Libya's lessons for NATO – and US defense cuts

NATO airstrikes were critical to Qaddafi's fall, but behind the scenes, the weakness of Europe's militaries and its leadership revealed problems for the US in its prime alliance – and in coming defense cuts.

Get ready. America’s big deficit debate revives next month when Congress returns – this time with an intense focus on military cuts. And because US security is based not only on assessing potential foes but also reliable friends, it is time to examine Europe’s role in dispatching Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi from his perch.

Only a few European nations took the lead in the NATO airstrikes on Qaddafi forces, and even they had to ask for additional Pentagon assistance. The Libyan campaign was the first action by the transatlantic alliance that was not led by the United States.

Many of NATO’s 26 European allies sat out the five-month fight, either because they were unwilling to directly participate (notably Germany) or their recent defense cuts made them incapable of joining in (most of them).

Europe’s performance, in other words, was just good enough to aid the rebels’ hard-fought victory but it was an eye-opener for Washington on the sad health of America’s most important military partnership.

Members of Congress – or the super committee of 12 lawmakers tasked to reduce the deficit – must now factor in NATO’s shaky future as they come up with a possible $1 trillion in cuts to the Pentagon’s budget over the next decade.

America’s longtime plea with Europe that it increase defense spending has largely gone unheeded. And now the continent’s own debt crisis is projected to lead to even more cuts, and will reduce its backup role for the US in Afghanistan.

The recent US Defense secretary, Robert Gates, tried to make the case that the US can best help itself by “helping others defend themselves.” But Europe isn’t buying in.

The US and Europe are cooperating on building a defense shield against deployment of Iran’s long-range ballistic missiles, perhaps by 2015. But even that effort is faltering over intra-NATO rivalries over money and technology.

No wonder the Obama administration is looking to beef up military alliances in Asia, even with onetime foe Vietnam. The task is made easier by China’s threatening moves against Japan and other neighbors. But such alliances are largely bilateral, not regional, and the US is still the heavy lifter for Asia’s security.

America’s ability to protect its interests worldwide, let alone those of other nations, could be in jeopardy unless NATO can now rejuvenate itself.

Congress needs a consensus first on the proper role of America and its allies in the world before it can find a consensus on the level of defense spending. That common assessment was largely in place during the cold war and up to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Since then it has been largely lacking.

Europe’s internal struggles during the Libyan campaign, along with Washington’s defense-spending debate, could force the US to make difficult decisions about its security alliances.

Washington could, for example, accept a weaker alliance with Europe and make up for it in alliances with lesser powers, such as India and Brazil. It could reduce its naval dominance in Asia and hope that Japan, India, Australia, Indonesia, and others keep China from ruling the waves in the region. It could push Japan and South Korea to provide the main deterrence to North Korean aggression.

America’s global dominance may be coming to an end, driven in party by its own hope of a multinational defense of the world order. But just how much sharing of the defense burden can America count on?

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