Libya unrest: It's completely bogus to say the mission in Libya is a "NATO operation."

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
April 11 2011 8:25 PM

Mission Facade

It's completely bogus to call the war in Libya a "NATO operation."

Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. Click image to expand.
Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi

On a tour of a Tripoli hospital last week, a Libyan government escort showed Western journalists evidence of the "civilian casualties" caused by NATO airstrikes. They weren't fooled, and he knew it. "This is not even human blood!"he cried, disgusted by his own government's pathetic propaganda.

The incident made for a few amusing newspaper stories:  We Western journalists love to mock the foreign dictators who try to manipulate us. But how often do we notice the more delicate fibs told by our own leaders?  It isn't quite so blatant as fake blood, but when Western leaders talk about the Libyan campaign as a "NATO operation" they are, at the very least, being economical with the truth.

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Think about it: There was no NATO discussion of the operation, no debate, no vote, no joint planning.  Technically, the North Atlantic Treaty itself operates only in the wake of an attack on a NATO member. The war in Afghanistan did in fact follow such an attack and was in the beginning widely perceived as a war against a common enemy. Libya is different: There was no attack, there is no common enemy, and now there is no consensus.

Two very important NATO members, Germany and Turkey, openly oppose the Libya mission and are refusing to play any operational role. A number of smaller members have made their objections known behind the scenes and aren't sending anything much beyond the odd crate of food. The NATO secretary-general has spent the last several days calling around Europe's secondary capitals, asking for planes. More than once, he has been refused.

Even those who support the mission aren't doing much about it.  With a certain flourish, the Swedish parliament approved the use of Swedish planes for the first time in more than 40 years. Alas, the Swedish jets are allowed only to enforce the no-fly zone: That means they can shoot down Libyan government planes but cannot bomb ground targets. Since there aren't any more Libyan government planes, this shouldn't be too difficult.

But Dutch planes operate under the same restrictions. Norwegian planes, meanwhile, are apparently allowed to bomb air bases but nothing else. Italy's planes have flown more than 100 missions but have not yet dropped a single bomb. The Canadians are doing a bit more, it is true—but Canadian politicians are bending over backward to avoid talking too much about it.

As for the United States, one could be forgiven for thinking that the American military is no longer a part of NATO at all.  It has been odd and somewhat eerie to hear American officials refer to "NATO" during the past few days as if it were something quite alien and foreign. President Obama made it clear that "NATO" will now be in control of the Libyan operation, which, to him, means that  the U.S. military is out of the picture. "It is not going to be our planes maintaining the no-fly zone," said President Obama at the beginning of the bombing campaign, and indeed American planes stopped flying several days ago.  Which is extraordinary, given that, until last week, most people assumed NATO was an American-led alliance.

In truth, the Libyan expedition is an Anglo-French project, and has been from the beginning.  Yet neither country wants responsibility for the operation—and neither feels comfortable relying on the other. The French grumble that the American withdrawal has encouraged Qaddafi; the British think the French might now be distracted by a war in their former colony, the Ivory Coast. This failure to cooperate is hardly surprising. This, after all, is the first Anglo-French military operation since the Suez escapade of 1956, and that one ended rather badly.

But if this historically unreliable Anglo-French coalition proves unable to sustain a long operation, what then? There is certainly no European force that can replace it. There isn't even a European foreign policy: Years of diplomacy, debate, and endless national referendums culminated, a couple of years ago, in the selection of two powerless figureheads as Europe's "president" and "foreign minister." Attempts to create a united European army have never moved beyond pure symbolism. If Britain and France run out of planes, fuel, money or enthusiasm, then it's over. And NATO—an organization that, I repeat, did not plan for, prepare for, or even vote for the Libyan operation—will shoulder most of the blame. The use of NATO's name, in Libya, is a fiction. But the weakening of NATO's reputation in Libya's wake might become horribly real.

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