Libya Fiasco Shows NATO's Uselessness

NATO is struggling to provide the close air support the rebels desperately need.


In a post last month, I predicted that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would prove itself unable to adequately support rebel forces in Libya, which would oblige President Obama, like so many of his predecessors, to bail out Old Europe.

The NATO part I got right, though I underestimated Obama.

It takes guts to stand back and let your closest allies stew in the consequence of their own willful neglect, particularly with Washington’s transatlantic lobby breathing down your back. The result is something extraordinary in the annals of the world’s most obsolete alliance: proof, as if it were needed, of NATO’s inability to operate as an expeditionary force absent America’s smothering embrace. Financial Times columnist Philip Stephens put it best last week when he noted that “as long as they nestle under the US security umbrella, Europeans will continue to inhabit a postmodern utopia…. You do not have to be French (or Russian) to agree it’s time for the Yanks to go home.” [Check out editorial cartoons about the Middle East uprisings.]

Given NATO’s pot-luck commitment to coalition warfare--skimpy defense budgets and scripted command-post exercises, with little in the way of standardized arms and battle-management systems--the friendly fire killings over Libya and sniping among alliance members should surprise no one. Without America to fill critical gaps in European arsenals, NATO is struggling to provide the close air support the rebels desperately need. Now, with besieged anti-Qadhafi forces on the brink of collapse in Misurata, the alliance is under pressure to double down with ground troops, something that would have been unthinkable only a week ago.

The Libya fiasco should be embraced by policy makers in Europe and the United States as an occasion to reflect on their divergent approaches to matters of national security. While the former has slashed its defense budgets, crippling its ability to deal decisively with a genuine threat to its economic interests, if not to the safety of its homeland, the United States has created a massive national security state at home and a militarized empire abroad in response to adversaries that remain largely theoretical. (A carrier battle group or a fifth-generation fighter jet is of little use against terrorists in their caves, who at any rate will always bedevil a nation that insists on controlling the four corners of the earth, often with the complicity of unsavory proxy powers.) How and when NATO’s Libyan dalliance concludes is anyone’s guess, but hopefully it will inspire Europe’s elites to launch a military modernization and integration plan that will, for the first time, make their armies a cohesive and credible alliance. Washington, for its part, could energize the process by phasing out its armed forces from the continent and reducing its NATO role to observer status. [See photos of unrest in Libya.]

Could this happen? Not if the scandalous legacy of the 1999 Balkan crisis is a reliable yardstick. Having left it to American and British air power to drive Serbian forces from Kosovo, European leaders stared at their feet in ritual contrition and did nothing. The Pentagon, meanwhile, having justly resisted NATO pressure to do its bidding in North Africa, is negotiating with Kabul for an “enduring presence” in Afghanistan, despite official protestations that it harbors no hegemonic designs in Central Asia. Simultaneously it is planning for war with China, Washington’s largest creditor.

It may be true, as declared in a popular neoconservative tract published in early 2003, that global gendarme Americans were “from Mars” while passive, treaty-mad Europeans were “from Venus.” Certainly neither side appears to have its feet planted firmly on Earth.

  • Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the Middle East protests.
  • See photos of protests in the Middle East.
  • See a slide show of 15 post-Cold War uprisings.