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Could NATO's Libya mission be its last hurrah?

With the austerity gripping Europe and a new generation of leaders not shaped by cold-war politics, NATO's future is increasingly in question.

By Staff writer / August 24, 2011

Rebel fighters gesture and shoot in the air as they celebrate overrunning Muammar Qaddafi's compound Bab al-Aziziya in Tripoli, Libya, early Wednesday, Aug. 24.

Sergey Ponomarev/AP

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Paris

The surprising shift in Libya's civil war – and yesterday's rebel takeover of Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s Tripoli compound, the symbol of a regime dating to Richard Nixon's presidency – is owed not only to rebels' persistence but the NATO mission that backed them.

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Despite Qaddafi’s prediction that Western leaders would fall “like Hitler and Mussolini” and his claims that he was "ready for a long war,” NATO weathered six months of a see-saw battle in Libya – and even within its own ranks – with a combination of patience, rebel training, and 19,000 sorties.

NATO's Libya venture marked the first time that the United States stepped aside to let European powers take the lead in the world's most successful military alliance.

Yet while British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy are pausing to take due credit for a turn in the Libyan tide, there is significant doubt about the future of the transatlantic alliance forged from the anvil of post-war Europe.

With the Afghan war in a “wind-down” mode, and the US worried about debt ceilings and security concerns in the Pacific, the future of NATO after Libya may be in the hands of an increasingly divided Europe and guided by a generation on both sides of the Atlantic no longer shaped by cold war geopolitics.

Alexis Crow of London’s Chatham House argues, “NATO will of course continue … but it will move away from a collective defense organization to a loosely based alliance and a talking shop.”

Europe's NATO commitment

In March, with Colonel Qaddafi’s forces massing outside Benghazi, British and French leaders convinced the Obama administration that the Arab Spring was about to be crushed; the tipping point was a reminder that European troops were fighting in the NATO-led Afghan war. Europe wanted reciprocal help with a NATO “no-fly” mission on its own doorstep, approved by the United Nations Security Council.

The Obama administration's "leading from behind" strategy in Libya was criticized by one wing of the GOP for not being aggressive enough, and by a more isolationist wing for taking part in Libya at all.

As Europe struggled to lead the Libya operation, Washington, particularly outgoing US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, criticized Europe’s resolve and commitment to an alliance that Americans were taking a larger share in paying for.

In a widely cited and unusually candid June 10 speech to NATO leaders in Brussels, Mr. Gates said that "if current trends in the decline of European defense capabilities are not halted and reversed, future US political leaders – those for whom the cold war was not the formative experience that it was for me – may not consider the return on America's investment in NATO worth the cost."

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