US steps back from Libya, shifting burden to Europe

In order to sustain operations, experts say France and Britain need to forge a broader European consensus on Libya intervention.

Amateur Video via Reuters TV/Reuters
A dust cloud rises after an explosion during what is believed to be an attack against anti-Qaddafi rebels near Brega on April 7, in this still image taken from amateur video.

With the US military ending its airstrikes in Libya this week, France and Britain are taking the lead in an increasingly chaotic and confusing desert theater.

For the first time in NATO’s 62-year history, Uncle Sam is not on the front lines directing the show, but will play a back-up role that includes aerial refueling and emergency support. The unprecedented move accords with longstanding US calls for other nations within the alliance to share the burden on the international scene.

But the effect is slightly jolting in European capitals that have often talked of military leadership but have rarely followed through, or needed to.

IN PICTURES: Libya conflict

For Europe, taking the lead on Libya – a conflict still hazy on aims and outcomes – is a “wake-up call,” say analysts. It is also seen on this side of the Atlantic as a sign of things to come as the US faces budgetary convulsions and global overreach.

“It is a big wake-up call,” says Alexis Crow of Chatham House in London. “It means Europe is going to have to cooperate more with Europe. America’s immense deficit is playing a role here.”

The wake-up call for France and Britain

France and Britain signed a bilateral military pact last year, seen as a way to reduce expenditures. But Ms. Crow says events are pushing the two nations, which combined have significant power projection capabilities, into new territory. There's discussion of a six-month no-fly zone, of negotiations, and of use of special forces.

Coalition pilots flying along the coastal road near Ajdabiya, northeast of Brega, yesterday reported difficulty determining friend from foe as the sides rapidly shifted, a problem predicted at the outset of the campaign. Libyan leader Muammar Qaddifi’s forces have used civilian vehicles to conduct operations, making them harder to identify.

Reports in The New York Times today said rebels had been told to paint the roofs of their vehicles yellow, but that many did not. In the chaos on the ground, NATO jets mistakenly hit rebel tanks Thursday, mistaking them as loyalist forces.

"It would appear that two of our strikes yesterday may have resulted in the deaths of a number of [rebel] forces," said the NATO deputy commander, Rear Adm. Russell Harding, today. NATO officials expressed regret for the deaths, but did not formally apologize in order to avoid language that could later have legal implications.

Taking the lead in Washington's absence

Today British Foreign Minister William Hague said the Libya operation has reached a second phase: “maintaining” a no-fly zone. British government leaks today suggest that a number of planned cuts in the British defense budget may be rethought. The language in London this week is that budget cuts have not accounted for "world events."

After urging from French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron, President Obama agreed to help European allies stop a bloodbath in Libya that threatened to reverse the Arab democratic uprisings. Europe is America’s main ally and has responded, if not always robustly, with help on Afghanistan and other needs.

But while the US opened operations in Libya using “unique capabilities” – the Pentagon said there were 1,600 sorties in two weeks – the US president would not commit to the lead role. This week the tripartite US-France-UK flag on Libya was reduced to just the UK and France.

“Washington has made clear that it does not want to be in the lead in the Libya operation,” says Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “That leaves Europe with two tasks. First, Europeans must step up to the plate and deliver the assets necessary to prosecute the mission. Second, they must demonstrate that they can forge a consensus on the mission's strategy and objectives.”

France, Britain ask for Europe's help

France has been sending about 20 planes a day and says it will increase that number to pick up the slack from US forces. Britain has been sending about half that number. The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that Britain and France are now calling for help from the rest of Europe.

Paris is also now involved in the Ivory Coast to protect civilians and help dislodge strongman incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo, who has refused to step down after losing the November presidential election.

Mr. Sarkozy was an important progenitor of the Libyan venture to create a no-fly zone through UN Resolution 1973. However, Sarkozy’s critics say the French president will have to maintain discipline and not get distracted in order to see through the campaign with his British partner.

Different views on Libya emerged this week with French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe arguing an affirmative, patient game that involves multiple tactics to dislodge Qaddafi. "The question today is to know under what conditions Qaddafi goes, not how he's going to be able to hold on to power," he said.

US Army Gen. Carter Ham, who led US air operations in Libya before the NATO handoff, said this week in the Senate that a successful rebel siege on the capital of Tripoli is a "low likelihood."

While the US is withdrawing its lead role, it is not withdrawing from Libya NATO operations. It will be continuing to use its military assets in a wide range of areas. “America is still there [in NATO], but it is rerouting,” says Crow. “Obama is being shrewd politically which is not something we’ve always seen in American presidents that have wars on their hands.”

One US aircraft that NATO may call on in future is the A-10 “Warthog,” an antitank craft that, while not speedy, can fly low, has great visibility and can emerge from behind hills in an element of surprise. The French and British-made jets are targeting from greater heights.

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