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


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