As Gaddafi Falls, NATO’s Ambitions Narrow

The divisions among allied nations about the intervention may herald changes in how NATO operates.

French Navy Rafale fighter aircraft, September 18, 2007
French Navy Rafale fighter aircraft, September 18, 2007 (Neil Bates)

For NATO, much depended on the outcome in Libya. If the most powerful military alliance in the history of the world couldn’t defeat one eccentric dictator and his relic of an army, what future was there for the organization? Although Muammar Gaddafi is now on the way out, NATO has few reasons to celebrate. It hardly has the capacity to mount a similar intervention soon.

After the United Nations authorized military action in Libya to protect anti-government protesters from a violent crackdown by the Gaddafi regime, Britain, France and the United States launched an immediate effort to disrupt its ability to target civilians. Airstrikes and special forces operations during the next six months helped the country’s armed opposition headquartered in the eastern city of Benghazi advance on Tripoli where they claimed victory this week.

After a no-fly zone was effectively in place, the United States chose to play a supportive role in the NATO mission. After they had disabled virtually all of the Libyan air defenses in less than 24 hours and destroyed many of the country’s airfields during the initial offensive, the Americans expected NATO to take the lead which meant Britain and France — the two countries that had pushed for a military intervention despite America’s reluctance to be embroiled in yet another conflict in the Muslim world.

After two months, at a G8 summit in Deauville, France, the allies called on the United States for additional support. Although President Barack Obama insisted in London before the conference that there weren’t “a whole bunch of secret, super effective air assets in a warehouse somewhere” that could immediately be deployed, what was asked of the American were less than a dozen airplanes to provide close air support for rebel forces on the ground — a type of airplane which none of the other NATO countries had.

The United States were flying about a quarter of all air missions over Libya, including refueling and intelligence sorties, while unmanned drone aircraft struck a number of targets. American fighter jets weren’t particularly involved after the first days of the intervention, much to the chagrin of European allies.

The Americans, in turn, were reminded once again that they shoulder the defense burden in NATO as European countries rely on their overwhelmingly military superiority to underfund their own armed forces.

Former defense secretary Robert Gates criticized the military ineptitude of his allies before he resigned this summer, chastising them for running “short of munitions” a mere eleven weeks into the intervention, “requiring the US, once more, to make up the difference.”

France announced that it had to withdraw its single aircraft carrier from operations off the coast of Libya two weeks ago. Norway stopped flying sorties over the country altogether earlier this month and many NATO countries, notably Germany and Turkey, didn’t participate at all.

Whereas the huge disparity between American and European contributions to NATO’s defense force has been historic, the stark and public division within its ranks over the Libyan intervention was quite unheard of.

Germany and Italy, two major Libyan trading partners, as well as Turkey, which has pursued a foreign policy that is more independent of the West in recent years, were skeptical of the effort. Germany even abstained from voting on the Security Council resolution that mandated military action in February. Its United Nations ambassador warned at the time that the West risked being dragged into a protracted conflict in Libya and better not expect “quick results with few casualties.” His predictions certainly bore out.

If Libya is a harbinger of things to come, NATO could become less coherent with member states deciding individually whether to participate in allied missions or not. Allowing nations to opt out of particular endeavors without even providing token support may be necessary to ensure the alliance’s relevance into the future as there is no longer an external enemy menacing all of the allies’ security and interests.

Another change could be NATO returning to protect Europe and Europe’s direct sphere of interest instead undertaking police missions around the world.

After the Balkans, Afghanistan was the alliance’s first true test of whether it could operate “out of area” and no one liked it. With few exceptions, the Europeans didn’t care to engage wholeheartedly while their limited mandates inhibited the necessary flexibility of American commanders on the ground. A more defined role for NATO, both in scope (“bombing for peace”) and geography (in and near Europe) seems likely, leaving operations farther away to individual members states or temporary coalitions of the willing as was the case in Côte d’Ivoire this year, where France singlehandedly restored order after a disputed presidential election, as well as in Iraq, where Britain and the United States led the invasion.

It’s not a terrible prospect for an alliance that has looked for relevance since the end of the Cold War. The very reason NATO was founded was “just in case” so maybe it shouldn’t be considered a setback for the organization to narrow its ambitions and wait for the next opportunity to prove itself useful.

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