending the troops south, while 47 per cent were opposed.

While anti-Americanism was high in Europe, the Dutch had some historical baggage causing them to resist participating in Afghan peacekeeping. The most traumatic item was a 1995 incident, where a battalion of Dutch infantry stood aside as Serb troops killed over 7,000 Moslems the Dutch were protecting at Srebrenica. Going back to World War II the Dutch put up an ineffective defense when the Nazis invaded in 1940. Thereafter, many Dutch cooperated with the Nazis and thousands volunteered to serve with the German armed forces in the war against Russia.

During the Cold War the Dutch dutifully provided forces for the common defense of Western Europe against the Russian armies massed along the Iron Curtain. The Dutch were often criticized for some of their practices, like a union for their troops and long haired soldiers. But Dutch troops always excelled in military competitions and exercises. The Dutch have a long and impressive military tradition. Even after their experience in World War II, everyone expected them to fight if the Russians invaded. But then the Cold War ended and the United States and Europe drifted apart on the subject of what was worth fighting for.

Many Dutch believe sending their troops to Afghanistan, to do "hard" (dangerous) peacekeeping, would just make it easier for the United States to continue peacekeeping in Iraq. Many Dutch believed the Iraq invasion was a mistake and that the United States running around, removing dictators from power, was a threat to world peace. At the same time, many Dutch feel that their soldiers should have a chance to show that they can do the right thing in peacekeeping. So do many Dutch soldiers. The massacre at Srebrenica caused a lot of soul searching and it was considered a very shameful incident.

The Dutch parliament eventually approved sending Dutch troops to Afghanistan but in order to get the votes, agreed to impose a very restrictive "rules of engagement" (ROE). This, of course, was the main cause of the disaster at Srebrenica. Thus the Dutch set themselves up for another embarrassing situation. That didn't happen. The Dutch troops saw some action for several years and 25 were killed. But with their forces out of Afghanistan there is little opposition to more cuts, bringing defense spending to less than one percent of GDP. The remaining force will be reorganized for peacekeeping missions but only less violent ones than in Afghanistan.


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