NATO’s Libyan Lessons

WASHINGTON, DC – NATO’s intervention in Libya one year ago helped to avert a humanitarian catastrophe and created the conditions for Libya’s citizens to end Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi’s dictatorship. The military operation highlighted important improvements in European leadership since the Bosnian debacle in the 1990’s, but the conditions underlying the Libya mission’s success cannot be counted upon to exist again in the future. Indeed, NATO’s accomplishment in Libya risks obscuring persistent weaknesses in Europe’s military capabilities.

Europe’s unity of purpose in Libya contrasts sharply with its divisions and indecisiveness as Yugoslavia disintegrated in the early 1990’s. The United States had to coax many Western European countries into helping to stop the slaughter of innocents in Bosnia. And, though the transatlantic alliance was more unified and responsive during the subsequent Kosovo crisis, the US was still firmly in the driver’s seat. In Libya, the roles were reversed: Western Europeans had to push the US to take action.

The manner in which President Barack Obama brought the US into the effort to protect Libyan civilians mollified European concerns about American hubris that had grown out of the Iraq War. It also made possible a broad coalition of countries, as well as the first-ever call for intervention from the Arab League. Obama’s decision that the US should play a supporting role, with other NATO partners – particularly France and the United Kingdom – taking the lead, reinforced the global perception of the mission’s legitimacy.

Today, the growing debate about a Syrian intervention raises legitimate questions concerning whether Libya was a unique situation. Libya’s proximity to Europe both lowered barriers to participation and stimulated Europe’s sense of responsibility, while Qaddafi was a reviled figure with few friends. Moreover, many European countries have direct interests in Libya, and thus had a clear stake in the outcome. Libyans’ opposition to Qaddafi was relatively well organized, was recognized by the international community, and had explicitly called for outside intervention.