After tortuous negotiations with the foreign ministers of France, Great Britain, and Turkey, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that an agreement had been reached for the US to hand responsibility for running the no-fly zone and sea-based Libyan arms embargo operations over to NATO. NATO ministers passed the proposal in a vote Thursday evening in Brussels, but the moment of unanimity could not conceal the fissures within the coalition and the serious obstacles they pose to achieving a smooth transition of leadership and an effective solution to the Libyan conflict.
NATO ministers agreed that political decisions would be made by a committee comprising not only NATO countries but also members of the Arab League and other nations who aren’t NATO members. The exact structure of this committee has to be hashed out, as well as what kind of control it will exert over military operations against Gaddafi’s forces. This will require an entirely new vote by the ministers and it is unclear if certain coalition members will be satisfied with any plan that targets pro-Gaddafi military assets if they are located anywhere near civilians.
Just what the NATO ministers passed is somewhat confusing. The agreement would integrate the US-led no-fly zone and naval arms embargo into the alliance’s command structure immediately. That action could be completed by as early as Saturday.
But according to NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO vote did not mean an end to the so-called “no-drive zone” that the US, France, and Great Britain were enforcing by attacking Muammar Gaddafi’s army as it maneuvered near the unofficial rebel capital of Benghazi and the strategic eastern crossroad cities of Misurata and Ajdabiya.
The SG said, “At this moment, there will still be a coalition operation and a NATO operation.” The ministers have asked NATO command to come up with a plan that would also include the “protection of civilians.” But it is not expected that any plan will materialize before early next week.
Rasmussen also seemed to contradict Hillary Clinton’s statement that NATO had agreed to the handoff of offensive operations, as well as responsibility for the no-fly zone. The NATO Secretary General said that the alliance was still considering whether to take on “broader responsibility” for the conflict, referring to the hard work ahead of convincing the member countries to accept control of all military facets of the campaign.
This is where command and control is apt to get sticky. Turkey, which has balked at flying any offensive missions at all against Gaddafi’s forces, appears to be unconvinced that the motives of the alliance are on the up and up. Prime Minister Erdogan took aim at France when he said, “I wish that those who only see oil, gold mines and underground treasures when they look in that direction, would see the region through glasses of conscience from now on.” France, among other European nations, has been blocking Turkey’s membership in the European Union for years, something the Turks resent fiercely, which has contributed to their distrust of any separate command for the “no-drive zone” that France and Great Britain want to enforce.
But one question arises amid all the back and forth between the ministers that has a direct bearing on the prosecution of the war and its eventual success (or failure):
What exactly does Turkey want?
The Turkish parliament seems to have its own ideas about how far NATO can go to “protect civilians.” While authorizing Turkish participation in the naval arms embargo and no-fly zone, the parliament stopped short of endorsing any offensive operation carried out against Gaddafi’s forces. To make things even more confusing, the Turkish foreign minister contradicted his parliament by saying, “The operation will be transferred completely to NATO and there will be a single command and control.”
How does this fit into the idea of having a separate political committee of all coalition partners overseeing military operations? Nobody knows yet. It appears that what NATO ministers voted on Thursday evening was just the first step in what might be a long process of trying to satisfy all members of the alliance (votes on military action must be unanimous among the 28 members).
This will probably take some doing. France wishes to aggressively attack Gaddafi and also backs regime change, while Turkey and the Arab League are reluctant to use coalition air power to help the rebels, and are currently opposed to removing Gaddafi. France was against the idea of NATO taking control, while Italy, Turkey, and the Arab League wouldn’t continue to support the action unless it did. Germany, who pulled naval assets out of the Mediterranean because of the offensive air campaign against Gaddafi’s forces, would also look in askance at any expansion of NATO’s role beyond enforcing the no-fly zone and arms embargo. And UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon stated flatly that “the primary aim [of coalition efforts] is to provide protection for civilians, to save lives. It’s not aiming to change any regime.”
The nightmare of a fractured body working at cross purposes with itself in making military command decisions is a reality that needs to be avoided. It would almost certainly lead to unnecessary casualties, as well as an ineffective prosecution of the war. In fact, it is hard to envision how such an alliance could survive the almost guaranteed misunderstandings that will arise. The differences appear too vast to simply be papered over. Either NATO will protect civilians by killing Gaddafi’s forces or they won’t. Unless there is movement from Turkey and Germany on this issue, it is difficult to imagine how any further agreement on NATO control of the military aspect of the campaign can be reached – even if some kind of “grand coalition council” can be cobbled together in the first place to decide such matters.
There also seems to be some confusion in the Obama administration over just where we are in handing control over to NATO. Secretary Clinton seems to believe, or at least she is saying publicly, that only a few details need to be worked out before America can step back from overall command of the mission. She also said that we are already cutting back on our participation in the operation, and that in the future, once the handover is complete, American participation will be limited to a “support role.”
But the military is contradicting that roseate scenario. Vice Admiral William E. Gortney, director of the joint staff, said that even after the handover to NATO is accomplished, it is likely that American air power will still be utilized by the coalition. He said that we will still fly combat missions when requested, and no-fly zone patrols, as well as conduct operations such as intelligence gathering, refueling, and other logistical support missions.
This was apparently news to the White House, the spokesman of which, Jay Carney, told reporters that “the United States will continue to have a role, but it will not be a lead role in enforcement of the no-fly zone. It will be a support and assist role,” including jamming of communications and intelligence, he said.
For all the excitement being generated by the White House and Hillary Clinton, it appears that what happened in Brussels on Thursday evening was the first tentative step toward NATO taking control of the war. There is absolutely no guarantee that the alliance can agree to any further steps, nor can it even be foreseen whether President Obama will get his wish and be allowed to wash his hands of this messy, military and diplomatic misadventure.
And if by some slick diplomacy and impressive legerdemain by Hillary Clinton NATO can be seduced into taking responsibility for this disaster in the making, there is still no endgame, no plan for after the war, and no agreement on the ultimate fate of Muammar Gaddafi. The worst that could happen is that no workable solution will be reached in the conflict, but nobody can seem to figure out how to alter that nightmarish conclusion.
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