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NATO in Libya

A one-of-a-kind intervention.

Oct 10, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 04 • By GARY SCHMITT and JAMIE M. FLY
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The scene was one of jubilation, as British prime minister David Cameron and French president Nicolas Sarkozy arrived in Libya’s capital on September 15 to cheering throngs waving British and French flags. The two men basked in the glow of victory, as well they should. Both had advocated armed intervention after the Libyan people rose up in February against dictator Muammar Qaddafi, and they had done so well before other international leaders—including President Barack Obama. 

Photo of U.S. Navy planes flying over the ocean

Even though Qaddafi loyalists still control several towns and their toppled leader is on the run, talk has turned to the implications of NATO’s intervention in Libya for the broader Arab Spring and for future responses to situations in which rebellious populations are threatened by thuggish and murderous rulers.

In Tripoli, Cameron spoke of Libya’s relevance. “This does go beyond Libya. This is a moment when the Arab Spring could become an Arab Summer and we see democracy advance in other countries, too. I believe you have the opportunity to give an example to others about what taking back your country can mean.” Sarkozy made a direct connection to Syrians facing down Bashar al-Assad’s snipers. “The best thing I can do,” he said, “is dedicate our visit to Tripoli to those who hope that Syria can one day also be a free country.” Similarly, the Obama administration—which took considerable flak for an anonymous official’s characterization to Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker of its policy in Libya as “leading from behind”—began to tout the applicability of Libya to future interventions. 

Deputy National Security Adviser for Communications Ben Rhodes told Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin that a Libya-style approach would form the basis for future Obama administration interventions. “It’s far more legitimate and effective for regime change to be pursued by an indigenous political movement than by the United States or foreign powers,” said Rhodes. “Secondly, we put an emphasis on burden sharing, so that the United States wasn’t bearing the brunt of the burden and so that you had not just international support for the effort, but also meaningful international contributions.”

But how applicable is this model of indigenous regime change supported by an international coalition with the United States in a supporting role to future efforts to prevent atrocities?

The reality, gleaned from meetings we recently held in London and Paris, the capitals that took the lead, is quite different. In fact, some wonder whether the example of Libya will hinder, not assist, Western responses to similar contingencies.

First, there is the matter of military capabilities. While the French and British, along with the Danes and Norwegians in particular, carried out the bulk of the airstrikes, and European navies provided the vast majority of vessels involved in the blockade, it was American air and sea forces that opened the campaign with critical attacks on Libyan air defenses, allowing other forces to operate in and over Libya with the impunity they enjoyed. And, even after this initial stage, American niche capabilities, such as air-to-air refueling, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, including the use of unmanned aerial vehicles—along with an ability to keep Europeans supplied with precision munitions—were key to the success of the operation, as French and British officials readily admit. 

So while it’s certainly true that the United States was not at the forefront of the day-to-day effort, it would be misleading to suggest that the American role was secondary. And given the general reluctance of the president to involve the United States in the Libyan campaign at all and his pledge of no American “boots on the ground,” European strategists are fully aware that the campaign may be a one-off rather than a game plan for the future.

Moreover, although the relative ease with which opposition forces eventually pushed to the capital and the scenes of jubilation in Tripoli are fresh in people’s minds, the reality is that the operation created significant strains within NATO. 

Germany abstained from the vote on Security Council Resolution 1973, its foreign minister going so far as to imply at one point that Germany would refrain from choosing sides, even after NATO intervened. Of those NATO members that participated, many did not have the military capabilities to make a significant contribution, and NATO’s “in-house” capabilities for running the war were soon found to be inadequate. Given who fought and who didn’t, talk of a north/south divide within the alliance is rampant in Europe and has reinforced French notions that significant reform of NATO is necessary. In short, whether the alliance would soon be up to another campaign of this sort is anybody’s guess.

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