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.

Libya. Click image to expand.
Libyan soldiers

Cries of alarm ring out from Italy, Qatar, Great Britain, and France that the NATO allies aren't doing enough to help the Libyan rebels stave off Muammar Qaddafi's troops and mercenaries.

Two thoughts come to mind: First, that's three more countries than usual complaining about NATO's lackluster response to an allied call to arms. Usually, it's the United States yelling at Europeans for not pulling their share of some burden. Second, whichever side of the Atlantic is wagging the finger or mumbling excuses, the question that everyone's tried to brush off the table for the past 20 years remains stubbornly in place: What is NATO for, anyway? Why does it still exist?

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Libya marks only the third time in NATO's 62-year history that the alliance members have joined forces in battle. The first two were in Kosovo and Afghanistan. None of the three wars has had anything to do with the reasons for the alliance's creation. Nor has any of the three wars been waged as a unified alliance. In this sense, the strategic incoherence of the Libyan operation, and the frustrations it's unleashed, are nothing new.

All through the Cold War, NATO's purpose was clear: to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down—in other words, to deter a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, to lock the United States into leading the defense against an invasion should it occur, and (through the large U.S. military presence) to pre-empt the resurgence of a mighty Germany in the meantime.

In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended, an existential shiver ran down the collective spine of the trans-Atlantic military establishments. What was the mission of the alliance, of the Western nations' armed forces? Who was the enemy, what was the threat? At the end of that decade, an answer emerged. In the absence of a United Nations resolution (which Russia would surely have vetoed), the member-nations of NATO joined forces to mount an air campaign to defend Kosovo from Serbia's brutal suppression—and ultimately to oust from power the Serbian dictator, Slobodan Milosevic. Neither Kosovo nor Serbia was a member of NATO, whose charter mandated collective defense against an external attack. Still, the crisis was erupting in the heart of Europe, the alliance's "area of operation," and so military action could be justified.

Then, in 2006, NATO took over the command from U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Had NATO led the initial invasion, in 2001-02, it could have invoked Article 5 of the charter, declaring that an attack on one member—in this case, al-Qaida's attack on the United States—was an attack on all. But four-and-a-half years into the war, such a rationale would have seemed lame. No, this was—explicitly—a dramatic expansion in the mission. NATO was now an allied expeditionary force in the global war on terrorism.

In fact, though, this force wasn't exactly a unified alliance. Even in Kosovo, which truly was Europe's war, all of the NATO members had a hand in selecting targets and approving strategy (the campaign was denounced at the time as "war by committee"), but U.S. combat planes did the vast bulk of the fighting. Of the 28,018 bombs and munitions dropped in that 78-day air campaign, 23,315—or 83 percent of them—were American.

Afghanistan, too, has been a predominantly U.S. war. During the last two years of George W. Bush's presidency, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates harangued the Europeans several times to do their part and send more troops. He worried in congressional testimony that NATO was "evolving into a two-tiered alliance, in which you have some allies willing to fight and die to protect people's security and others who are not."

But NATO had always been an unequal alliance, even during the Cold War days, when—by necessity and interest—the United States spent the most money and deployed the majority of troops.

As for the mission in Afghanistan, NATO took command in the summer of 2006 under the assumption that it was mainly a peacekeeping mission. Then, as the troops went into the southern districts, the Taliban came out to fight—it turned out they'd never gone away. Once the member-nations realized this was a war, they declared "caveats" to their commitments: Some would let their troops be stationed in the north but not the south; others would let them fight in the air but not on the ground; others would let them go anywhere but only return fire, not initiate it. Dozens of caveats were declared (some have since been dropped, but the vast majority remain), and the commanders assented because, by this time, the war was seen as a test of NATO's relevance in the post-Cold War world—so it was better to keep all the members happy, in the name of "alliance cohesion," even if it meant a severe compromise to "unity of command."

When Gates took the helm at the Pentagon in 2006, he was properly outraged at the disunity. But, as he soon realized, he had little basis for yelling at the European ministers; they'd never signed up for the obligations that he accused them of shirking.

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.

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.