Proof That NATO is Still Relevant. And Also Irrelevant.

Do French and American bombs mean that NATO is healthy?

Clearly NATO played a major role in the ability of the rebel forces to bring down Qaddafi. Though the TNC deserves credit for its efforts on the ground – particularly the apparent coordination between the TNC command in Benghazi and the sleeper rebel cells in Tripoli – the Libyan uprising would have been much shorter and not as rosy for the rebels if NATO had not stepped in. So can the Libyan intervention be used as proof that the transatlantic group is still relevant?

The idea that NATO is an antiquated invention of the Cold War that has been unable to truly adapt to the post Cold War global system is hardly new. Last year, Stephen Walt wrote about how stability in Europe, the troubles of the Afghanistan war, and disagreements over defense spending would push NATO into purgatory. This argument was repeated by George Will in June and again only several days before the coalition took Tripoli. Even former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates also warned that the coalition was in danger during the Libyan war.

George Grant believes that coordination between NATO allies is proof that NATO is still a major player on the global scene. Particularly important was that the European forces took the lead, thus proving that the alliance is not a vehicle for American foreign policy.

Winning the war is not the same as securing the peace, however, and it is to this latter endeavour that all attention must now earnestly turn. Once the threat to Libyan civilians has demonstrably receded, NATO must withdraw from Libya, in line with its mandate under UNSCR 1973. With this in mind, it is to be hoped that NATO’s role in a post-Gaddafi Libya will be far less significant than it has been to date. Nonetheless, NATO’s role in helping Libya to arrive at this point has been decisive, and of that it can rightly be proud.

Can NATO really hold up the Libya intervention as something to be proud of? Should the coordination of over 20,000 aerial sorties be considered a symbol of the vitality of the alliance? Unfortunately for Grant, this is a particularly poor way of demonstrating the strength of the alliance as a whole. Bombing missions that destabilized the Qaddafi regime were not that challenging for the members of NATO:

Although the war took longer and cost more than the pro-war party expected, the outcome was never in serious doubt. If you’re a rebel group facing a not-very-competent set of government forces, and if you can persuade the world’s strongest military powers to send sophisticated air assets to help your cause, then you can probably get rid of a pesky potentate like Qaddafi.

In other words, if Qaddafi had been able to hold off the militaries of NATO, it would have been a major disaster for not only NATO, but also for the massive military budgets of each of the individual members. Fifteen NATO members spent more on defense in 2010 than Libya, France and the UK each spend 40 times more on defense than Libya, and the US spends more than Libya’s entire GDP on R&D alone. Even without western ground troops, the ability of NATO to bring down Qaddafi was never really in question.

As James Joyner writes, the process leading up to the intervention is much more telling than the execution or final result:

Reeling from ten years of fighting in Afghanistan, most NATO forces are spent. Libya hastened the decay, using up resources to such an extent that several allies were literally out of ammunition and fuel and had to beg others for resupply. And, with austerity a way of life for the foreseeable future, few are prioritizing necessary replenishment, much less retooling for future fights.

Nor does Qaddafi’s fall paper over the weeks of squabbling among allies at the start of the operation, symptomatic of the lack of unified vision. While the new Strategic Concept agreed to last November in Lisbon said all the right things about a robust future, it’s now clear that there is neither the will nor the wallet to carry it out…

But it would be a great mistake to take the defeat of a tinpot dictator as sign that all is well. The six-month road to this victory should instead be a wake-up call.

Moreover, in June there were only eight members of NATO involved in the Libyan operations, Norway pulled out early, Denmark was running out of bombs, British naval officials said that the operations were not sustainable, and it was the disagreements between the US, Germany and Turkey that led to Gates’ warning about the future of the coalition. Despite these issues, NATO was able to aptly provide enough aerial and intelligence support to ensure the end of the Qaddafi era. The successes in Libya, though, were clearly due to the commitment of Britain, the United States and particularly France.

As Joyner said, to use the fall of Qaddafi as proof that the transatlantic alliance is doing fine is a mistake.

Photo from Coto Report

7 thoughts on “Proof That NATO is Still Relevant. And Also Irrelevant.

  1. Well, I suppose they won’t be conducting many many war games this year. No one likes the cost of war or the collateral damage women and children but there will always be charismatic narcissists who are ready to make the ultimate sacrifice (of other’s lives) for the furtherance of esoteric agendas and include the Bush doctrine in the same category as National Socialism and religious zealotry.

    1. A big issue is not necessarily who will push for military action but who will pay for it. Britain and France really took the lead in Libya – meaning they are less likely to carry the burden for the next NATO action. The US doesn’t want to pay for it (since it is spending nearly $14 billion a month in Iraq and Afghanistan) – Germany and Turkey have shown themselves less inclined to participate in such missions.

      And who precisely was the charismatic narcissist in the Libya intervention? Obama? Sarkozy? For all my criticism, this has been – more than perhaps any other NATO mission ever – a European led intervention, on the back of particularly Sarkozy. While I would argue that the wisdom behind intervening can certainly be debated, there were no NATO deaths and the intervention – until now at least – has resulted in less deaths than if NATO stayed out. No way to prove that, but it was not as if NATO were sacrificing the lives of others.

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