The Libyan ‘wedge’ in NATO

The desire to “do something” about the situation in Libya drove the United Nations Security Council to authorize use of all possible measures — diplomatic language for military force — to protect civilian populations in that troubled country. The consensus behind that vote quickly evaporated as Russia and China, holders of permanent seats and vetoes on the Security Council and which abstained on the decision, criticized actions to give the measure teeth. That development should not come as a surprise.

But the rise of tensions among Western nations that pushed for action is disheartening. Those divisions dominated the NATO summit held April 15 in Berlin as members sparred over the best response to the stubborn resilience of the government of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

While most NATO governments agree that Mr. Gadhafi must go — Italy might have different views, given long-standing business ties — key differences reflect divergent assessments of the risks created as Libya unravels. Those divergences have also exposed a fundamental truth for NATO’s European members: Despite years of talk about the development of indigenous defense capabilities, they remain unable to act to defend their declared national interests.

It took just two days after the U.N. vote for NATO to impose a “no fly zone” over Libya. The United States commanded operations that included over 100 airstrikes against Libyan targets, and several nations contributed forces. On March 24 — five days after the assault began — NATO agreed to take control of the effort. Actual handover of authority occurred March 31.

The rebel forces have been unable to exploit the opportunity and the ground war has ground down to a weary, bloody stalemate. In some cases, Mr. Gadhafi’s forces have retaken the offensive. This has forced NATO leaders to contemplate additional measures to aid the rebels, a step that has raised questions about overstepping the U.N. mandate.

At last week’s NATO summit, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov charged that current military strikes “in many cases go beyond the framework set by the Security Council,” a charge that was rejected by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who countered that NATO forces acted “in strict conformity with both the spirit and the letter of the U.N. Security Council motion.” The problem is that expanded operations will push NATO into more contested territory. In a joint article published in three leading newspapers in their countries, U.S. President Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron said a future for Libya with Mr. Gadhafi in power was “impossible.” This demand for regime change not only confirms fears of Western intervention that have long animated resistance in China and Moscow, but also has alienated fellow NATO governments.

Germany abstained on the March 17 U.N. vote and has not participated in military action, fearing greater instability in the country. Spain and Italy have supported the no-fly zone, but have drawn the line at ground strikes against Libyan government forces. Resistance to stepping up the air war has been heightened by Mr. Gadhafi’s strategy of hiding his military assets among civilian populations, increasing the prospect of civilian casualties.

NATO officials estimate that they need another eight to 10 planes capable of precision bombing; they reportedly asked the U.S. to provide them at last week’s NATO summit. French officials say the request was denied, while their U.S. counterparts say there was no official request and therefore no denial.

It is no secret that Washington wants its allies to take the lead in dealing with Libya. The U.S. administration has no desire to get involved in a third war against a Muslim country. More significantly, European nations are more directly affected by the situation in Libya: They have stronger economic ties and will have to deal with the floods of refugees if instability continues. Yet, those governments do not have the military tools needed to deal with this situation. That is the natural result of years of collective decisions among European governments to cut back on military spending and of the assumption that NATO can rely on the U.S. to meet its defense needs.

There is little indication that the U.S. tried to send a message to its partners about the gap between European security ambitions and their capabilities. Those partner governments will have to work to escape the conclusion that they can continue business as usual when it comes to continually shrinking defense budgets. That doesn’t mean that the U.S. is not a reliable ally. It does mean that European governments need to understand that they must be prepared to lead — not only by taking command but in taking action — when addressing their national security concerns.

This is not just burden sharing. This is one of the new realities of the post-2008 financial crisis world, a world in which all nations face resource constraints and new forms of cooperation and the search for new efficiencies will become guiding principles of security policy.