NATO’s intervention in Libya looks easy in retrospect, now that Muammar Gaddafi is on the run from victorious rebel forces. No US or NATO forces were shot down over the skies in Libya and no US boots were put on the ground. America’s European allies and partners carried a heavy share of the burden in enforcing UN Resolution 1973. And President Obama led America into battle without the hard work of securing authorization from a partisan Congress. It is now all too easy to forget that, mere weeks ago, the war seemed to have settled into a discouraging and uncertain stalemate.
It is hard to blame Obama and his counterparts in Europe if they feel the urge to celebrate their important role in Libya’s revolution. Gaddafi’s demise is almost certainly a positive development for Libya, the greater Arab awakening, and the prestige of NATO and its coalition partners. The United States and its allies achieved their objectives at a small financial, human, and political cost, in stark contrast to the long, bloody, divisive, and ultimately dissatisfying conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Libya was a splendid little war, the kind of painless, antiseptic conflict that can teach dangerously deceptive lessons about the ease and utility of applying military force as a tool of statecraft. As the Arab awakening continues with unknown consequences, it is likely that the United States will again find itself engaged in a debate about whether to use force to protect its economic, security, or humanitarian interests in the region. To avoid a less happy outcome in possible future military operations, the Obama administration and its NATO allies must learn the proper lessons – both good and bad–from their flawed but ultimately successful approach in Libya.
As a starting point, it is worth recognizing that Libya was in many ways tailor made for Western military intervention. Libya is conveniently located near a host of NATO military bases in southern Europe and a fleet of NATO vessels in the Mediterranean, allowing NATO to launch air strikes and enforce a ‘no fly zone’ without excessive strain. Second, Libya’s proximity to Europe created public support and political will within NATO for military action, as key European countries realized that events in Libya could have a real security and humanitarian impact on the Continent. Third, Gaddafi was an unusually disliked and isolated figure in the international community, particularly in Arab capitals. The Arab League’s call for international intervention was a critical moment for the passage of UNSR 1973 and NATO’s decision to take action. Finally, the risk of an imminent humanitarian disaster brought about by specific threats by Gaddafi against his own citizens created a forcing mechanism for NATO and the international community to take immediate action.
Of course, any possible future intervention will face its own unique circumstances that may make the use of force a more or less viable option. Instead, as the United States and NATO consider the merits of future military interventions, it will be far more instructive to consider the broader lessons of how the coalition approached its intervention in Libya. Here they score both positive and negative marks.
On the plus side, the United States, NATO, and the international community made several excellent decisions that should serve as a model for future military interventions, particularly humanitarian operations. First, they secured the support and backing of the UN Security Council and key regional actors like the Arab League, building sustainable legitimacy for their actions. Second, NATO demonstrated its unique and enduring utility as a multinational provider of international security by quickly taking command of the operation, sorting out complex command and control issues, and rapidly integrating partner states like Sweden, Qatar, and the UAE. Third, NATO coordinated its activities closely with rebels on the ground and supplemented its airstrikes with helicopters and special forces to better support the rebels and break a growing stalemate. And finally, the United States and key allies also used non-military tools such as financial sanctions and diplomatic engagement of Libya’s neighbors to tighten the financial noose around Gaddafi and cut off the flow of men and materiel to his regime.
However, the United States and its allies also made three grave mistakes in Libya that should be avoided in any future military operations. They were largely the product of insufficient political will, particularly in the United States, based on the fact that the intervention was not in pursuit of an essential national interest. The coalition should consider itself lucky to have overcome these mistakes, each of which history teaches can prove devastating.
First, the Obama administration failed to invest sufficient time or energy into building support for the operation among the American public or securing authorization for the operation by the US Congress. In doing so, the administration limited its ability to offer critical firepower in the later stages of the conflict without risking violating the War Powers Act or incurring the wrath of an already war-weary American public.
Second, the United States showed inconsistent and uncertain military and political leadership in the conflict, in part as a result of legal constraints caused by this lack of Congressional approval. The upside of the Obama administration strategy of ‘leading from behind’ is that it forced the allies to confront the need to maintain an autonomous European military capability. The downside is that the conflict revealed the depth of European military weakness and total dependence on the United States for command and control, surveillance, and heavy firepower from the air. The United States should insist on a robust leadership role in future military conflicts in which it participates, and will likely have no choice but to do so as its European allies continue to erode their militaries through savage defense cuts.
Third, the United States and a select few allies made a highly dangerous error by setting the ambitious political objective of regime change while ruling out the use of ground forces from the outset. In doing so, the coalition tied its hands and made itself overly reliant on air power, which has too often proven to be an insufficient tool for achieving political objectives and securing a sustainable peace. It is in fact likely that a key factor in the eventual victory of the rebels was the quiet introduction of CIA operatives and special forces from France, the UK and other countries in providing the rebels the capabilities and training needed to eventually seize control of the country from Gaddafi loyalists.
Every war teaches lessons for those willing to learn, whether it ends in victory, defeat, or stalemate. Proponents of a more assertive stance toward repressive dictators should take heart the Western role in supporting the victory of the rebels in Tripoli. But Libya should not be viewed as an easily replicable template for a new form of military intervention free of the messy realities of war like casualties and the need to generate and sustain public support for the operations at home. If the United States and its allies do not properly learn and apply the good and bad lessons from their flawed but ultimately successful campaign in Libya, they could easily find themselves engaged in a much more costly war in the future that is not so little and far less splendid.
Jeff Lightfoot is an Associate Director of the Atlantic Council’s International Security Program.