With Libya Victory, Obama Should Exit NATO

Libya proves NATO's obsolescence to the United States.


"Why are we still in NATO?"

I've fielded this question a half-dozen times over the last week while on radio talk shows  promoting my book about the militarization of U.S. foreign policy. Listeners instinctively know, it seems, what our security fetishists in Washington do not: that America's resources at home are badly outstripped by security commitments abroad, particularly at a time of near recession and draconian spending cuts. When the subject comes up I want to turn the microphone on Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's secretary general, and let him explain to cash-strapped callers why job security is more important for alliance bureaucrats than it is for the people who are paying for this Cold War relic in the first place.

The denouement to NATO's seven-month long air war against Muammar Qadhafi's Libya provides Washington with an opportunity to finally bolt the Brussels-based iron rice bowl. Having wisely allowed the alliance's European partners to lead the operation, at least ostensibly, and given the mission's at least tactical success, the Obama administration can assert its European allies are capable of shouldering their security burden themselves and quietly make for the exit. [Read: It's Time for the Pentagon to Get Realistic About Its Budget]

Such a declaration would be nonsense, of course. From the outset of the Libyan campaign, Britain, France, and Italy were dependent on the Pentagon for critical air surveillance and in-flight refueling aircraft for its bombardment of loyalist positions. Plus, relations among NATO's most powerful constituents was as fractious as ever, with Germany and Turkey refusing to participate in the operation at all. As coalition warfare goes, NATO's Libya expedition was only slightly less shambolic than its exclusively Anglo-American bombing of Serbian aggressors in Kosovo in 1999. If the operation proved anything, it was that the trans-Atlantic alliance is incapable of learning from its mistakes and should be scrapped on that basis alone.

On the bright side, Britain and France did insert commandos among the rebels to train and arm them, and to direct air strikes. Analysts give Paris and London a passing grade for adjusting to the tempo and unique demands of the conflict. While that may be a thin reed from which Washington could quit the world's largest and most obsolete military alliance, it will have to do. [See photos of unrest in Libya.]

If, as Ronald Reagan famously said, the hardest thing to kill is a government program, so too is it all but impossible to dissolve a military coalition with 28 members, each of which has its own parochial interests that make a hash of alliance cohesion, to say nothing of a unified mission. This week Kurt Volker, a respected former U.S. representative to NATO and a self-described "die-hard Atlanticist," penned an incisive critique of the alliance's failures for Foreign Policy. The inability or unwillingness for NATO forces to operate jointly in Afghanistan, Volker writes, was even more obvious and corrosive to the alliance in Libya. The price, according to Volker, was "greater cost in lives and treasure than might have been the case." The successful outcome of NATO's war against Qaddafi came about "despite deep-rooted problems that still remain unaddressed within the alliance."

What is extraordinary about Volker's article is how it could easily have been written 12 years ago, after the Kosovo bombings laid bare NATO's core inadequacies. By Volker's own account, nothing has changed since, yet he concludes his indictment with an appeal to sustain this warmed-over meatloaf of an alliance. "Europe and America," he concludes, "these twin pillars of democratic values in the world, need to act together more closely than ever before." [Read: Debt Downgrade Won't Have Much Short-Term Effect on Foreign Policy]

As load bearers go, neither Europe nor America offer much in the way of credibility. Their economies are exhausted, so much so that even Washington now understands the need for significant cuts in defense spending. The bipartisan Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan unveiled nearly a year ago wisely and emphatically urged Washington to unwind its costly military commitments in Europe and Asia. At the same time, European leader should take more seriously their collective security needs and budget and act accordingly. While the United States, to paraphrase James Baker, had no dog in Libya's rebellion, Europe certainly has an interest in a stable north Africa and it should develop the expeditionary capability to mount sustained military operations throughout the Mediterranean. Here, the United States could help with the training and weaponry needed to wean Europe off its dole.

Then perhaps, fully two decades after the implosion of the Warsaw Pact, it could declare an end to the Cold War and come home.

  • See a roundup of editorial cartoons about the mideast uprisings.
  • See photos of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
  • Read: Jobs Issue Plays Into Defense Cuts Argument