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.
The allies privately say they need U.S. A-10s in the fight. These heavily armed and thickly armored planes are designed to hunt and kill ground targets at close range. They were used to great effect in the first week of the Libya operation, when the U.S. was in the lead. But now they are on the bench, like most of America’s air assets.
What an ironic role reversal. In most NATO operations, it’s the U.S. that has to beg the allies to remove restrictions on their forces and commit more assets. Known as the “caveat” rule within NATO, these restrictions allow allies to opt out of certain missions. France, Germany, Italy and Spain, for instance, have played the caveat card repeatedly in Afghanistan. In late 2010, Denmark refused a NATO request for additional F-16 jets in Afghanistan. Italy doesn’t even permit its fighter-bombers in Afghanistan to carry bombs.
If civilian lives, America’s reputation and U.S. interests weren’t at stake, it would be difficult to blame Washington for relishing the way the tables have turned or even for experiencing some momentary schadenfreude.
But the reality is civilian lives and American interests are in play. Libya represents not just a humanitarian challenge. It also represents a real national security challenge. Libya’s former ambassador to the U.S. recently warned that, if left in power, Qadaffi would plot terrorist attacks against the United States. We know from his bloody record in the 1980s that Qadaffi has the capacity and means to deploy terrorists against U.S. targets overseas. And after being bombed for weeks or months by NATO, he will also have the motive.
Equally troubling when it comes to national security, Libya has an estimated 14 tons of mustard gas, according to intelligence sources cited by The Wall Street Journal. As the Libyan military splinters and as the country disintegrates, it’s not difficult to imagine those stockpiles falling into worse hands. The candidates are numerous: al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb; a rogue Libyan faction; Qadaffi’s mercenary army from Chad, Sudan and Niger; or a post-uprising Qadaffi—even more paranoid and more unhinged than the man President Reagan aptly described as “squalid” and “Looney Tunes.”
If the Obama administration didn’t care about the situation in Libya, it should never have signed up. Wars are not time-limited affairs and should never be treated as distractions or back-burner issues. But that’s what Libya appears to be for Obama. As a State Department official explains, “The U.S., of course, as needed, would help out if requested in other capacities. But, really, our role has receded.”
And it shows. As The Los Angeles Times reports, U.S. warplanes have bombed just three ground targets since that first-week flurry came to an end. Without the full complement of U.S. air assets, NATO simply cannot sustain the operational tempo or employ the tactics it brought to bear in the initial strikes on Qaddafi, which explains why NATO appears to be failing at the crucial part of this mission: protecting the Libyan people from Qaddafi and his henchmen. Benghazi may be shielded, but the rest of Libya is not.
This was foreseeable in two ways: On a micro, mission-specific level, as Gen. Charles Horner, who commanded coalition air forces during Desert Storm, predicted weeks ago, “Failure to fully unleash air power will allow Qaddafi to play for time…and otherwise frustrate the coalition’s attempts to protect Libyan civilians.” If the U.S. Air Force is on the bench, NATO is, by definition, failing to fully unleash its air power.
On a more macro, alliance-wide level, a NATO military operation not led by the U.S. military is a risky experiment. That’s because the United States invests in defense. The rest of NATO, by and large, does not. While the United States spends about 4 percent of its GDP on the common defense—a GDP that is enormous relative to that of its NATO allies—only five NATO members meet the alliance’s standard of investing 2 percent of GDP on defense. Even Britain, America’s nearest technological peer within NATO, invested only 2.9 percent of GDP on defense in 2010. And that number is plummeting amid Britain’s massive defense cuts.
This is not to say that the experiment known as Unified Protector will fail, but rather that “time-limited, scope-limited” wars are not the best way to solve problems like Qaddafi—and that neither NATO nor the world is ready for the United States to recede into a “supporting role.”
Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security issues.