NATO's last mission? Obama and European leaders' disagreement over Libya.

Military analysis.
April 14 2011 5:59 PM

NATO's Last Mission?

The military crisis in Libya highlights an existential crisis for NATO.

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And now, in a neat twist, the British and French are yelling at us (and others) for doing the same in Libya. The British and French (and others) made clear what they would and would not do while supporting our goals in Afghanistan. Similarly, President Obama made clear what he would and would not do while supporting their goals in Libya.

Obama said he supported the idea that Qaddafi must go. But the U.N. Security Council resolution authorized the use of military force to protect Libyan civilians, and Obama said that, in pursuit of that objective, the U.S. military would provide its "unique capabilities." This meant, in the first few days, slamming Qaddafi's air-defense network with a barrage of cruise missiles—and, since then, falling back in to a support role: providing intelligence, refueling allied airplanes, jamming Qaddafi's communications, and, a few more times, destroying more of his air-defense systems but not so much of his tanks and artillery.

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As one senior U.S. military officer put it in a phone conversation today: "Almost every nation in a coalition comes into a conflict with caveats. This is our caveat."

There is admittedly something strange about this. The U.N. resolution is sufficiently broad to allow the United States to do much more. It could even be legitimately invoked to allow the killing of Qaddafi himself—under the guise of destroying a "command-control" target. But Obama has decided that, at least for now, what he's doing—in terms of spending money, diverting already-busy military assets, and risking lives (American and Libyan)—is all he's willing to do, given the political interests at stake and given that other countries, like France and Great Britain, have greater interests and adequate resources to fulfill them.

Again, welcome to coalition warfare.

Can countries like Great Britain, France, and Qatar take the lead in this campaign? Yes. They have the planes, the weapons, and crews trained in the art of using them. Can they take the lead with the same aggressiveness and concentration of force that the United States could? No. They don't have as many of the planes and weapons or the crews with the same degree of experience.

If the allies just can't hack it, they could ask the United States to resume the sort of massive air strikes we mounted in the conflict's first few days. (The planes that would carry out these strikes are standing by on alert.) But, according to Pentagon officials, no such request has been formally made.

Ultimately, the Europeans are sleeping in the beds they made. They've been talking about an independent defense force for a couple decades; the French have been doing so since the mid-1960s, when, under President Charles de Gaulle, they dropped out of NATO's military command and built their own nuclear deterrent, rejecting America's protection. (One of de Gaulle's top generals, Pierre Gallois, famously trained his dog to bark fiercely whenever anyone mentioned "les États-Unis.") Yet they haven't invested the money needed to support their strategic ambitions, knowing they can always fall back on the Americans in a pinch. I don't think this is why Obama is limiting the U.S. mission in Libya, but one effect is that it sends a message: No, you can't, not anymore, not for everything.

Will the European air forces (and the Arabs' too) take up the slack? That may be decided this week at the ministers' meetings in Qatar.

A bigger question is the one we started out with: What is NATO for, anyway? Why does it still exist? Is it a mere symbol, a fig leaf of multinational legitimacy that members can don when they take military action for their own interests? (Not that there's anything necessarily wrong with that.) Or is it—might it, at some point, actually become—a genuine alliance of near-equals? That answer will be much longer in coming—though the current twists and turns may hasten its maturation or its rupture.

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