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.

Sergey Ponomarev/AP
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.

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.

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."

Fifteen years ago, the US footed 50 percent of NATO costs; last year the figure was 75 percent, and European spending on defense is going down. Of the 28 NATO nations signed on to Libya, only eight participated in operations, though partly this was due to a gap in the equipment and capability of members.

“Americans may feel rightful anger in Europeans not doing their share,” says Tomas Valasek, a defense and security specialist with the Center for European Reform in London. “But Europe showed a newfound political courage in Libya. The commentariat, and the Atlanticists in Washington, who used to be NATO defenders, have missed the main story in Libya.”

Yet in an age of austerity in Europe it may be that Libya turns out to be a “one-off” that isn’t duplicated. Last month, Italy pulled their aircraft carrier Garibaldi out of the Libyan theater to save $114 million, allies ran out of munitions and were only able to fly about half of the planned sorties, and one of the traditional NATO pillars, Germany, opted out from the start.

The end of an alliance?

Europe, to be sure, is no longer a militarily contested zone. The Soviet threat is over. The acute Balkans turmoil is largely mollified, with states applying for EU membership. Russia's incursion into Georgia in 2008 has not been repeated and Moscow appears to have little appetite for expensive “sphere of influence” operations. Estonia recently backed Moscow’s World Trade Organization bid. Germany is looking to the east, creating more robust business and trade relations.

“What worries me is that the NATO-bashing and anger at Europe in Washington, combined with a new generation in the US, will actually hasten the end of the alliance,” says Mr. Valasek.

Leon Panetta, who replaced Mr. Gates as the US Secretary of Defense, this week described the apparent successes in North Africa as “… a good indication of the kind of partnership and alliances that we need to have for the future if we are going to deal with the threats that we confront in today’s world.”

What that actually means is unclear.

According to today's Wall Street Journal, European defense spending is slated to decrease by nearly 3 percent in coming years.

"The fact is that Europe couldn't have done this on its own … The lack of defense investments in Europe will make it increasingly difficult for Europe to take on responsibility for international crisis management beyond Europe's borders," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told the Journal regarding the Libya operation.

Ms. Crow finds that, “The one thing promising out of Libya is that Britain and France have demonstrated an ability to act cooperatively … they are the two most natural allies, if riddled with idiosyncrasies. The Americans are looking inward and to the east, to the Pacific. Job creation today is found in Hong Kong and Singapore.”

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