Lesson From Libya: NATO Alliance Remains Relevant

By Ian Brzezinski
NATO’s six-month campaign against Moammar Gadhafi yielded a much-needed success for an alliance fatigued, if not disillusioned, by the war in Afghanistan and financially drained by the debt crisis. Operation Unified Protector, executed by a coalition of European, North American, and Arab forces, prevented a brutal massacre in Benghazi, helped the Libyan opposition to route Gadhafi and his regime from Tripoli, and thereby enhanced the prospects that Libya’s future will be decided by its citizens. 

As the fighting in Libya creeps to an end, a number of conclusions concerning NATO and its future appear justified.

NATO’s air war and blockade against Gadhafi demonstrated that the alliance remains relevant and militarily useful. The Libyan rebels could not have toppled the Gadhafi regime — or even survived — without NATO’s support, particularly the precision air strikes that steadily degraded his military forces.  

Despite efforts by Paris to preclude a NATO role, the alliance emerged as the sole organization capable of this undertaking. Only NATO had the proven command-and-control structures and the political credibility necessary to quickly integrate allies and non-allies, including Qatar, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, into a cohesive fighting force.  

Although Unified Protector was directed at a weak opponent, its complex air operation serves as a powerful reminder that the interoperability NATO generates among militaries is valuable and should not be taken for granted.

Ironically, it may be France that will benefit most from this lesson. As pointed out by Damon Wilson, vice president of the Atlantic Council, Unified Protector was the first time that France achieved a significant national objective through NATO. This fact alone has the potential to significantly erode the remaining vestiges of Gaullism that causes some in Paris to remain suspicious, if not resentful, of the alliance’s role in European affairs.

At the same time, it must also be acknowledged that the war in Libya underscored the continued military shortcomings of NATO’s European members. Unified Protector could not have been executed without the United States providing a significant portion of the deployed capacity. The preponderance of the initial salvo that disabled Gadhafi’s air defense came from U.S. forces, and afterwards U.S. aircraft were relied on heavily for intelligence gathering, surveillance, air-to-air refueling, electronic jamming and the suppression of enemy air defenses. European allies soon ran out of precision-guided munitions and other key wartime consumables and had to turn to U.S. inventories for replenishment.  

Indeed, it is eye-opening that countries like France and Italy found themselves for financial and logistical reasons unable to sustain their operations against Libya. After over two decades of reduced defense budgets, Europe appears incapable of sustaining even a small war against a weak opponent located practically next door. NATO’s victory in Libya did not contradict former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ warning about Europe’s degrading military capabilities; on the contrary, it confirmed it.

More fundamentally, the war demonstrated that NATO works best when the United States provides decisive commitment and leadership. Unified Protector was the first major NATO operation in which the United States chose not to take charge, opting instead to “lead from behind.” The ambiguity of Washington’s commitment to the war contributed to muddled aims and a strategy that prolonged the conflict, and its consequent blood letting and suffering.

“Leading from behind” was, in fact, a particularly poor choice of words by the U.S. administration. It created the impression that the United States was minimizing its commitment and risk while trying to take credit from those allies, particularly France and the United Kingdom, who stood first and called for action against Gadhafi’s brutality. It arrogantly implies that our allies are incapable of leading. And, the phrase contributes to the declining confidence many Europeans have in Washington’s commitment to their security.

In addition to taking a backseat, the United States for the first time became a “caveat nation.” This phrase refers to a decision by nations to restrict or “caveat” the missions their forces will execute in a military operation. Such caveats complicate and undercut military missions, and until now, have been consistently condemned by Washington. By precluding its forces from undertaking strike missions in Libya, President Obama gave unprecedented legitimacy to a practice inimical to effective coalition operations.

Regrettably, Unified Protector thus reflected a decline in alliance solidarity. NATO decisions are made by consensus — that is agreement by every member of the alliance  — a process that infers all or most allies with needed capabilities will contribute to the undertaking, as has been the case in NATO operations Afghanistan and the Balkans. Little more than a handful of NATO’s 28 members proved willing to fly strike missions in Libya. Unified Protector has been less of a NATO mission than a mission undertaken by a “coalition of the willing” through NATO. Without a doubt, the U.S. decision “to lead from behind” and its exercise of caveats are precedents that made it easier for allies to “sit this one out.”

Looking to the future, partnerships with non-NATO allies are likely to be increasingly important for the alliance. Sweden, which is not a member of NATO, contributed to the air campaign. The political and military efforts of Morocco, Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates were very much a product of the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul Cooperation Council, NATO’s outreach to North Africa and the Persian Gulf. In an age when NATO has to be prepared to undertake complex expeditionary operations farther afield than Libya, partnerships around the globe can offer needed military capabilities as well as valuable intelligence and political support.

Finally, NATO’s small allies are important. At times, some 25 percent of Unified Protector combat missions were executed by NATO’s smaller allies, including Demark, Belgium and Norway. U.S. policy has an unfortunate tendency to try and shape NATO decisions primarily through the leadership of the “quad” — involving the United Kingdom, France and Germany, the traditional powers of Europe, the last of whom balked on Libya. However, the smaller allies, particularly those found in Central Europe and Scandinavia, are consistently pro-U.S. They are strong advocates of democracy globally, and as Denmark and Norway demonstrated in Libya, often punch militarily above their weight.  Washington should direct more of its time and attention to leverage the leadership of these regions in its efforts to address matters of transatlantic concern.

NATO’s success in Libya is one for which we all should be grateful. Nonetheless, Unified Protector also provides a powerful reminder of the risks to NATO’s vitality that flow from Europe’s declining military capabilities and uncertain U.S. leadership. A comprehensive review of NATO’s political and military performance should be high on the agenda when NATO leaders convene for their next summit in Chicago in May.

Ian Brzezinski leads the Brzezinski Group, a strategic advisory firm. He is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, and served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for European Policy and NATO.

Topics: International

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