NATO in Libya: Confused Coalition of the Unwilling and Unable

NATO officials claim that as the pressure increases on Muammar Gaddafi, it is just a matter of time before he is either killed or forced to depart Libya. One hopes so, but hope is not a military strategy.
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Since its air war began in March against Col. Muammar Gaddafi, NATO has flown over 12,000 missions over Libya including 4,000 strike sorties by attack helicopters, missile firing drones, and jet fighters -- most of which have targeted Gaddafi's military redoubts in Tripoli, which have been obliterated and reduced to rubble.

The air armada includes joint NATO operational support from Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, Norway, Sweden, the UK and the U.S. (the latter providing reconnaissance, refueling and missile firing drones consistent with President Obama's decision to play a backseat role in the campaign).

Sounds formidable, but the results have yielded insufficient progress except for a growing battlefield impasse and troublesome divisions within the NATO alliance. NATO spokesmen boldly declare that Gaddafi's fighting ability has been degraded 50%. And that is likely accurate. There are severe shortages of food, gasoline, and Gaddafi faces defections from his coterie of cronies that are leaving him increasingly isolated.

However, the punishing barrage has failed, so far, to dislodge Gaddafi from his lair, and but for a lucky missile strike there is no sign that Gaddafi is packing his bags. Why not? Now in its 14th week, why hasn't this formidable NATO air armada accomplished whatever mission it secretly conceived (which still remains a murky mystery to the rest of us) that originally was supposed to last only a few weeks against the likes of an isolated, degraded and demoralized regime?

Deconstructing the causes for NATO's Libyan travails does not require us to resort to rocket science. First, the most formidable military alliance in history faces severe internal divisions and a shortage of will and power over Libya. On June 8, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates reproached NATO's major military alliance holdouts -- Netherlands, Spain, Turkey, Poland and Germany for failing to pony up and join the rest of the NATO alliance in active air combat operations over Libya. Almost two weeks later after this Brussels summit, the finger pointing is growing as the culprit countries collectively remain AWOL -- hemming and hawing while the rest of the Alliance's reputation on which their own defense depends takes an undeserved body blow.

And then just a few days ago, Britain's air chief went uncharacteristically public expressing fear that the Britain's own defense face "serious consequences" if the air campaign were to continue. He was unceremoniously rebuked by Prime Minister Cameron, who declared that Britain was fully committed to the Libyan mission " long as is necessary and that time is on our side, not Gaddafi's."

Just today, Italy called for a suspension of the air campaign to permit the delivery of humanitarian aid to Libya's civilians who confront an increasingly dire humanitarian situation.

How ironic, since UN Resolution 1973 authorized the use of all means necessary to protect Libya's civilians, and lo and behold, the over-extended and over-timed NATO offensive appears to be having the unintended consequence of exacerbating the very humanitarian crisis it was intended to relieve if the Italian foreign minister's assertion is accurate.

Second, the White House is dithering and has largely abandoned its misdirected initial enthusiasm for the project, and just does not want to step up the level of its military involvement as the Administration entraps itself in a domestic Congressional vs. Executive branch quarrel over war powers. The Pentagon brass have made it clear they have no stomach for the Libyan enterprise, much less to step in to refill a NATO vacuum when NATO is not uppermost in the minds of military commanders dealing with Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, etc.

The few NATO European combatants involved assert that without increased American air power support and command coordination the air campaign cannot force a dramatic shift in the order of battle. But with increasing Congressional criticism now checkmating any inclination by the White House to get off the dime, it is unlikely that the U.S. will do more than it is doing now -- half in/half out.

Third, other than bombing Gaddafi's redoubts hoping for that lucky strike, there is simply no NATO/Arab League military strategy consistent with the UN mandate in place to enable the Libyan rebels to propel their way to Tripoli anytime soon to do the job that NATO should not be doing itself (i.e., taking the regime down).

Without more training, support, supply and actual NATO boots on the ground (mainly French and Egyptian and certainly not American) the rebels just do not have the military wherewithal to confront Gaddafi's decaying military. They have proven unable to effectively leverage their battleground gains.

Fourth, the most gung ho European combatant -- France -- has provided inadequate leadership to the entire affair. While France has been one of the most active participants in the air campaign, the French have utterly failed to convince their key European NATO allies to do any heavy lifting, and the French government has been quietly retreating from its Libyan brash bravado as erroneous air strikes claim civilian casualties. Sarkozy, not Obama, really owns this war -- but he'd like to just rent it.

Fifth, Gaddafi has money... lots of cash on hand to continue to buy allegiances, particularly tribal allegiances and mercenary support that is sustaining his fight. NATO gravely underestimated how many billions of dollars Gaddafi had stashed away from which to sustain a long, drawn out military operation.

NATO officials claim that as the pressure increases on him, it is just a matter of time before Gaddafi is either killed or forced to depart Libya. One hopes so, but hope is not a military strategy.

I have long argued that Gaddafi and his fate is a foolish strategic distraction for the U.S. and that we have no business risking American lives or treasure in Libya since the future of Gaddafi's regime is largely a European and Arab world matter. But now that the very reputation of NATO's military acuity is on the line, not least because of a lack of a clear strategy, well-defined goals, intractable European divisions, and American hesitation, NATO faces a growing crisis of confidence. These divisions do not augur well for NATO's future, and they surely will have far more consequences than Gaddafi's longevity if the spectacle of disunity becomes the hallmark of the Libyan campaign.

And yet, the U.S. -- the most important anchor tenant in the alliance -- has developed a remarkable lack of enthusiasm to find a better strategy to shelter NATO from the public spectacle of Gaddafi defiantly playing chess to adoring television cameras. American reproaches to European NATO fence-squatters for failing to ante up are not going to preserve the Alliance's integrity.

President Obama recently tried to convince German Chancellor Merkel to ante up... but she balked. No one would have predicted that NATO's own status as a unified alliance lies in the balance because of the halfhearted American and European commitments. The operational inadequacy over Libya's skies highlights the limits of NATO's military capacity when the Yanks are in the bleachers.

All of this is to say that as much as I disagree with the entire enterprise, France, the UK and the more enthusiastic Arab participants in the operation, such as Egypt, the UAE and Qatar are going to have to come up with a better strategy to finish the job they were determined to start.

It is quite clear that air power alone may not break the stalemate since the U.S. is not going to step back in and ratchet up its role unless President Obama reverses course.

Perhaps the still elusive negotiated settlement between Gaddafi and his antagonists is yet possible, and there have been many failed attempts so far to reach one. But as long as the rebel leadership insists that Gaddafi must leave the country and Gaddafi refuses to do so, the negotiations will remain, like the military campaign, at a stalemate.

If no negotiation will yield a settlement and the impasse continues, a new, more capable "coalition of the willing" will have to be reconstructed possibly with European and Arab boots on the ground to back up a rebel advance on Tripoli. Better that than abiding by the rebels' decaying under Gaddafi's cunning relentless will to survive and all of the dangers that poses to the rebels, their families, and those who failed to finish the job they were so anxious to start. If Gaddafi is not gone by mid-summer, this may be the only remedy left to fend off an inglorious NATO and UN defeat.

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