I support the Government in what they are doing, through NATO, in Libya. There is absolutely no doubt that, had timely action not been taken, Benghazi and eastern Libya would have fallen, and the consequences for the civilian population in that area would have been grim indeed. Our forces in the air, at sea and on land are now in action under a UN mandate, and this nation and this Parliament must stand united. If Gaddafi were to prevail, heaven help the Libyans. Indeed, for the wider Maghreb it would have profound implications that would impact on an area much wider than just north Africa.
When I was Secretary-General of NATO, I was occasionally asked to speculate on the circumstances that could provoke a European response where the Americans might be reluctant to come in and bail us out. Dangerous though that speculation was likely to be, I occasionally used north Africa as my example of Europe’s backyard where trouble could easily be precipitated in one of many countries, with real ripple effects hitting a Europe where we would still not have the proper capabilities to handle it on our own. I take no great pride in being proved correct in my forecast.
Europe, despite its relative prosperity and economic muscle, is still not, as we have seen, able to act in its own self-interest without US leadership and military capabilities. Only two nations—America and this country—were able to use precision cruise missiles at the beginning of this crisis and to have a decisive effect on Gaddafi’s military power. No other nation in Europe has that capability. What a mockery it makes of the grand ambitions for Europe to be robust, self-sufficient and independent of US influence and power.
One of the most despairing aspects of events in the past few weeks has been the disunited and pretty undignified squabble among European members of NATO about how to organise a multinational no-fly zone. As all the NATO nations know, there is only one organisation capable of arranging and commanding a complex multinational military operation, and that is NATO, through its military headquarters at SHAPE. One of the most uplifting aspects of the crisis so far has been the fact that everybody eventually came to realise that glaringly obvious point; and now, in the past 48 hours, NATO has, with its Canadian commander, at last taken over the whole operation.
I can empathise like nobody else with Secretary-General Rasmussen in the somewhat confused commentary that he has had to provide over these weeks. I know it only too well. I have seen it, done it and have quite a few T-shirts to show for it. We should realise that NATO is the sum of its parts. Unlike the EU and the UN, NATO is not some monolithic organisation with its own corporate identity and a vast bureaucracy; it is as powerful or as feeble as its member states want it to be. When nations put national interests and primitive rivalries before collective security and collective action, NATO becomes a paper tiger in an increasingly complex and dangerous international jungle.
As we can all now see, things are not over. Defections from the Gaddafi regime there will be, and the more the better—and a bag full of trouble they will bring with them as it happens and the regime unravels. The fighting will continue to ebb and flow along the Mediterranean coast and we will assuredly be faced with new dilemmas in the next few weeks.
If the attrition goes on and civilians cannot be saved just from the air, will we simply stand back if boots on the ground could be decisive? If we took that route, whose boots would be on the ground? Even in the best-case scenario of a stabilisation force on the ground in post-conflict Libya, whose boots would make up that force? The boots assuredly will not be American. The President and his Defence Secretary made it very clear this week that their people are tired of coming to the rescue of a Europe that will not invest in its own security insurance.
It is still an embarrassing and, indeed, scandalous fact that there are almost twice as many people in Europe as in the United States of America, yet we can deploy only about 2 or 3 per cent of them outside national boundaries. Who will supply them in Libya, whether in conflict or in peacekeeping; in Syria, if that odious regime were to disintegrate; in Yemen, if the president clings on to the death; in Bahrain, if the violence abates; or even in Palestine/Israel when common sense and uneasy peace eventually break out? Europe had better wake up to the challenge that it faces at this historic moment. Loud noises and self-congratulation about Arab awakening and Arab “springs” as the masses rise up against dictatorships will simply turn to dust if one uprising leads to a new repressive regime.
I want to make two final brief, important points. First, this country’s coalition Government should be reaching out in Britain to all those who can contribute to thinking on this issue. In the US it is seen as publicly important—essential, even—that the President and the Administration should consult and involve a wide range of experts and political players. I did precisely that when I was Secretary of State for Defence and we were engaged in the conflict over Kosovo. It gave a clear message of national resolve, first to the British people; secondly, to our forces who are in action risking their lives; and, thirdly and very importantly, to those who we are confronting. My American friends are amazed at how British politics is so unhelpfully government-centric on these serious issues. I do relate that not simply to this Government but to the previous one as well. I exempt the Minister the noble Lord, Lord Astor, who has been a model of reaching out to other elements in society.
Finally, in the midst of this crisis and all that it means and all the attention that it takes, let us not forget that thousands of British troops are engaged in a continuing war in Afghanistan. They are making progress but they are still in danger and still being killed and injured. Our resolve there must not weaken at any point simply because we are focusing our attention for the moment on events closer to home. The stakes there are high. Leaving prematurely would be a mistake, and all the sacrifices would be in vain.
Lord Robertson is a member of the Atlantic Council’s International Advisory Board and former Secretary General of NATO. This is adapted from his remarks to Parliament.