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Reasonable people can disagree about the merits of intervening in Libya. Indeed, conservatives are divided over the war, with some arguing that intervention was unnecessary because Libya poses no threat to U.S. interests, others arguing that supporting the rebels is very much in the American tradition of assisting pro-freedom movements, others arguing that the U.S. has a special role in the world and can’t sit by while civilians are being butchered, and still others citing the need to help longtime allies in France, Italy and Britain, whose security could be threatened by the fallout. Setting aside that debate, which will go on as long as the war lasts, let’s stipulate that intervention prevented Moammar Qaddafi from turning Benghazi into another Srebrenica and the rest of eastern Libya into another Rwanda. The U.S. in specific and NATO in general deserve credit for preventing such a massacre. However, after trying to do the right thing, NATO and the U.S. are going about it the wrong way.
As before—in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan—NATO’s latest war by committee is producing its share of headaches. Dubbed “Unified Protector,” the NATO operation above and around Libya is not exactly living up to its name.
First, the allies are anything but unified. Italy, for example, threatened to block the use of its airbases if NATO didn’t take full control of the operation. Germany warned NATO not to try to do too much. France, which wanted to bypass NATO altogether and develop a Franco-Anglo-American command, is pursuing regime change. Turkey lectured the rest of the alliance about “pointing a gun” at Libya and is now freelancing a ceasefire deal. And the U.S. was always more focused on handing off the operation than on carrying out the objectives of the operation. Early on, the White House talked about a “time-limited, scope-limited” mission. In fact, the U.S. was so eager to step back from the lead role it played in the first week of Unified Protector that NATO now has to request assistance from U.S. aircraft before they will be deployed on strike missions.
Not surprisingly, as soon as the U.S. receded into the “supporting role” promised by President Barack Obama, the intensity and effectiveness of the air war diminished:
- “NATO has disappointed us,” rebel military commander Abdul Fatah Younis said after NATO failed to provide adequate air support to rebel forces in the port city of Misrata. “If NATO wanted to remove the siege on Misrata, they would have done so days ago,” he added.
- Similarly, Ali al-Essawi, the foreign policy director for Libya’s Transitional National Council, blamed “bureaucratic delays” within NATO for “putting civilians’ lives at risk,” according to The New York Times.
- The Financial Times notes that “Britain and France are straining to fill the gap left by Washington’s decision to pull back.”
In fact, although 17 nations are contributing air assets to Unified Protector, only France and Britain are allowing their planes to fly without restrictions, The Washington Post reports.
Hence, French foreign minister Alaine Juppe has called on NATO to “play its role in full…which means preventing Qaddafi from using heavy weapons to bomb populations.” Juppe describes NATO’s current tempo and tactics as “not sufficient.”
Likewise, his British counterpart, William Hague, recently urged nations participating in the Libya intervention to “expand our efforts in NATO,” pointedly adding, “That is why the United Kingdom in the last weeks supplied additional aircraft capable of striking ground targets that threaten the civilian population. Of course, it would be welcome if other countries did the same.”
Hague is politely directing his message at Washington. The U.S. accounted for 90 of the 206 NATO planes initially deployed in support of Unified Protector, and an even higher percentage of the planes capable of carrying out precision ground-attack missions. However, according to Air Force Magazine, the U.S. Air Force contribution to Unified Protector has plummeted to just 39 planes.
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