President Donald Trump on Thursday proposed expanding NATO's membership to include Middle Eastern nations in light of recent U.S. tensions in the region with Iran.
The president's suggestion came one day after he issued a vague call for more NATO involvement in the Middle East.
In an unrelated event at the White House on Thursday, Trump discussed his phone call the day before with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, whom Trump described 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 North Atlantic military alliance should take over for the U.S. 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 leading role in eliminating the Islamic State’s physical caliphate. “It’s an international problem. We caught ISIS. We did Europe a big favor.”
“So, I have actually said that I think the scope of NATO should be increased. And they should be looking for ISIS,“ Trump added later, after repeating his long-held complaints about other alliance members‘ defense contributions. “We will help. But right now the burden is on us, and that has not been fair.”
Over the weekend, NATO announced a temporary suspension of its anti-ISIS training mission in Iraq, in the aftermath of a U.S. drone attack that took out Iran’s top military commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
The strike, which the U.S. has said was a defensive measure and aimed at disrupting an unspecified “imminent threat” from Iran, led Tehran to retaliate on Tuesday night against bases in Iraq housing U.S. troops. Trump then sought to dial back tensions on Wednesday in a nationally televised address in which he revealed plans to ask NATO to “become much more involved in the Middle East process.”
He spoke with Stoltenberg later in the day, and “emphasized the value of NATO increasing its role in preventing conflict and preserving peace in the Middle East,” according to the White House.
According to a NATO readout of the conversation, Stoltenberg and Trump “agreed that NATO could contribute more to regional stability and the fight against international terrorism. They also agreed to stay in close contact on the issue.”
Stoltenberg also spoke on Thursday with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about the potential expansion, the State Department said, issuing a summary almost identical to NATO‘s description of the Wednesday 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 ISIS.
The president did not clarify which Middle Eastern nations he would want to invite into NATO, the mutual-defense alliance created during the Cold War chiefly as an impediment to Russian aggression. NATO‘s membership, which has grown from its original 12 members to its current total of 29, is made up entirely of North American and European nations, plus Turkey, which is partially located in Asia.
But “having an international flavor there is good,“ Trump said, pointing out that a handful of NATO members remain a part of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that he withdrew the U.S. from in 2018. Tehran said earlier this week that it would abandon its commitments under that pact in the wake of Soleimani‘s killing.
At the White House on Thursday, Trump revealed how much thought he’d been putting into the issue, debuting his ideal name for the new initiative.
“NATO, right, and then you have M-E, Middle East,” he told reporters excitedly, writing in the air with his fingers. “You call it NATO-ME. What a beautiful name. I'm good at names.”
The president, who has often boasted about his branding prowess, suggested it would catch on like the abbreviation for the renegotiated trade deal with Mexico and Canada, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
“USMCA, like the song ‘YMCA,’” Trump exclaimed. “No one could remember it, USMCA. I said, think of the song: ‘YMCA.’ Now everybody says it.”
Returning to the matter at hand, he explained: “No, uh, if you add the two words, Middle East, at the end of it, because that's a big problem. That’s a big source of problems. And NATO-ME, doesn’t that work beautifully, Jon? ‘NATO’ plus ‘ME.’”