The New Brunswick Times & Transcript | 4.19.11*
By Alan W. Dowd

Reasonable people can disagree about the merits of intervening in Libya. But given that not intervening would likely have allowed Moammar Qaddafi to turn Benghazi into another Srebrenica or perhaps another Rwanda, NATO deserves credit for preventing a massacre. However, after agreeing to do the right thing, NATO is going about it the wrong way.

As before—in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan—NATO’s latest war by committee is producing its share of headaches. Dubbed “Unified Protector,” the NATO operation above and around Libya is not exactly living up to its name.

First, the allies are anything but unified. Italy, for example, threatened to block the use of its airbases if NATO didn’t take full control of the operation. Germany warned NATO not to try to do too much. France, which wanted to bypass NATO altogether and develop a Franco-Anglo-American command, is pursuing regime change. Turkey lectured the rest of the alliance about “pointing a gun” at Libya and is now freelancing a ceasefire deal. And the U.S. was always more focused on handing off the operation than on carrying out the objectives of the operation. Early on, the White House talked about a “time-limited, scope-limited” mission.In fact, the U.S. was so eager to step back from the lead role it played in the first week of Unified Protector that NATO now has to request assistance from U.S. aircraft before they will be deployed on strike missions.

Not surprisingly, as soon as the U.S. receded into the “supporting role” promised by President Barack Obama, the intensity and effectiveness of the air war diminished:

  • “NATO has disappointed us,” rebel military commander Abdul Fatah Younis said after NATO failed to provide adequate air support to rebel forces in the port city of Misrata. “If NATO wanted to remove the siege on Misrata, they would have done so days ago,” he added.
  • Similarly, Ali al-Essawi, the foreign policy director for Libya’s Transitional National Council, blamed “bureaucratic delays” within NATO for “putting civilians’ lives at risk,” according to TheNew York Times.
  • TheFinancial Timesnotes that “Britain and France are straining to fill the gap left by Washington’s decision to pull back.”

In fact, although 17 nations are contributing air assets to Unified Protector, only France and Britain are allowing their planes to fly without restrictions, The Washington Post reports.

Hence, French foreign minister Alaine Juppe has called on NATO to “play its role in full…which means preventing Qaddafi from using heavy weapons to bomb populations.” Juppe describes NATO’s current tempo and tactics as “not sufficient.”

Likewise, his British counterpart, William Hague, recently urged nations participating in the Libya intervention to “expand our efforts in NATO,” pointedly adding, “That is why the United Kingdom in the last weeks supplied additional aircraft capable of striking ground targets that threaten the civilian population. Of course, it would be welcome if other countries did the same.”

Hague is politely directing his message at Washington. The U.S. accounted for 90 of the 206 NATO planes initially deployed in support of Unified Protector, and an even higher percentage of the planes capable of carrying out precision ground-attack missions. However, according to Air Force Magazine, the U.S. Air Force contribution to Unified Protector has plummeted to just 39 planes, which, as noted above, are playing a supporting role and are deployed upon request. As a U.S. State Department official explains, “The U.S., of course, as needed, would help out if requested in other capacities. But, really, our role has receded.”

And it shows. Without the full complement of U.S. air assets, NATO simply cannot sustain the operational tempo or employ the tactics it brought to bear in the initial strikes on Qaddafi, which explains why NATO appears to be failing at the crucial part of this mission: protecting the Libyan people from Qaddafi and his henchmen. Benghazi may be shielded, but the rest of Libya is not.

This was foreseeable in two ways: On a micro, mission-specific level, as Gen. Charles Horner, who commanded coalition air forces during Desert Storm, predicted weeks ago, “Failure to fully unleash air power will allow Qaddafi to play for time…and otherwise frustrate the coalition’s attempts to protect Libyan civilians.”

On a more macro, alliance-wide level, a NATO military operation not led by the U.S. military is a risky experiment. That’s because the United States invests in defence. The rest of NATO, by and large, does not. While the United States spends about 4 percent of its GDP on the common defence—a GDP that is enormous relative to that of its NATO allies—only five NATO members meet the alliance’s standard of investing 2 percent of GDP on defence. Even Britain, America’s nearest technological peer within NATO, invested only 2.9 percent of GDP on defence in 2010.

This is not to say that Unified Protector will fail, but rather that “time-limited, scope-limited” wars are not the best way to solve problems like Qaddafi—and that NATO is not yet ready for the United States to recede into a “supporting role.”

*This article also appeared in Troy Media and Truro Daiy News.