With Operation Unified Protector in Libya, NATO enters war for the third time in its history. And like its first-ever conflict with Yugoslavia in 1999, the alliance is anything but unified. But gone to war it has, carrying out air strikes against forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and more than 100 sorties on most days. The half-hearted nature of the intervention can be seen as a glass half full or half empty for the alliance. But over time the cherry-picking approach of the members could reduce it into irrelevance.
The initial decision for NATO to take over leadership of the Libya operation from the United States at the end of March and the way the military action is being carried out have both caused, and continue to cause, divisions in the Alliance and could bode ill for its future. On the other hand, it can be argued, the fact that, despite these divisions, NATO did agree to take over command from the Americans and managed to bring some of the most reluctant nations like Turkey and Italy into the operation is a success for an enduring alliance.
Of the 28 members of NATO, 14 have committed forces to Operation Unified Protector as the Libyan mission has been called. But the numbers don’t tell the whole story, given that some countries supporting the action are not involved and some that have strong reservations are involved: As usual with NATO, nothing is straightforward.
The original decision to intervene in Libya was agreed at a Paris meeting on March 19th convened by President Nicolas Sarkozy, where it was clear France, Britain and the US were prepared to take action to prevent Gaddafi’s forces retaking the rebel stronghold of Benghazi and the potential for many civilian casualties.
At that point, NATO was not involved and although all three are members of the alliance, France, the US and the UK were a coalition of the willing.
So how did NATO get involved?
The answer to that question lies in Ankara and Washington. Turkey, a key NATO power and former colonial power in Libya, was angry at being excluded from the Paris meeting. Ankara sees itself as a mediating force in the region and saw NATO leadership as a way of gaining influence over the intervention. This coincided with the Obama administration’s desire not to be seen to be leading military action in another Muslim country. So, overcoming initial French reluctance, it was agreed NATO would take over implementing UN Security Council Resolution 1973 that authorized a no-fly-zone over Libya and military action to protect civilians.
But NATO leadership has complicated the intervention. The Turkish government takes a less absolutist line on the future of Gaddafi’s government than the chief hawks, France and Britain, and is less keen on air strikes against Gaddafi’s ground forces. Ankara has sent ships to enforce the arms embargo on Libya and to evacuate wounded civilians for medical treatment. Ankara has also actively tried to mediate between the rebel Transitional National Council and Gaddafi’s government, so far with little success.
This is in stark contrast to Paris, London and Washington, whose leaders made clear in an a New York Times opinion essay that they will not stop until the colonel steps down or is overthrown, which leaves no room for mediation.
Another NATO member with little enthusiasm for air strikes is Germany. Berlin has had strong reservations from the start about the intervention in Libya. Crucially, Germany joined the BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China – on the UN Security Council in abstaining in the vote on Resolution 1973, arguing there were too many unanswered questions about the aims of the intervention. And while Berlin has not actively opposed the intervention, it has refused to get involved.
Presuming the influence of these reluctant counties in the failure of NATO to destroy more of Gaddafi’s armor and heavy weapons, the Libyan rebels have called on the alliance to be more aggressive.
Other leading member states were initially reluctant to get involved, notably the Mediterranean powers Spain and Italy. Italy, another former colonial power, depends on Libya for energy supplies and had also signed a deal with Gaddafi to stem the flow of African migrants across the Mediterranean. Both have since been involved in no-fly zone patrolling.
These divisions have reignited questions about the future of NATO. Critics point out that an alliance set up more than 60 years ago to defend western Europe from a potential Soviet threat, no longer has enough common interests to make it an effective organization in the post-Cold War world. They point to the Kosovo campaign in 1999, where Greece refused to get involved. Then, there is Afghanistan where NATO now deploys tens of thousands of troops to combat the Taliban insurgency, but many members have not sent troops and some, like Germany, put tight restrictions on what their troops can do.
But NATO optimists can point to pluses for the alliance over Libya. French acceptance of NATO leadership in Operation Unified Protector is seen as confirmation that one of the organization’s major military powers is now fully committed to the alliance. Back in 1966, President Charles de Gaulle had removed France from the NATO’s military command structure, but two years ago, Sarkozy ended that boycott, now putting substance on that decision by taking a leading role in the Libyan operation under NATO command.
The apparent backseat taken by the United States in the NATO operation is another new development viewed as a positive for the alliance. If NATO can be seen by the rest of the world as more than a US-dominated organization, that could enhance international acceptance of NATO as an instrument for enforcing decisions of the UN Security Council, giving the UN more muscle.
Last November, the alliance agreed on a new “strategic concept” rededicating its members to defend one another. But unlike in Afghanistan where NATO took action following the 9/11 attacks on one of its member states, NATO is not defending itself in Libya. Rather, it is intervening in an internal conflict, and some of its members have opted out.
So the question arises as to whether an alliance in which members can pick and choose which operations they take part in is becoming a two-speed NATO and whether this matters.
Pragmatists in the alliance argue this is nothing to worry about because in Libya members are doing what they can, with some sending strike aircraft, others offering humanitarian assistance and others offering political support.
But the risk for NATO is that the countries willing to put servicemen in the line of fire in Kosovo, Libya and especially Afghanistan will grow ever more resentful of those who only risk treasure rather than blood.
If this happens, reaching agreement on whether to take action could become ever more fraught and make it less likely the alliance will be able to play a role in international affairs. Such an outcome could see NATO expire through irrelevance and neglect.
Alistair Burnett is the editor of The World Tonight, a BBC News program. Rights:Copyright © 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization