international analysis and commentary

Libyan lessons and the future of NATO


With the killing of Muhammar Gheddafi, and after seven months of open war in which NATO played a fundamental role, only one chapter in the overall Libyan crisis has come to a close. As the anti-Gheddafi insurgency in Cyrenaica burst out (Phase 1), the transatlantic community and some Gulf States (most notably Qatar) stepped in by backing the National Transitional Council (NTC) through economic aid and military assistance. The aim was to get rid of Gheddafi’s regime (Phase 2). Now, the more difficult and uncertain stage lies ahead: the reconstruction of Libya through some sort of national reconciliation (Phase 3).

State-building is always a long and non-linear process, and Libya will be no exception. Given the ongoing combination of geographical (Benghazi vs. Tripoli), ideological (Islamism vs. Secularism), and social (the regime-associated elites vs. young street masses) divisions, the situation in Libya remains fluid and unclear. Two potential outcomes appear most likely: the first is Libya slipping into a Somali-like chaos, with State powers dispersed among rivaling warlords; the second is an Iraqi-like solution, with an embedded democratization under the supervision of the Western and Gulf countries. The second option is certainly more desirable – although far from painless – and more likely.

Before turning to Phase 3, however, Phase 2 still demands further attention. In particular, the way in which NATO conducted the operation and the consequences of war on the alliance itself are of great interest. Much more than the crises in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Libyan operation represents a crucial “health check” for NATO. The “Strategic Concept” adopted one year ago (November 2010) commits the allies to a security doctrine grounded on the principles of active engagement and modern defense. Above all, it prescribes two main objectives. First, it aims to launch a process of “Reform and Transformation” (articles 36 and 37), to create a more flexible and efficient framework through an increasingly integrated military command and advanced technologies. Second, it endeavors to enhance NATO’s partnerships, especially with other multilateral organizations such as the UN and the EU (articles 31 and 32). The interplay of these aspects during the Libyan crisis shows that the current state of affairs within transatlantic relations diverges significantly from the official rhetoric.

As regards the reform process, the intervention in Libya produced mixed results. Given the West’s existential caveat for peace-enforcement missions – “no boots on the ground” (which can entail reduced control and effectiveness) – Operation Unified Protector worked only partially. NATO aircraft flew over 25,000 missions and made approximately 10,000 strikes; navy forces set up a blockade that successfully isolated pro-Gheddafi forces. As Admiral James Stavridis, NATO military commander, recently confirmed, the alliance “did a reasonable job” in combining “intelligence, surveillance, and precision targeting”. Yet, as he immediately added, “I think we could do better”.

In purely military terms, this confirms that there is still quite a significant gap in warfare technology and capabilities between the US and European allies. Not since Suez had British and French air forces had the chance/duty to bear the major responsibilities of a military operation in the Mediterranean basin. Indeed, for the first time, European countries led a NATO combat mission, while the US remained in a secondary position. Nevertheless, it was not until the end of July, when the US sent two unmanned Predator drones from Afghanistan, that the stalemate between pro-Gheddafi and anti-Gheddafi forces started to break down. In the context of a prolonged economic crisis and military overstretch, the cost of the American intervention in Libya was nearly $1 billion, according to official Pentagon estimates. While this is not a trivial sum, it still represents less than 1% of what the US will spend this year in Afghanistan. Though the Obama administration was criticized for its indirect role in the Arab revolts – defined by some as “leading from behind” – it still showed that US actions can produce a great impact. Put differently, the global debt crisis notwithstanding, in military affairs, the US maintains greater factor productivity than its European allies.

Not only did the Libyan intervention demonstrate an enduring qualitative gap between America and its partners, but it also made public the substantial number of political disagreements and economic shortcomings within the European camp. Three points must be raised in this regard. First, the different degree of participation by European countries: rather than a standard multilateral mission, Unified Protector was a “minilateral” operation. It turned into a sort of omnibus coalition in which only a few allies took part (joined by some Arab states); moreover, the participating allies had different degrees of involvement due to capability shortages or lack of domestic political consensus.

Second, the rationale of the London Treaty signed last year by Britain and France: it is a 50-year agreement that was conceived both to strengthen bilateral military integration, in conventional and nuclear terms, and to reinforce the two countries’ prominent position in European defense and security. Yet, unlike the 1998 Blair-Chirac St. Malo Declaration calling for a Common European Security and Defense Policy (CESDP), the 2010 Cameron-Sarkozy pact represents a purely Anglo-French deal, without any substantial reference to NATO and the EU. It is evident that France aims to balance German preponderance in economic and financial relations.

Third, and deeply related, the triangular split of London and Paris with Berlin and Rome: Germany has taken the chance to emphasize its autonomy in foreign policy, a process begun with its opposition to the 2003 war in Iraq, and Italy has had to pursue a contradictory agenda. Italy aims to respect the 2008 Treaty with Libya, prevent France from taking over its energy contracts, and comply with its role in NATO, especially when asked for permission to use air bases in Sicily and Sardinia.

Inevitably, all this has had a very negative impact on the EU. Along with the Gheddafi regime, the EU has emerged as a loser in the conflict, at least in political terms. All its attempts to function as a single actor on the world stage has ended in another severe backlash. As Brussels remained totally excluded from key decisions, the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty regarding the EU’s “external action” remained an empty shell. Furthermore, and most of all, the voice of the High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, was rarely heard. Even the option of some limited  form of NATO-EU cooperation was ignored.

Lastly, the way in which the Libyan conflict was conducted epitomized the complex and evolving relationship between NATO and the UN. Operation Unified Protector was launched on the basis of an extensive interpretation of international law: the phrase “all means necessary to protect civilians” proved vague enough to provide legal justification to pretty much any “intelligence, surveillance, and precision targeting”. In the end, the distinction between a peace-enforcement mission and an external-led regime-change operation appeared quite blurred. Interestingly, recent cases seem to confirm the ability of the transatlantic allies to gain the approval of the Security Council for actions not supported, yet neither openly contested, by other veto powers: from Kosovo to Afghanistan to Libya, NATO alone has succeeded in providing a reasonable political (if not fully legal) basis for such controversial missions. Given that the strictly humanitarian motivations behind these interventions are always questionable, it is worth asking for how long the increasingly influential “emerging powers” will continue to tolerate such practices, how long they will grant the transatlantic community such freedom of maneuver.

To sum up, what emerges from the Libyan conflict is a mixed picture for NATO. Still the most powerful security organization worldwide, the alliance is a progressively disjointed group of nations in terms of foreign policy interests as well as operational tools. The largest members are learning to take advantage of allied structures to create ad hoc transatlantic “coalitions of the willing”, but this may not be enough to ensure a bright future for NATO. In a global system undergoing critical transformations, and with EU integration taking hard blows, the alliance will rest on its members’ ability to match individual interests with a collective purpose in support of stability and regional governance.