NATO in Libya Timid, Almost Unserious – Gaddafi Takes Notice, and so Will Others

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by Paolo von Schirach

April 15, 2011

WASHINGTON– Welcome to the 2011 NATO-led Libya intervention, a fresh example of how a low budget, low participation, low enthusiasm war can lead to a stalemate (or worse) between the largest military alliance in the world –NATO– and Colonel Gaddafi, a third rate North African dictator. As the limited, air campaign only, intervention drags on inconclusively, the latest nugget is that NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, (SACEUR), US Admiral James Stavridis, recently begged NATO members to supply at least 8 more combat aircraft, so that the combined NATO air power can have a bit more punch against Gaddafi’s forces. And NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen also stated earlier that alliance commanders need more “high-precision” aircraft; but he has not received any firm pledges from NATO governments.

8 planes for Libya, anybody?

Please note: Admiral Stavridis did not say he needs 80 planes. He said he wants 8, and apparently he is having trouble getting any. And he and his political counter part Secretary General Rasmussen are not asking Moldova. They are asking an alliance of 28 nations, among them 4 of the G -7 members, that is to say some of the wealthiest countries in the world.

The fact that NATO top brass is down to openly begging for a truly modest contribution, while even those who are participating in the air campaign operate according to all sorts of self-imposed restrictions stemming from national rules of engagement, tells a worrisome story.

Bad signs

NATO is not just lukewarm about the Libya conflict. These are signs that the Alliance, (admittedly created on April 4 1949 for an altogether different purpose), is turning into an empty shell. The point is simple: in case of war, either you are in or you are out. If you are in, you throw in all you’ve got. NATO instead decided to get in, but timidly and not with a united front. Germany is out. A few others contribute just a little bit. This is not the way to go war.

NATO did not have to intervene

A NATO Intervention was neither mandatory nor inevitable. NATO could have decided that violence against civilians in Libya, while regrettable, does not touch the alliance core interests, and so NATO would stay out of this emerging internal conflict. Individual members states, (such as France and Britain), could have taken a different course, acting individually, with no alliance involvement.

But instead NATO proclaimed its readiness and its willingness; and then it proceeded with minimum effort and, with the exception of France and Britain, modest contributions. This is unserious and it conveys weakness, not just to Gaddafi, but to the whole world.

NATO: “No Action Talk Only”

Even in the bad old days of the Cold War, when mighty Red Army tanks were parked in East Germany, the alliance inside jokes were that “NATO” stands for “Not At The Office“, or “No Action Talk Only“. Well, the old jokes certainly apply now. The once great military alliance these days has some meaning only when the United States, by far the most powerful member, is in the lead, thus masking the political timidity and operational shortcomings of the lesser members.

Getting to be another British Commonwealth?

As we know, in the case of Libya, the US (in its wisdom) decided to make just a strong cameo appearance at the beginning of the first act. Now, America is still doing stuff, but it is not using much muscle. Which is to say that, without the US in the lead, NATO is showing promise to become something akin to the British Commonwealth, a fairly innocous talking shop, good for ceremonies and nice speeches, otherwise devoid of much substance. Unless we shall see a dramatic surge of enthusiasm and NATO members coming forward with assets and serious will to fight, this is pretty much it.

If I were Gaddafi, while I would worry about the long term viability of my regime, I would not be terrified about what may happen to me in the next few months. NATO is not going to come and get me.

Juppe: open recriminations

And, regarding its impact on prestige and credibility, this mix of halfhearted promises and retreats is coming out in the open with public accusations and recriminations. Indeed, after complaints from the Benghazi rebels about the ineffectiveness of fewer NATO strikes than they expected, we saw French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe rebuking NATO for its timidity. (He also asked the US to recommit war planes to the mission. But Washington declined).

3 leaders engaged in public relations

And this political disarray probably justified the extraordinary measure of mobilizing the top policy makers in a morale boosting, public relations effort. President Barack Obama, French president Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron wrote a joint op-ed piece in which they tried to defend this convoluted mess. They jointly claim that all is fine. The UN mandate is only about defending civilians, and this is what they are doing. (Trying to do, with mixed results, would be closer to the truth).

Gaddafi has to go? How do you make him go?

More substantively, they also state that, no matter what is happening on the battlefield, it is impossible to envisage a post-conflict Libya with Gaddafi still in power. So, the end game is still the same: “Gaddafi has to go“. This joint restatement of the larger strategic objective is good. But what is not at all good is that, so far, with a modest NATO commitment to the war effort, this may take months, or even more. In other words, now as before there is a mismatch between strong words and puny means. And the op-ed piece by the three leaders did not indicate how this problem will be resolved.

Arm the rebels

For this whole thing to regain credibility, NATO should intensify its air strikes against Gaddafi’s forces, even though now this has become a lot more difficult, as the Libyan army is dispersed and intermingled with civilians, thus complicating targeting.

But, most importantly, NATO needs to support, directly or indirectly, all credible efforts aimed at training and arming the Benghazi Libyans. If Gaddafi has to go, and NATO troops are not going to go after him, then give tools to the only ones who would like to do this. But there is resistance to arming the rebels. The objection is that arming the Benghazi Libyans is dangerous, as there may some al Qaeda followers or other anti-western groups among them.

Objections make little sense now

But the objection is peculiar, at this stage. If this is indeed the case, if the Benghazi rebels are an unsavory bunch, then NATO should have stayed out of the whole thing from the very beginning. Whereas NATO got in. And now it wants to deny aid to the rebels? In the end, some aid will go to Benghazi. It would appear that Qatar is working on this, and some NATO countries may work through Qatar. Be that as it may, it is very late in the game. Arming and training the rebels would help hasten the end of this conflict.

President Obama: a little bit in but not all the way

As for president Barack Obama, his idea of getting in to deliver the initial strong (but not decisive) punch and then back off, was not wise. After the beginning of the operation, Obama stated that, “Going forward, the lead in enforcing the no-fly zone and protecting civilians on the ground will transition to our allies and partners, and I am fully confident that our coalition will keep the pressure on Qaddafi’s remaining forces“.

Well, his confidence was a bit exaggerated. Pressure not so strong. Gaddafi’s forces still have punch.

If Libya operation sours, America will be tainted

Beyond this, the larger point is that, once America is in any conflict, politically “it is in all the way”. Having invested its word and national prestige, America’s credibility is tied to the eventual outcome, no matter how deeply the US was involved. In war you cannot be “just a little bit pregnant”. If this NATO operation goes south, America’s prestige will be tainted, as the US is the leading member of this military alliance.

If Obama chose this course of action so that he could at the same time show resolve and bow to the anti-intervention wing of the Democratic party, this way trying to make everybody happy, I am not sure that this will work, politically and militarily.

In the meantime, will NATO SACEUR Stavridis get his additional 8 aircraft for Libya? What do you think?

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