WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday said he supported expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to include Middle Eastern nations, as the United States seeks to limit its troop footprint globally.
“I think that NATO should be expanded and we should include the Middle East, absolutely,” Trump told reporters at the White House.
Trump proposed increased NATO involvement in the Middle East on Wednesday, when he addressed the Iranian strikes against U.S. troops in Iraq, carried out in retaliation for a U.S. drone strike that killed a top Iranian military commander. The military leader, Qassem Soleimani, played a major role in the fight against Islamic State militants in the region.
Trump said Islamic State presented an international problem that other countries should help address. “We can come home, largely come home and use NATO,” Trump said. “We caught ISIS, we did Europe a big favor.”
Trump has been a critic of NATO, demanding that Europe pay more for its collective defence and make concessions to U.S. interests on trade.
Trump joked that the organisation could be called NATO-ME, or NATO plus the Middle East. He said he floated the possible name to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in a call on Wednesday.
NATO was created in 1949 as a mutual defence bulwark against the Soviet Union to promote the security of the North Atlantic area. The group, based in Brussels, has grown to 29 member nations, from 12 initially.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke on Thursday with Stoltenberg to discuss the Iranian strikes and reiterated Trump’s call for NATO to become more involved in the Middle East, the State Department said.
A State Department statement said “the two agreed NATO could contribute more to regional security and the fight against international terrorism.”
It added that Pompeo and Stoltenberg condemned Iran’s “destabilizing violence” and remained “committed to countering international terrorism, including through NATO’s participation in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and training missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
The White House said that in his call, Trump “emphasized the value of NATO increasing its role in preventing conflict and preserving peace in the Middle East.”
The U.S. Ambassador to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchison, said on Thursday the fight against Islamic State is important to both the United States and its NATO allies.
“I think what the president is looking for is more of our allies working with us in Iraq,” she told CNBC. “And that is something that our NATO Council will have to discuss and decide that we would do more.”
(This story corrects name of NATO in first paragraph.)
Reporting by Alexandra Alper, Doina Chiacu and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Dan Grebler and Bill Berkrot