THE war in Libya may be one of those quietly telling moments in the history of more important nations. For the first time, the United States has taken a secondary role — “leading from behind,” if “leading” is even the right word — in a war prosecuted by the NATO alliance and driven by Britain and France, the two strongest military powers in Europe.
But oh what a war! More than six budget-busting months against one of the weakest militaries in the world, with shortages of planes, weapons and ammunition that were patched over by the pretense that NATO was acting simply to “protect civilians,” when it was clear to everyone that the alliance was intervening on one side of a civil war. All resemblances to the Kosovo war, of course, are a priori inadmissible. That was the war — 78 days of bombing Serbia and thousands dead before Slobodan Milosevic finally capitulated — when NATO said: “Such a success, never again!” Yet here we are — with the “responsibility to protect” the new mantra, replacing Kosovo’s “humanitarian intervention.” Both are debatable, given the failure to intervene in the separatist Russian republic of Chechnya then and Syria, Bahrain or Yemen now.
Libya has been a war in which some of the Atlantic alliance’s mightiest members did not participate, or did not participate with combat aircraft, like Spain and Turkey. It has been a war where the Danes and Norwegians did an extraordinary number of the combat sorties, given their size. Their planes and pilots became exhausted, as the French finally pulled back their sole nuclear-powered aircraft carrier for overdue repairs and Italy withdrew its aircraft carrier to save money.
Only eight of the 28 allies engaged in combat, and most ran out of ammunition, having to buy, at cost, ammunition stockpiled by the United States. Germany refused to take part, even in setting up a no-fly zone.
Although Washington took a back seat in the war, which the Obama administration looked at skeptically from the start, the United States still ran the initial stages, in particular the destruction of Libya’s air defenses, making it safe for its NATO colleagues to fly. The United States then provided intelligence, refueling and more precision bombing than Paris or London want to acknowledge. Inevitably, then, NATO air power and technology, combined with British, French and Qatari “trainers” working “secretly” with the rebels on the ground, have defeated the forces, some of them mercenary, of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
The question, however, is whether European members of NATO will ever decide to embark on such an adventure again.
Either Europeans will develop the security and defense identity they have advertised for so long, so Europe can have its own credible voice in a world not only run by soft power, or given the expense and difficulties of defeating even Libya, they will simply stop trying. The jury is out, but the verdict is important.
Some defense experts, like Tomas Valasek of the London-based Center for European Reform, suggest that Washington’s diplomacy worked, in that during the Libyan conflict “the allies established a new division of labor for NATO operations on Europe’s borders, which should be encouraged.”
Possibly. And just possibly, given the cost and strain of the Libyan operation, combined with the vital necessity to cut budget deficits at home to save both the euro zone and themselves, even the eight European nations that fought will decide that a real European security and defense identity is too expensive and that their already shrinking defense budgets will continue to shrink past the point of utility — at least to Washington. After all, the European Union itself played no role at all in the war.
François Heisbourg, a French defense analyst with the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris, said that the decisions made in Washington to “lead from behind” and in Berlin not to participate at all will have “major strategic consequences for both NATO and the European Union.”
The lack of a sustained American “shock and awe” campaign probably left more of Libya’s infrastructure intact for the new government, he noted. But less happily, he said, “if ‘leading from behind’ becomes the rule rather than the exception” — which he regards as likely given United States budget cuts — “then European force planners will have to invest” in air-defense suppression and more close-air support.
How likely, after all, is that? And if France, Britain and others do invest more in those areas, they will have to cut in others and will be less likely to engage in over-the-horizon expeditions like the war in Afghanistan.
So Libya may be a dark model for NATO’s future: internal coalitions of the willing, hemmed in by conditions and national “caveats,” running out of ammunition and targets, with inadequate means to achieve stated political goals.
The economic crisis has only exacerbated Europe’s unwillingness to live up to its grand ambitions to play a global role in foreign and defense matters. The biting complaints of Robert Gates, the former United States defense secretary, about the fading of Europe and a “dim if not dismal future” for an increasingly “irrelevant” alliance, were only an echo, if said more harshly, of similar speeches that many NATO secretaries general have made before him.
In February, at the Munich Security Conference, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen of NATO ominously noted that in the last two years alone European defense spending had shrunk by $45 billion — the equivalent of Germany’s entire military budget. Only France, Britain and Greece (which can’t afford it), are spending the agreed 2 percent of G.D.P. on defense, and Britain is now cutting sharply. If those trends continue, Mr. Rasmussen said, “we risk a divided Europe” and “a Europe increasingly adrift from the United States.” He noted the rise of China and the impatience of Washington: “If Europe becomes unable to make an appropriate contribution to global security, then the United States might look elsewhere for reliable defense partners.”
There is also the moral question. In Libya, NATO allies ran roughshod over the United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing military means to protect civilians — not intervention on one side of a civil and tribal war. France and Britain dismiss that argument, saying that it is trumped by the defense of Benghazi and the need to remove Colonel Qaddafi from power and that every Qaddafi supporter with a weapon was a threat to civilians, even if they themselves were civilians.
But there is no example of NATO intervening to protect civilian supporters of Colonel Qaddafi from the rebels. And a strong case can be made that the commitment to the “sideshow” of Libya has meant the impossibility of getting Russia and China to act even with economic sanctions on Syria, where the moral argument and the “responsibility to protect” civilians is clearer.
The Atlantic alliance, like the European Union, is suffering from a predictable post-Soviet hangover, combined with the strains of rapid expansion to countries that have sharply divergent views about Moscow, Ukraine, Georgia, the Middle East and the real threats to Europe. NATO leaders, in their latest strategic doctrine, tried to find credible threats to Europe from matters like piracy, when the real rationale for the organization vanished along with the Soviet tanks along the Elbe.
As for Afghanistan, the less said, the better. NATO allies are having a long collective buyer’s remorse over their post-9/11 declaration of war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Britain and France, still losing troops and spending more per day there than they did over Libya, can’t wait to leave. Few in Europe, at least, any longer think that the war can be won in any traditional sense, that there will be any glorious ending or even that the impact of this latest Western involvement will be lasting.
Source: New York Times