Scores of op-eds are springing forth declaring that the happy events taking place in Tripoli have vindicated the much-maligned NATO alliance and its performance in Libya. I’m an Atlanticist by conviction and profession, but the notion that helping take out Muammar Qaddafi after six months of heavy fighting proves much of anything is absurd.
According to the World Bank, Libya is sixty-third in the world in GDP. Twenty of NATO’s twenty-seven members are ranked ahead of it. Alliance members hold the top spot, six of the top ten and eleven of the top twenty-five largest economies on the planet. Romania has more than double Libya’s GDP; it’s the sixteenth-largest economy in NATO.
Moreover, the United States spends more than Libya’s entire GDP on just the “Research, Development, Testing and Evaluation” portion of its defense budget. There are three larger items in said budget, with the Operations and Maintenance portion accounting for three and a half Libyas. The total U.S. defense budget? Almost nine Libyas.
There are twenty-six other militaries in NATO. Fourteen spent more than Libya’s $1.5 billion on defense in 2010, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. France and the UK each spent forty times that.
Let’s just say that the deck was somewhat stacked in NATO’s favor.
To be sure, the bar has been lowered by critics such as the estimable George Will, who wrote off NATO as a “Potemkin alliance
” in June and declared “NATO may be expiring in North Africa
” three days before the rebels took Tripoli. But, beyond the attention-grabbing declarations, the critics have mostly been right on target.
In his Potempkin alliance piece, for example, Will noted that, “Since Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. military spending has more than doubled, but that of NATO’s 27 other members has declined 15 percent. U.S. military spending is three times larger than the combined spending of those other members” and echoed former defense secretary Bob Gates’s warning that Americans may grow impatient with that imbalance.
And, while his declaration of the alliance’s demise shortly before toppling Qaddafi would seem embarrassing, that very column acknowledged that Qaddafi “probably will be” deposed. He merely asserted that this won’t end the discussion as to “whether this was a sensible undertaking by a British government whose post-recession austerity budget, announced before the Libyan exercise in power projection, involves a mismatch between political ends and contracting military means.”
All of that is true. Indeed, the last two NATO secretaries general have sounded the alarm over these issues. Anders Fogh Rasmussen devoted most of his Foreign Affairs article on “NATO After Libya” to these concerns, concluding, “uncoordinated defense cuts could jeopardize the continent’s future security. Libya can act as a wake-up call, but this mission needs to be followed by deeds. Making European defense more coherent, strengthening transatlantic ties, and enhancing NATO’s connections with other global actors is the way to prevent the economic crisis from becoming a security crisis.”
The fighting in Libya demonstrated just how hollow most European militaries are. Despite President Obama’s continued assurance that the U.S. role would last “days, not weeks” and that the European allies would take the lead, the fact of the matter was that they simply lacked the resources to do so. Yes, Europeans eventually flew the bulk of the “strike sorties” in Unified Protector
. But the Americans provided virtually all of the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; suppression of enemy air defenses; and aerial refueling missions.
Reeling from ten years of fighting in Afghanistan, most NATO forces are spent. Libya hastened the decay, using up resources to such an extent that several allies were literally out of ammunition and fuel and had to beg others for resupply. And, with austerity a way of life for the foreseeable future, few are prioritizing necessary replenishment, much less retooling for future fights.
Nor does Qaddafi’s fall paper over the weeks of squabbling among allies at the start of the operation, symptomatic of the lack of unified vision. While the new Strategic Concept agreed to last November in Lisbon said all the right things about a robust future, it’s now clear that there is neither the will nor the wallet to carry it out.
I remain a NATO booster because there is no alternative vehicle for the Western powers to act together in concert. Despite the Keystone Kops routine we saw in March and April, it would have been impossible to coordinate the operation without the infrastructure, planning, training and shared procedures developed over six decades of working together.
But it would be a great mistake to take the defeat of a tinpot dictator as sign that all is well. The six-month road to this victory should instead be a wake-up call.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. This essay originally appeared at The National Interest.