Lessons from Libya: Indecision, Air Power and the Light Footprint
The fall of Colonel Gadhafi's regime in Libya, brought about in part by a sustained NATO air campaign, was lauded as a triumph by the international community. However, as with every intervention of this kind in recent memory, what replaces such violent rule is the crucial determinant of success. This is where NATO fell short in Libya. Its failure represents a threat not only to the stability of Libya as a nation, but also to the stability of North Africa and the Middle East.
Why was NATO's campaign so limited in Libya? Why was it restricted just to air power? Why did the Alliance pull out so soon after playing its part in the toppling of Gadhafi's regime? The answers to all these questions lie in NATO's at-times torrid history with international intervention.
The path to action in Libya was beset by division between member states, caused by differing perceptions of both the internal situation in the country and methods to deal with the crisis. To offer a succinct summary, nations such as the UK and France campaigned enthusiastically for intervention, whereas nations like Germany and to a lesser extent the US were sceptical at best, in some cases outright against strategies put forward by fellow member states. Such divergences of opinion between leading states within NATO led to a policy directive that agreed loosely that something had to be done, just not what specifically was the best course of action. Though internal division was such a prominent causal factor in the Alliance's failures in Libya, it was by no means the only time it has been brought to the fore. NATO reactions to both the Bosnian and Kosovo civil wars were criticized at the time for being hampered by internal diplomacy and caveats. If NATO is to develop the capability to react to crises quickly, it must create a response mechanism that allows it to speak with one voice much sooner than has previously been shown.
A common denominator during periods of indecision within the Alliance is certainly the absence of US enthusiasm for intervention. Going back once again to Kosovo, US reluctance to intervene certainly played into forming the Alliance's elongated response. For some US administrations of the last 25 years, NATO has been a body within which to test European military capabilities, as demonstrated by crises in Kosovo, Bosnia and Libya. To solve such an issue, NATO must develop both mechanisms and capabilities to act without US support. Select US commentators and analysts have long bemoaned the so-called ‘free-rider problem' within the Alliance, whereby smaller members rely on US support without guaranteeing their contribution to capabilities. If NATO is to develop a capability autonomous from the provision of US support, it must better balance its contributions between member states.
Without full US support, NATO has often opted for reduced, sometimes even tokenistic, interventions in crises. Air power usage by NATO has been used on a number of occasions, with its successes hotly debated. Some have argued that in Kosovo, air power proved relatively ineffective in preventing the mass genocide initiated by Slobodan Milosevic, with only the threat of ground troops bringing him to the negotiating table. Reliance on airpower in Libya can thus be used to explain the Alliance's shortcomings in the country. Through a lack of political will, bought about by a scepticism towards intervention post-Iraq, ground deployment was never threatened by NATO. This meant an overarching emphasis, and reliance, on air power existed throughout the campaign, simply born out of the Alliance not wishing to commit to anything else. No strategy existed to rebuild infrastructure in Libya after the bombing campaign, meaning that in many respects NATO and the wider international community left Libya a nation gutted by civil war, with no plan for the creation of a stable, democratic regime. If NATO is to improve its track record in interventions it must begin to emulate its strategies in both Bosnia and Kosovo, with a more entrenched footprint designed to prevent further reoccurrences of instability.
NATO's campaign in Libya was beset by internal division and limited only to reduced involvement. If NATO is to learn from Libya, it must approach future interventions with a pragmatic and meticulous plan. Only then will the Alliance replicate the successful Balkan interventions of the 1990s. NATO is however a sum of its parts, and cannot develop such a strategy without sufficient will from its members. Questions wider than the Alliance must be answered in foreign affairs if this is to happen.
Studied for a BSc in International Politics at Aberystwyth University, and an MSc in International Relations at the University of Surrey. Andy recently completed his MSc thesis attempting to determine NATO's role in international security, using interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo as case studies.
This article has been submitted for category B "NATO's Biggest Mistake and Lesson Learned" of the competition "Shaping Our NATO: Young Voices on the NATO Summit". Comments are most appreciated. You can also read the other articles in this category. Learn more about this competition and how you can submit your own text or video in the categories C and D.
- Atlantic-Community.org in Transition
- Towards a More Inclusive Transatlantic Partnership: Update on the 2nd Atlantic Expedition
- Topic of the Month: The Future of Health Care
- Do We Need Data Donations?
- eHealth - Tele-Monitoring and Tele-Medicine - Digital Innovation in the Life Science Sector in Germany