international analysis and commentary

Well done, NATO!


With the approach of the opposition to Sirte, NATO’s Operation Unified Protector over Libya will likely soon be scaled down. Nigh on ten years after 9/11, and after a grueling decade of controversy and division, the Alliance can finally chalk up an unequivocal success. There is no question that the new regime in Tripoli simply would not have succeeded in toppling Gheddafi without NATO’s support and I, for one, wish to congratulate the Secretary-General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the North Atlantic Council and Admiral James Stavridis, the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe and his team for their leadership. This is the kind of positive change that can be achieved when the Alliance simply gets on with succeeding.

Back in April I was very critical of the communiqué that came out of NATO’s Berlin meeting. It smacked of the diplomatic double speak that has too often been NATO’s norm of late with member nations offering full support. Having written extensively for the Atlantic Council of the United States on last year’s Strategic Concept I am also acutely aware of the many challenges that lie ahead for the Alliance, from anemic or declining defense budgets, ageing militaries, a lack of strategic purpose and a bureaucracy badly in need of reform. 

However, what impressed me was the extent to which the nations put aside their many differences after Berlin, avoided public controversy over who does what and quietly got on with the mission in hand. Of course, the usual suspects were to the fore – America, Britain and France – but that is what they do. Equally, the relationship between London, Paris and Washington were probably as close during this crisis as at any time prior to the 1956 Suez Crisis. Does this auger well for the future?

What has also been encouraging, and I must say vaguely surprising, has been the active support of some of the smaller countries, most notably Belgium, Denmark and Norway. They have all done their bit with combat missions as well as offering other forms of support. For once NATO planned around the problems rather than planning straight into them.

So, what now? Well, in the immediate future the political opportunity afforded by NATO’s support for the new Libyan government must be fully exploited. If for once transition can take place successfully then all the depressing news that too often emerges from Kabul will at least be balanced. First, that means getting the lights put back on in Tripoli, the water running and food supplies restored and quickly. Therefore, subject to the formal invitation of the new authorities in Tripoli, the Alliance should be preparing now to offer to the Libyans its huge experience of stabilization and reconstruction gained these ten years past. 

If possible that support should be offered in conjunction with the European Union. If ever there was a moment for the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) to play a vital role in offering humanitarian aid and assistance it is now. No more prevarication please.  Suffering must be alleviated and political reconciliation given a proper framework for action. A joint EU-NATO mission could also play a vital role in disarmament, de-mobilization and rehabilitation (DDR) of all armed groups and militias, as well as the integration of opposition groups with the former military to create a new Libyan National Army. This will require in and of itself expertise covering security sector reform and democratic control over armed forces (DCAF). Here again, both the Union and the Alliance preferably in partnership could provide a service of immeasurable and incalculable importance to and for Libya’s future stability.

There are wider implications. The very modesty with which NATO has accomplished its task has been impressive. There has been little political tub-thumping. It is thus just plausible that a real opportunity now exists to offer a new model of support for transition across the Middle East. Handled with due sensitivity, a wholly new pattern of relations could be established with close and important neighbors for the decade ahead. But again, modesty please.

And what of the future? Libya is living proof that the mantra of the 2010 NATO Strategic Concept, “Active Engagement: Modern Defense”, has meaning. However, this moment will pass soon and the political momentum and unity of effort and purpose generated by this success must thus be grasped. Indeed, Libya has demonstrated that in spite of the doom and gloom of these austerity years, a NATO that gets its act together and uses its immense power intelligently affords the planet more positive a force.

Next May NATO’s Chicago summit will take place on the eve of an American presidential election. This entails both a problem and an opportunity. It will be a problem in that Americans will be otherwise engaged.  But the political climate afforded by this success will also be an opportunity to take forward NATO’s three strategic themes for this first post-9/11 decade; modernized collective defense, effective crisis management and credible co-operative security. 

Libya is proof of an Arab world moving beyond 9/11, it is time also for NATO and the West to do the same thing. Now there is a good news story to be told.

Well done, NATO!