NATO’s combat operation in Libya involves only 10 out of 28 member countries. It amounts to a coalition-of-the-willing from among NATO members, continuing a pattern set in Iraq (NATO’s flag could not be used there, but can and is being used for the Libya campaign). In Libya, furthermore, some of the willing countries operate under unilaterally-declared limitations: e.g., not bombing. This continues a pattern set in Afghanistan, where coalition members invoke “national caveats” to limit their participation in combat. Most NATO countries lack the resources or the “will” (i.e., conviction) to commit to the Libya mission. However, the operation is being conducted on NATO’s collective behalf.
The U.S.-led intervention in Iraq had politically divided NATO so deeply as to preclude the Alliance’s participation under its own name. Instead, member and partner countries joined an ad-hoc coalition, from which they eventually withdrew their contingents one by one. In Afghanistan, participant countries introduced caveats unilaterally or even ceased active combat, based on their own decisions. There, NATO is mixing civilian with military roles, as part of a wider International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in a protracted, failing mission. All this has blurred NATO’s own identity, its core military competencies and its responsibility for the success or failure of missions.
The Libya operation adds to these trends which, cumulatively, seem to presage a “NATO a la carte.” This dangerous process was not foreordained and can still be avoided in Europe. Among its reasons, perhaps the root cause involves skepticism about the missions’ declared rationales: “mass-destruction-weapons” in Iraq; “protecting Europe on the Hindukush” in Afghanistan; or a universal humanitarian responsibility in Libya, not stipulated in any NATO document and divorced from any strategic calculations.
NATO’s recently adopted Strategic Concept (www.nato.int/strategic-concept) reflects a consensus (as phrased during the internal debates) that the Alliance cannot function as a “Jack of all trades” or a “Swiss army knife” (i.e., available for improvised, resource-dispersing operations), but must re-focus on its core missions and competencies. The Libya mission, a download on NATO, runs counter to those conclusions.
It also involves multibillion euro costs from defense budgets that are already being subjected to drastic cuts. On the European side, France and Britain initiated this operation without providing any forecast of the costs, almost certainly expecting a quick successful conclusion. By now, however, NATO plans for a 90 day air campaign (countdown apparently since April 3), with a subsequent review of other options (www.nato.int, accessed May 19).
NATO’s countries from Central-Eastern Europe are all absent from the Libya campaign (except Romania and Bulgaria providing one ship each for the maritime blockade). The Alliance’s new member countries had participated actively in the Iraq and Afghanistan missions—most of them are still in Afghanistan—on the principle of allied solidarity. In Libya, however, NATO’s combat role thus far involves only air operations, which most of NATO’s new members are unable to perform in this theater.
In Western Europe, Germany has ample capabilities but is staying away from this mission; and Poland has aligned with Germany in this regard. The German government made its decision based mainly on domestic politics: wars of choice are unpopular in this country, even if they are initiated in a coalition format and under a UN mandate. In this case, Berlin broke ranks with Paris and London in the UN Security Council’s vote. While France and Britain pushed for a mandate to intervene in Libya, Germany joined Russia and the other countries abstaining.
Libya is the second case of NATO going to war in the name of humanitarianism. The first case was in Serbia in 1999, responding to mass ethnic cleansing of Kosova’s Albanians by the Serbian army. Beyond that official rationale, however, the intervention pursued clear strategic goals. It prevented Russia from re-entering Balkan power politics through manipulation of Greater-Serbian nationalism; and by the same token it paved the way for Southeastern European countries’ integration with the European Union and NATO. Although presented as purely humanitarian to win public support, the intervention in Serbia lacked a UN mandate (Russia led the opposition to it at the UN).
As in Libya, NATO relied on high-altitude bombing in Serbia. That campaign lasted eleven weeks, with full U.S. participation, destruction of major civilian infrastructure during the campaign’s final stage and plausible threats of a NATO operation on the ground against Serbia’s still-powerful army. In Libya, however, U.S. bombing and the threat of a ground operation are missing.
This puts the Alliance’s reputation on the line in a more palpable sense than it was in Iraq or Afghanistan. Following those failed operations, NATO can hardly afford a third consecutive failure in Libya. This time around, NATO is officially in charge of the operation, rather than a mere backup to the United States. The Libyan theater of action is a flat, open terrain on Europe’s doorstep, without the logistical challenges of expeditionary wars as in Iraq or Afghanistan. Moreover, on top of humanitarian intervention, NATO is pursuing for the first time in its history the goal of regime-change through military force.
Thus, NATO’s stakes are at their highest while its margin for error is narrower than at any time since the 1990s. Being held off by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s third-rate force for any length of time would seriously affect NATO’s credibility in general perceptions. This operation is now entering its third month. Exceeding the UN mandate through all-out bombing and a ground operation would be a small price to pay for a successful outcome in Libya.