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NATO and Libya: Can the alliance hold?

It's now been three weeks since air operations over Libya came under NATO control. How is the Western alliance managing? Conversations with several close observers yield a very mixed picture:

Alliances within the alliance: In contrast to other recent NATO operations, including the ongoing mission in Afghanistan, Libya operations are being carried out by a small subset of the alliance's membership. Only six states are engaged in combat operations, and many have chosen not to participate at all. That reality reflects deep division about the utility of force in this case and the advisibility of intervening in a civil war. Britain, France and the United States are the clear leaders of the war-faction. Germany, Turkey, and Poland are the most prominent skeptics. For the moment, the two factions are coexisting. The skeptics aren't meddling much in operational decisisions (they might, for example, insist on pre-approving target lists and generally attempt to micromanage operations),  and the hawks have agreed not to badger them about contributing forces. This uneasy truce could easily come undone however. If a NATO airstrike produces large-scale civilian casualties, for example, the skeptics might demand greater say over day-to-day operations or even force a reappraisal of the operation entirely.        

The French resistance: It was only after significant pressure from Washington and London that the French agreed to put the operation under NATO command. French military commanders feared that under alliance command, the operation would become an overly bureaucratized, lowest-common-denominator operation with a narrow mandate.

The past several weeks have not eased those concerns. French leaders grumble that they haven't gotten much military from the alliance in exchange for the command-and-control complexities involved in a NATO operation. Many of those contributing forces have placed tight restrictions on their use. That means dozens of planes are essentially flying lazy circles around Libyan airspace while primarily British, French, and American planes conduct actual strikes. Some of these are playing helpful support roles, but many of the assets contributed aren't adding measurably to operational effectiveness, and some may be simply clogging up the airspace.

The French discontent is particularly significant in light of the often fraught French relationship with the alliance. It was only in 2009 that France rejoined the NATO integrated military command, after four decades of de Gaulle-inspired insistence that French forces must operate independently. The Libya experience has not been a happy one thus far, and some prominent French voices are calling for a return to operational independence. The issue has even become campaign fodder. Presidential candidate Dominique de Villepin called recently for an immediate withdrawal from the NATO command structure. If Libya is ultimately perceived as a failure, those calls will grow louder.   

The absent America: In stark contrast to the 1999 NATO air campaign that forced Serbia to relinquish the province of Kosovo, U.S. forces are playing a minor role in Libya. American forces featured prominently in the operation's early days, but since then Washington has steadily retreated.  When NATO took command in late March, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told Congress "we will not be taking an active part in strike activities and we believe our allies can sustain this for some period of time." The low American profile is part of a clear Obama administration strategy to avoid the impression that this is yet another American intervention in the Middle East and to forge what it hopes will be a new pattern of international burden sharing.

American forces are likely doing more than is being advertised, but the American insistence that others take the lead has had real operational consequences. In particular, French sources and NATO commanders have been all but begging for American close-air-support assets, including the A-10  and AC-130 aircraft, which are capable of operating at low speeds and low altitudes. This kind of asset is critical for effective air operations in urban environments.

The absence of these capabilities has not been lost on Gaddafi's forces. They have quite sensibly chosen to concentrate their forces in and around cities and towns rather than in the open desert, where they are vulnerable to higher-altitude airstrikes. The pace and effectiveness of allied airstrikes has diminished accordingly, leading rebel forces to criticize NATO repeatedly for inadequate support. Whether Washington will yield to French and British pressure and deploy these assets is emerging as perhaps the key military question.    

The alliance's credibility: From a military perspective, the switch to alliance control has therefore had very mixed results. Nor has the shift produced clear results in terms of world public opinion. Russia and China, in particular, aggressively criticized the operation both in its ad hoc phase and once it moved to NATO control. It's not clear that having the alliance in command has appreciably changed the dynamic in the Arab world, either. Those inclined to paint the operation as a new form of Western colonialism are still able to do so.

But has turning Libya into a NATO operation changed the political dynamic in some other way? Putting the NATO stamp on the operation means that the alliance's credibility is now at stake. And that means that even member states skeptical of the operation may balk at the prospect of failure. Plenty of alliance members may doubt the wisdom of the Libya mission, but they do care about the future of NATO and ultimately won't want the alliance to suffer defeat. And that may lead them to eventually loosen tight restrictions on their forces and contribute additional assets, including possibly ground troops to a post-conflict stabilization force that might be necessary. Over time, all NATO members have felt compelled to contribute some forces to the Afghanistan operation (even if minimal), and it's possible that involving the alliance could still have that force-multiplying effect in Libya.

Hitching NATO's credibility to the Libya operation is a risky strategy however. The alliance is already strained by operations in Afghanistan. Many members, including Germany and a number of eastern European countries, want the organization to focus less on out-of-area operations and return to its original misssion of collective security. Libya introduces new strains with these members and with Turkey, whose leaders have made clear their deep discomfort with the operation.

Why saddle an already tense alliance with this new burden when the operation could have been conducted through an ad hoc coalition? It appears that the Obama administration has sought to cover the Libya operation with as many multilateral stamps of approval as possible (NATO, the UN, and the Arab League, most prominently). But more multilateralism isn't always better multilateralism. UN approval gave the mission a legal foundation and a certain legitimacy. Was it necessary to shove the operation onto the plate of a  deeply divided NATO?  In some cases,  knowing when not to use key multilateral institutions is as important as when to use them. 

Mind the legal gap: As Obama, Sarkozy and Cameron made clear recently, the ultimate Western political objective is Gaddafi's departure. The problem is that the legal mandate for the operation--UN Security Council resolution 1973--doesn't support that objective and is limited to protection of civilians. Getting a new, broader authorization from the Security Council appears politically impossible, and the question will be how much the alliance is willing to stretch its current mandate. 

NATO has played fast and loose with legal authorization before (in Kosovo, there was no UN authorization for airstrikes). In that case, Western political leaders were content to get after-the-fact blessing from the Security Council. One key difference now is that the Americans seem much more concerned about legal cover than they did in 1999--no doubt in part a reaction to the Bush administration's "illegal" war in Iraq.  

Past as prelude: The truth is that NATO military campaigns are almost always messy and riven with tensions. The alliance has often begun military operations without a clear sense of how they would end and has stumbled its way to acceptable outcomes. Waging war as an alliance of 28 diverse and democratic states is complicated in the best of times. It's easy to forget that the 1999 Kosovo operation also floundered intially and led to plenty of speculation that the alliance was cracking up.

But that operation at least ended with a clear-cut victory (Serbia's relinquishing its hold on Kosovo), and victory heals all sorts of wounds. The danger for NATO is that it is now engaged in two missions--Afghanistan and Libya--that may not produce such clear outcomes. Stalemate isn't a recipe for a healthy alliance.   

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