NATO’s Victory in Libya: The Right Way to Run an Intervention

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Libyans celebrating end of Gaddafi control of Tripoli, Aug. 23, 2011

From Ivo H. Daalder and James G. Stavridis, U.S. Mission to NATO:  NATO’s operation in Libya has rightly been hailed as a model intervention. The alliance responded rapidly to a deteriorating situation that threatened hundreds of thousands of civilians rebelling against an oppressive regime. It succeeded in protecting those civilians and, ultimately, in providing the time and space necessary for local forces to overthrow Muammar al-Qaddafi. And it did so by involving partners in the region and sharing the burden among the alliance’s members.

NATO’s involvement in Libya demonstrated that the alliance remains an essential source of stability. But to preserve that role, NATO must solidify the political cohesion and shared capabilities that made the operation in Libya possible — particularly as its leaders prepare for the upcoming NATO summit in Chicago this May. . . .

By any measure, NATO succeeded in Libya. It saved tens of thousands of lives from almost certain destruction. It conducted an air campaign of unparalleled precision, which, although not perfect, greatly minimized collateral damage. It enabled the Libyan opposition to overthrow one of the world’s longest-ruling dictators. And it accomplished all of this without a single allied casualty and at a cost — $1.1 billion for the United States and several billion dollars overall — that was a fraction of that spent on previous interventions in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

But the Libya operation had its challenges as well, both in conception and in execution. If NATO is to replicate its success in the future, it must examine and learn from these challenges.

The first lesson is that NATO is uniquely positioned to respond quickly and effectively to international crises. Some countries have significant military reach. But when a group of countries wants to launch a joint intervention as a coalition — which confers political legitimacy — only NATO can provide the common command structure and capabilities necessary to plan and execute complex operations. Multilateral coalitions built on an as-needed basis, by contrast, have no common doctrine for conducting military operations, no common capabilities or command structure for quickly integrating national forces into a cohesive campaign, and no standing mechanisms for debating and then deciding on an agreed course of action. Such ad hoc coalitions therefore almost always rely disproportionately on a single nation to bear the brunt of security burdens that ideally should be more equally shared.

In Libya, NATO coordinated the actions of 18 countries — 14 member states and four partners — under a unified command. The United States certainly played a critical role, providing intelligence, fueling, and targeting capabilities. But other states made similarly indispensable contributions. France and the United Kingdom flew over 40 percent of the sorties, together destroying more than a third of the overall targets. Italy provided aircraft for reconnaissance missions and, along with Greece, access to a large number of air bases. Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Norway, and the United Arab Emirates deployed fighters for combat operations, and Jordan, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, and Qatar helped enforce the no-fly zone. Many of these states, as well as Bulgaria and Romania, also deployed naval assets to enforce the arms embargo.

The second lesson of Libya is that although NATO’s political unity is improving, more work must be done. NATO allies overcame their early differences on Libya and forged a course of action acceptable to all. Every ally contributed to the operation through NATO’s command structure, and no allies restricted the use of their personnel assigned to NATO command centers in places such as Mons, Belgium; Naples, Italy; or Ramstein, Germany. But although 14 member states contributed directly to Operation Unified Protector, an equal number did not. Many of the countries that did not participate lacked the resources to do so but still lent their political support. Some countries, such as Germany, however, decided not to participate even though they could have. Berlin did not block NATO’s decision to act in Libya and even assisted alliance operations as a whole by increasing its involvement in aerial surveillance in Afghanistan. But it abstained from the UN Security Council vote authorizing the intervention and stayed out of the military operation. And even though Poland assisted by selling precision munitions to other NATO countries, it, too, refrained from participating directly. . . .

NATO again took the lead in Libya. Some countries hesitated to place NATO in charge of a military action, fearing that the alliance would not garner enough support in the region, but it turned out that Arab states preferred to work through NATO; several of them, such as Jordan, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates, had already participated in NATO-led operations in Kosovo and Afghanistan, and others had fostered closer relations with NATO through the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative. These programs, launched in 1994 and 2004, respectively, expanded NATO’s ability to partner with countries in North Africa and the Middle East.

These partnerships with non-NATO members signify the increasing role of the alliance beyond its borders. Such cooperation may not have a decisive military impact; as in the Balkans and Afghanistan, alliance members supplied the bulk of the military capability in Libya. (Nearly 90 percent of the non-U.S. forces in Afghanistan, for example, come from countries in Europe.) But this kind of burden sharing is politically essential to the overall effectiveness of NATO’s operations. The participation of Jordan, Morocco, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates and their support for Libyan opposition forces proved critical to the liberation of Tripoli, both by demonstrating Arab political support and by providing additional military capabilities. Regional participation also helped allay potential friction within the alliance, reassuring many otherwise reluctant NATO members of the mission’s legitimacy. . . .

Instead of investing in NATO, many member states have depended on the United States to compensate for these deficiencies. In Libya, Washington provided 75 percent of the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance data employed to protect Libyan civilians and enforce the arms embargo. It also contributed 75 percent of the refueling planes used throughout the mission — without which strike aircraft could not have lingered near potential targets in order to respond quickly to hostile forces threatening to attack civilians. And U.S. commanders in Europe had to quickly dispatch over 100 military personnel to the NATO targeting center at the outset of the intervention when it became clear that other member states lacked the knowledge and expertise to provide their aircraft with the correct targeting information.

The heavy reliance of alliance members on the United States during the conflict highlighted the cost of a decade of European underinvestment in defense. On average, U.S. allies in Europe now spend just 1.6 percent of their GDPs on their militaries, and many spend less than one percent; the United States, in contrast, spends over four percent of its GDP. The fact that Washington spends nearly three times as much on defense as the other 27 NATO allies combined has opened a growing divide in the capabilities of the member states. As former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned in his valedictory policy address last June, this imbalance threatens to create a two-tiered alliance that will ultimately prove unsustainable. . . .

The alliance will now have to summon the political will to implement these standards in a period of fiscal austerity. NATO countries can continue to invest in their military capabilities on their own — which means investing inefficiently and often insufficiently, while leaning on an increasingly impatient United States to make up the difference. Or member states can invest through NATO and other multinational programs, saving money, promoting cooperation, sharing capabilities, and demonstrating solidarity. NATO will continue to succeed only if every member state chooses the latter course.  (photo: AP)