The naysayers were in abundance during this long, hot summer in Washington, Brussels, and other major capitals. They said that NATO’s no-fly zone, and the rebel military operations in Libya which NATO was aiding, were ineffective. NATO was running out of ammunition.
The rebels were disorganized, incoherent, and rife with divisions. The serial withdrawals of NATO allies’ military forces from the operation due to budgetary and other pressures was slowly weakening the effort . The operation was taking too long, and NATO was stalemated by a third-world, tin-pot dictator’s rag-tag military forces.
The naysayers were proven wrong last night, as the Libyan rebels, much more quickly than even the closest observers predicted, took the Libyan capital from its dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, who had ruled with an iron fist for over 40 years. The spark ignited last December by a Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire out of frustration with the oppression of his daily life toppled another dictator in the Middle East.
What preliminary lessons should we seek to learn from this operation, even as the dust in Tripoli continues to settle? First, there is a need for strategic patience when military operations are undertaken. Successful counterinsurgency campaigns can take decades or more; air campaigns in support of various actions on the ground can also take time. The NATO air campaign over Serbia in 1999 took 78 days. The NATO operation over Libya, roughly six months long as of this week, no doubt took more time than the political leaders that directed it anticipated. And, in technical terms, the operation may not be over, as the need to protect innocent civilians continues. Nevertheless, this interim outcome serves as a reminder that strategic patience, and persistence, pays off.
Second, the NATO Alliance has proven itself relevant to advancing US and allied interests in what some have called the Arab Spring, or “Arab Awakening.” The no-fly zone worked, and NATO did its job of protecting civilians from being massacred by Gaddafi’s thugs. As many of us who have observed this operation also anticipated, NATO may have gone beyond its UN mandate in providing effective close air support for Libyan rebel forces. But these efforts paid off. Thus, all of those who said that NATO is irrelevant, and is nothing but a drain on American and European taxpayers, were wrong.
Third, all of those who said, and continue to say, that there is not much that the United States and its European allies can do to promote our interests in the Arab Spring, particularly using military power to do so, also were proven wrong. That is not to say that the military instrument of our power will always be relevant in all such situations; but it is to say that the threat or use of military force can help advance very important interests in this epochal geopolitical moment as protests continue to roil across the Greater Middle East. And to the extent that the billion or so people across this great region are watching our actions, and deciding that we will stand up for the values that we say animate our policies–and which animate their protests–our nation and those of our allies will be safer in the future.
Barry Pavel is director of the International Security Program and director-designate and Arnold Kanter Chair of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.