DENVER – US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s recent prognosis of a “dim” and “dismal” future for NATO has triggered much debate, but it could well prove optimistic. June, it turns out, marks another milestone on the alliance’s uncertain path: its operation in Libya has now surpassed in length the one in Kosovo 12 years ago. After 78 days in 1999, Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic gave up, while Libya’s Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi has yet to get the message – and may in fact be getting the wrong message.
For those of us who were engaged in the Kosovo crisis, the Libya intervention seems like déjà vu. In the skies of Serbia and Kosovo, NATO warplanes attacked target after target, not to support the liberation of territory or in furtherance of a strategic bombing campaign, but rather to change Milosevic’s mind. To be sure, denying Milosevic the means to engage in “ethnic cleansing” was added as a rationale in the days after the campaign began, but the real purpose was to convince him that he had to allow NATO forces into Kosovo. It was a classic strategy/policy mismatch.
No war is without its list of false assumptions, and the Kosovo campaign had its share. Perhaps the most important was the memorable – but erroneous – view that Milosevic would give up after a few days of bombing. Instead, like many a leader in such circumstances, he entered a bunker, both figuratively and literally, and stayed there with little communication. Meanwhile, NATO planners desperately sought to identify targets that would either deny him the means of ethnic cleansing, or, more often, encourage him to reconsider his position.
The intervention had its low points, perhaps none lower than the bombing of the Chinese Embassy, which was misidentified as a building that housed Serbian security assets – instruments of repression against Kosovo. There were also moments of great concern about whether the allies would be willing to stay the course as the days, weeks, and months passed, with no end in sight. Surely, those engaged in Libya today are feeling some of those same pressures.
Back in March 1999, few NATO leaders doubted that removing Milosevic from Kosovo by force was the right thing to do. Nor was there much doubt that the leaders of Europe and the United States had made a good-faith effort to convince Milosevic through negotiations and peaceful means. War was a last resort.
Indeed, by March 1999, the decision to go to war was understood to be correct, because all other possibilities had been exhausted. The nineteenth-century Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz is (too) often cited for his dictum that war is a continuation of politics by other means. But a more pertinent thought of his came to mind during those days of decision: war is a serious means to serious ends.
Nobody involved in the Kosovo operation thought otherwise, or entertained the idea that NATO could give up. That is why NATO began to assemble a ground component. Ground troops ultimately proved unnecessary, but failure was not an option.
Nor can it be an option today. In Libya, there is also a strategy/policy mismatch. The policy is to remove Qaddafi from power. The strategy – that is, the mandate for the means – is to protect civilians. The latter will not ensure the success of the former.
This gap is beginning to close as NATO begins to deploy assets, such as attack helicopters, aimed more directly and boldly at the real goal of removing Qaddafi from power. But far more needs to be done to ensure success. Complaints about the fecklessness of the rebels are not going to help. Libya’s opposition is what it is.
Gates has appropriately focused on the question of NATO’s financial sustainability. As European military leaders engaged in the operation discuss publicly the limitations of their budgets, it is easy to see why he raised the issue. (Note to European military leaders: please don’t signal to Qaddafi that you are running out of bombs.)
But another point made by Gates is far more serious: lack of political will. Some countries with needed capabilities have not brought them to the fight, and others have not even provided political support. This à la carte approach is how NATO has always worked. What is new is the possibility that NATO will fail. The alliance’s reluctant warriors ought to consider that risk as they stand on the sideline.
These are difficult days for NATO, as Gates, in the twilight of his illustrious tenure, has pointed out. A decision was made to engage militarily in a situation of arguably marginal interest, but now all of the allies must understand that they are using serious means to a serious end. All of the countries that took the decision to intervene in Libya, including the US, must conduct themselves with a sense of renewed vigor, and with the understanding that NATO – whatever its shortcomings and shortfalls – must prevail.