NATO in Libya Fraught with Peril


Sean Kay authored this guest note for TWN. Kay is a professor of politics and government at Ohio Wesleyan University and an Associate at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at the Ohio State University. He is the author of the forthcoming second edition of Global Security in the Twenty-first Century: The Quest for Power and the Search for Peace and has written extensively on NATO.
nato member flags.jpgNATO in Libya Fraught With Peril
The American intervention in Libya began with a core assumption – that its role was limited, and that a rapid handover to allies via NATO would occur. Of course, it is obvious to most people that NATO is primarily an American dominated military operation. But while the premise is right – the practice is fraught with peril.
Since the Cold War ended, NATO has been called on frequently as a means of legitimizing coalitions for humanitarian interventions. But its role in crisis management has been consistently shown to be highly problematic if not disastrous – especially for those people who it was trying to help. The most important thing to know about NATO is that it makes its decisions by consensus.
Those rules allowed NATO to stand by and do a no-fly zone over Bosnia and protect civilians while over 100,000 were killed or missing between 1993 and 1995. That consensus rule created massive limitations on war-fighting in Kosovo that made the war last far longer than it had to. In Afghanistan NATO has been hindered repeatedly from limited rules of engagement, confused command and control, and caveats on allied operational contributions.
NATO has also had important successes. The way the organization coordinated the forces that became IFOR and SFOR – the stabilization operations in Bosnia was remarkable and essential to peace. But what these previous cases show is that NATO works well to mandate operations, and NATO works well in peace-building, but not as a spearhead and not in crisis management for operations beyond the collective defense as envisioned against the Soviet threat.
The Kosovo war is the best case in point to think about relative to the current crisis in Libya. The way NATO has been praised for its engagement seems to rest on a revisionist history of what happened in Kosovo. Of course, that was in 1999, but nothing really about NATO and the way it works – or doesn’t – has changed since then. In the Kosovo war, NATO could only agree to fly planes at 15,000 feet. NATO could not agree on a ground threat. NATO could only initially agree on a three day war campaign. All assumptions built around war by committee.
NATO did prevail in Kosovo – but not because of the air campaign or any major activity in Brussels. NATO won by agreeing to stay the course and had no major defections, which was a near all-consuming task for the White House at the time given stresses on key allies to remain in the coalition. But three months into the war, with no end in sight – it was weapons flowing to the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) that allowed them to smoke out Serb paramilitary forces making them vulnerable to air power combined with more aggressive strategic bombing. It was also the threat of a major ground invasion promulgated mainly by the British, along with seizing of assets of Serb leadership.
Most significantly, at the end of the day, it was Russian diplomacy that persuaded the Serbs to give in. Regime change came to Yugoslavia – but not because of the war – but because of economic isolation. In fact, during the bombing, nationalism ran high – an outcome that was warned about by the American intelligence community before the war began.
Another crucial lesson about Kosovo – and from its role in Afghanistan – is that while it works well at the tactical level of generating multinational forces and flexible headquarters, its command structures are highly convoluted and confusing. This, in a crisis, violates a fundamental premise of unity of command.
General Wesley Clark as SACEUR was frequently reminded during the Kosovo war that he took his orders from the Pentagon – which was resistant to much of his actions as he saw fit relative to NATO interests. When he tried to move material onto a runway to halt Russian planes landing in Pristina, a British General told him he refused to risk “World War III” and managed, by circumventing the chain of command, to get the orders changed. As one very senior American military official told me at the time, “they sent me to war with two hands tied behind my back.”
The new Canadian General who will command this NATO operation will find very quickly that if he “implements” he will do well enough – if he tries to actually command, he will run into trouble. NATO’s mandate is clear – naval enforcement, no fly zones, and civil protection. Going beyond that risks the cohesion of the allies – which have already shown deep underlying differences. Cohesion of the allies thus becomes as important than achieving military outcomes on the ground. Just before the Kosovo war ended, US National Security Adviser Sandy Berger said that the US was prepared to win in Kosovo with, or without NATO.
As the war entered its final weeks, all major decisions were made by a quad of the US, Britain, France, and Germany (and sometimes Italy). To achieve success, NATO was circumvented. After the war, a senior allied official said that the primary lesson of the Kosovo experience was that we should “never do something like this again.”
Now, NATO has major obligations in Afghanistan and is assuming major responsibilities for Libya. But why would anyone in a decision-making capacity have high confidence that we would be able to “hand over” responsibility for Libya within NATO? Answering that question requires a basic understanding of primary interests affecting Europe. First, they do care about humanitarian issues. Second, they do care about oil. Third, they do care about refugees. And, crucially for the US, they care a lot about paying as little a price for this intervention as they can.
At every step, one should anticipate efforts by the allies to ensure that America stays deeply involved, if not in the lead, within NATO. NATO was stretched hugely thin to do Afghanistan – how one would expect the allies – who are also in the midst of a massive debt crisis – to also take the baton on Libya is hard to understand.
What this means is that the most likely scenario is that America will have to recognize that Libya is its war.
In a sense, the fact that we are even involved shows a failure to rethink our interests about NATO over the last 15 years. If 60 years after World War II and 20 years after the end of the Cold War, Europe cannot take on an operation like Libya on its own, then the core function of NATO – to facilitate burden-sharing at the transatlantic level has failed. The only way to really fix this now, is tell the allies, immediately, that this is their war, not America’s.
Finally, there are serious pitfalls ahead. If the war escalates, if the rebels are armed, if Gaddafi is targeted, if a ground operation is necessary, then this fragile consensus in NATO will likely shatter – yet these are highly logical military outcomes now that the war has been launched. The institution will also likely be used for buck-passing and blocking action – as was the case in Bosnia from 1993-1995.
The NATO members know how to work the institutional rules very well. A crucial question for the allied planners now is also to understand the degree to which the Libyan military has thought that through and studied Serb actions during the Kosovo war. NATO is a group of democracies, and public opinion and decision-making rules create asymmetrical opportunities for an enemy to exploit. But perhaps most troubling is that at the end of the day, the allies have basically left it up to Gaddafi to define when the war ends – as was the case with Milosevic in 1999.
This is not to say that NATO should not be involved. It has provided an important mandate for legitimacy and political support. Most importantly, like the eventual outcome in Bosnia, NATO might serve to provide the primary ground forces, via Europe, for any peace support or peace-building mission, in conjuction with the European Union. That model worked, eventually, in Bosnia and it could work again now.
But beyond that, expectations should be kept very low as realism guides the Administration, Congress, and the public regarding our role in Libya’s civil war.
— Sean Kay


21 comments on “NATO in Libya Fraught with Peril

  1. rc says:

    Lucky NATO is not protecting the Palestinians — Israel’s record is slightly better it seems.
    ‘Libyan rebels killed in NATO air strike’
    “Palestinians killed in Israeli air strike”


  2. kotzabasis says:

    Sorry for mispelling above the french word DEGRINGOLADE.


  3. Meredith Stein says:

    After the folly of Vietnam, who would have thought that we would totally ignore that experience and that the country would evolve into a machine of continuous warfare?
    Well, there was one lesson learned from Vietnam: no draft. And of course it is the economic meltdown that makes that work so well, creating a pool of young people without economic alternatives.


  4. PissedOffAmerican says:

    It cracks me up seeing the question raised about whether or not we will arm the “rebels”.
    Of course we will.
    And the lying pieces of shit in the CIA, the Pentagon, and the White House will either lie about it, or admit it, depending on which way the polls and the political winds tell them to posture.
    But make no mistake, we WILL arm them. This asshole Obama has rolled the dice, and he will do whatever he has to do to make sure they don’t come up snake-eyes, no matter WHAT bullshit he feeds us in these glib little PR speeches.
    What, how long ago was it I was telling Carroll and Kervick that we would flood Libya with CIA, that the “no-fly zone” was just bullshit, a “foot in the door” for another misrepresented clusterfuck? As if it takes a think tank genius or a MSNBC “military expert” to see the handwriting on the wall.
    It ain’t rocket science, folks.


  5. Paul Norheim says:

    Don, I had that impression too, but I have never taken a closer look at his attitudes and actions as a head of
    NATO. I also had the impression that he’s always been very pro-American. He was strongly in favor of the 2003
    invasion of Iraq. I know him much better as a former Danish prime minister (2001-09). He changed Denmark
    during that decade; it became much more inward looking, xenophobic and hostile against Muslim immigrants,
    just like Holland during the same period. “Danishness, whatever that may be, suddenly became very important….
    It was Fogh Rasmussen who, as PM, had to deal with the Arab world after the publication of the infamous Danish
    cartoons. (Now, there is a thought… When will the Arab propagandists tell their Muslim brethren that the leader
    of the alliance fighting in Libya was “responsible” for the cartoons?) In any case, I had the impression that he’s a
    very skillful politicians, shown in a program portraying his dealings while holding the rotating Presidency of the
    European Union in 2002.
    But notice that arming the rebels was “ruled out by Norway, Belgium and Denmark”. What these nations have in
    common is that they are small countries. And it is generally perceived as in the interest of small countries to
    strengthen international institutions – like the UN, the International Criminal Court, etc – to balance and try to get
    some sort of protections from the actions of bigger nations. This is a crucial element in Norwegian foreign policy;
    and the UN resolution and Norway’s participation in the operation in Libya was supported by the entire political
    spectrum in Norway.
    I don’t know whether Fogh Rasmussen leads NATO as a Danish citizen, with these kinds of considerations in his
    back head, or is driven by other considerations. But in either case, it certainly looks like he wants the trans-
    Atlantic alliance to be in compliance with, and legitimated by UN resolutions.


  6. Don Bacon says:

    I thought Rasmussen was a U.S. lapdog. No? Paul, from your perspective?


  7. questions says:

    Well, it’s interesting, at any rate:
    “Fears that the regime could be cracking were deepened further when a second top Libyan official, Ali Abdussalam el-Treki, defected Thursday to Egypt. In decades of service, Mr. Treki had served as both foreign minister and as ambassador to the United Nations, where he was president of the General Assembly. ”
    Does the gamble pay off? When do we measure?


  8. DakotabornKansan says:

    Possible Steps on the Road to a Middle East Disaster
    Tom Ricks has a Best Defense guest columnist, “C,” a career intelligence expert specializing in Middle Eastern affairs, who outlines what could go wrong in Libya.
    1. We arm the “rebels”
    2. Find this is both not enough and Qaddafi’s forces overrun, confiscate, and use arms against rebels and coalition air forces
    3. We try air assault against Qaddafi’s ground forces
    4. Find this is insufficient and leads to excessive collateral damage
    5. We try to convince coalition to place boots on the ground
    6. Notably France and other members reject land invasion
    7. NATO can’t gain consensus to modify Resolution 1973
    8. United States bites the bullet, air assaults known Qaddafi military bases, and lands troops in Libya
    9. Muslim nations raise unified cry that U.S. interest is Libyan oil and Qaddafi becomes a hero with broad-based Islamic support, notably Iran
    10. We pull troops from Afghanistan (not a bad thing, just not soon enough) for Libyan engagements (rings just like from Afghanistan in 2002 to prep for Iraq)
    11. Pakistani ISI and TTP move with impunity across the FATA and begin retaking Afghanistan (sounds like May 2002


  9. DakotabornKansan says:

    How much is Barry


  10. DonS says:

    “Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Thursday defended the administration’s decision to intervene in Libya, arguing that military action was necessary to prevent a humanitarian disaster that could have sparked a refugee crisis while potentially destabilizing Egypt, Tunisia, and the broader Middle East.”
    There! That’s it, the rationale! Even if a scintilla is true, how stupid do they really think we are? Remember when Petraeus was joshing with Gate on the open mike about getting ready to bomb Libya, ha ha ha?


  11. questions says:

    Fraught with peril is right.
    But stasis in a moving world is also fraught with peril. Remember, MENA tyrants cost money, take up time, blood and treasure (to use a phrase people seem to love to use), occupy, ummm, bandwidth, and so on.
    The status quo is unlovely, difficult to manage, insecure in a unipolar world. We no longer have the “luxury” of splitting the world between USkies and the Ruskies and guaranteeing stability through fear, trade deals, and weapons and defense umbrellas.
    Without that bipolar stability, every tyrant is out for himself, can go shopping for other alliances, and each is a potential destabilizer in a big and scary nuke world (or conventional world.)
    This Arab Spring thing, whether it’s been completely cooked up by the CIA (maybe they doused the guy in Tunisia??? Did they find a wallet or some other paper in the debris, is there an 18 minute segment of tape missing…) — whether it’s been cooked up by the CIA or merely assisted by the CIA or is local and spontaneous doesn’t really matter at this point.
    What matters is that a moment be seized and kept going as the status quo ante has been very bad for many for a long time.
    The gamble is that whatever emerges is less of a mess than what we had, that there’s sufficient legitimacy and enough forward-looking projects that we end up with fewer terrorists, fewer transnational mercenaries, fewer acts of war.
    Keeping the world’s eye on MENA modernization might give us an easier way out of Afgh and Iraq (oh wait, we “left” Iraq!). It might give Pakistan something to think about, and it might help the Saudi royal family move its butt on something like, say, getting to the 19th century! Wouldn’t hold my breath for the mid 20th quite yet.
    Arab Spring is something to feed and shelter and pull out as needed.
    It may, in the end, do some good.
    But I’m not taking bets on this. Because it’s so incredibly easy to see all sorts of downsides, too.
    Fraught, indeed.
    (And there’s more on how fucked the education policy of the admin is…. All over the place. The international comparisons are fucked, and Bill Gates don’t know shit about shit.)
    Japan is either a dead nation walking or merely a zombie, depending on what you read. More radiation, some cesium of the correct isotope (I never remember the number.) Cesium doesn’t bio-accumulate apparently. So this is good. Apparently. Iodine of the correct isotope has a short half life. If they ever stop spewing this shit, it still is in the non-apocalyptic stage, but geeze, it looks like they’ll never stop spewing. Water soluble resin spraying delayed because of…RAIN!!!!!!
    Saw a comment on BNC that noted that the BWR at Fukushima has its control rods pop up from under — I noticed that in a schematic and thought it odd because it would need a positive push up against gravity to kick in — this commenter notes that it requires there be openings in the bottoms of the pressure reactor cores — there are seals, of course, but there would seem to have to be holes for those rods to rise up — I have no idea how significant this is, but it seems like something odd to me.
    I also saw something about the desirability of there being cooling towers — I think these are the massive concrete structures we associate with nuclear power plants. I wonder why they use cooling pools instead of cooling towers, and whether or not this design is a response to critics who don’t like the “look” of cooling towers. On this, I am merely speculating. But we should remember that sometimes critics win design battles that end up causing problems for engineers. It’s a thing to think about.


  12. Paul Norheim says:

    If Anders Fogh Rasmussen and the nations respecting the arms embargo contained in resolution 1973 get
    their will, this probably means that the rebels will be armed by the US or UK outside the NATO structure. This
    also means that any nation – Libya itself, or Russia, China and Brazil – might justifiably complain to the
    United Nations that America or UK is violating the UN arms embargo.
    Kudos to Rasmussen here for at least verbally respecting the UN mandate. If, however, NATO is deadly
    serious about an arms embargo, it would also try to stop the CIA or MI6 from violating the arms embargo –
    which of course will never happen.


  13. Paul Norheim says:

    “Nato chief rules out arming Libyan rebels
    Rasmussen says Nato is there to protect people, not arm them
    By AFP
    Published Thursday, March 31, 2011
    Nato chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Thursday he opposed arming Libyan rebels, stressing Nato had intervened to
    protect and not to arm Libyans.
    “We are there to protect the Libyan people, not to arm the Libyan people,” Rasmussen told reporters.
    “As far as Nato is concerned, and I speak on behalf of Nato, we will focus on the enforcement of the arms embargo and
    the clear purpose of an arms embargo is to stop the flow of weapons into the country,” he said.
    “Nato will fully implement that part of the UN Security Council resolution,” Rasmussen said, noting the alliance had
    “taken note of ongoing discussions in different countries” about arming the rebels.
    His comments came as world powers debated whether to supply the opposition to Moamer Kadhafi’s forces with
    On Wednesday, British Prime Minister David Cameron refused to rule our arming the rebels, and France and the United
    States have also raised that possibility, ruled out by Norway, Belgium and Denmark.
    But France’s defence minister said Thursday supplying arms to the rebels was not on the agenda, deeming it
    incompatible with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, which provides for the protection of civilians.
    “It is a decision of historic dimension that the UN Security council decided on behalf of the international community to
    take action in Libya to protect civilians against what might eventually become a humanitarian catastrophe,” Rasmussen
    “We will focus on the arms embargo and that is to stop the flow of entering Libya,” he stressed.”


  14. DonS says:

    From CNN:
    “the CIA is operating in the country to help increase U.S. “military and political understanding” of the situation. “Yes, we are gathering intel firsthand and we are in contact with some opposition entities,” the source told CNN.”
    [i.e., we know who we’re against, but not who we’re for]
    “Adm. Giampaolo Di Paola, chairman of the NATO Military Committee, indicated Thursday that in his view, the presence of foreign intelligence personnel would not violate the U.N. resolution authorizing action in Libya. The resolution prohibits “occupation forces,” a term that “has a quite clear meaning,” Di Paola said”
    [i.e., uh oh, looks like we’re going to have to massage the definition thing again]
    “He also said NATO receives and uses intelligence from allies and does not judge the sources.”
    [whatever the hell that is supposed to mean; like a yellowcake disclaimer or something?]
    “Robert Baer, a former CIA operative, said the CIA’s effectiveness might be limited.”
    ‘”I would rather see the Defense Department on the ground, if you have to be there, training,” Baer said. “The CIA hates covert action. It rarely works. It worked in Afghanistan, but other times it’s almost impossible to do.”‘
    [but that wouldn’t be an occupation force, would it? Can’t be, cause we say it’s not. Also, notice the high standard for ‘success’:
    Afghanistan ‘worked’]
    “Paul Wolfowitz, a former U.S. deputy secretary of defense, said he thinks “we should be doing everything we possibly can to support the opposition,” and a prolonged stalemate would be bad for both Libyans who continue to suffer and for the United States.
    ‘”It’s true we don’t know what the opposition would be like when they do take over, but there are actually some promising signs,” Wolfowitz said. “But the important thing is we should be in there, we should be working with them.”‘
    [now there’s an endorsement and incisive analysis from a name we’ve learned to trust]
    “The InternationalCriminal Court, at the request of the United Nations Security Council, is investigating alleged “crimes against humanity” by Gadhafi.
    “Last week, Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said he was certain his investigation would lead to charges against Gadhafi and members of his inner circle.”
    [why, somehow, the ICC has become the gold standard, of something, when the US doesn’t even deign to recognize it’s jurisdiction?]
    . . . and so it goes


  15. Don Bacon says:

    news report:
    US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has again urged Col Gaddafi to step down and leave Libya.
    Then who would take over?
    Well, we don’t know.
    ADM. STAVRIDIS: ” We have seen flickers in the intelligence of potential al Qaeda, Hezbollah, we’ve seen different things, but at this point I don’t have detail sufficient to say that there is a significant al Qaeda presence or any other terrorist presence in and among these folks. We’ll continue to look at that very closely. It’s part of doing due diligence as we move forward on any kind of relationship.”
    ADM. GORTNEY: We’re not talking with the opposition. We have — we would like a much better understanding of the opposition. We don’t have it. So yes, it does matter to us, and we’re trying to fill in those gaps, knowledge gaps.
    So that would require another military occupation of a Muslim country. That’s been tried before, and it doesn’t work very well.


  16. JohnH says:

    The war advocates tell us with absolute certainty that 100,000 will be massacred by Qadhafi.
    Yet no one can tell us how many civilian deaths have resulted from the “humanitarian” interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
    As for Libya, who’s counting? Civilian deaths only matter when our opponent does the killing. Deaths caused by Qadhafi will be trumpeted; deaths by NATO will be buried.
    Some humanitarian intervention!


  17. DakotabornKansan says:

    Humpty Dumpty, Cameron, Sarkozy, Obama and


  18. jonst says:

    Another recipe de jour for endless war. This one says ‘do it’, but be careful how you do it.
    They called it the “North Atlantic” Treaty Organization for a reason. People ought to read Kennan’s view on the significance of that name.


  19. Don Bacon says:

    There’s that pesky 100,000 again, this time “killed and missing.” Actually they found 2,018 bodies. And then there’s the secret arms flow to the Bosnian Muslims fighting in the former Yugoslavia staring in 1993.
    But the Libya conclusion is correct. This is another presidentially-caused quagmire. Time for another speech “as realism guides the Administration, Congress, and the public regarding our role in Libya’s civil war.” Actually the latter two cohorts have had no role in it except to get stuck with the bill.
    What will The Decider decide next?


  20. JohnH says:

    Kosovo: a narco state with a gigantic US airbase. It’s also “the best case in point to think about relative to the current crisis in Libya.” Ummm, what was the point of Kosovo–human rights or siting an airbase?
    And, 100,000 were threatened with slaughter in Kosovo, exactly the same number cited for Libya. Of course, the Kosovo firgure was a shameless exaggeration, designed to appeal to the public. Only 13,000 were killed on both sides over 5 years, barely above the Israeli kill rate of Palestinians. It seems as if the liberal interventionists are using the same playbook as in Kosovo.


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