Lessons of the Libya War

Thursday, October 13, 2011
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Barbara Kelley

The leaders of the Free World must have heaved sighs of relief when Tripoli fell to rebel forces. Despite the involvement of the world’s premier military alliance and the three most formidable militaries in the world, it took more than five months of NATO air strikes to assist the rebels to victory over a third-rate despot. Their success in overthrowing the Ghadafi regime is good for the people of Libya, but what might it portend for other rebellions and for the United States?

Ghadafi Didn’t Do Half Badly

The countries that intervened in Libya to assist the rebels hoped that their involvement would signal the resolve of the West to protect vulnerable populations, advance the West’s values, and prevent dictators from preying violently on their own people. Those may not be the lessons other dictators take from the war.

Lessons of Libya War
Illustration by Barbara Kelley

To give a quantitative tale of the tape: the United States spent roughly $687 billion on its military last year, France spent $61 billion, and Britain spent $57 billion. How much did Libya spend? $1.1 billion. Holding off the world’s most powerful military alliance for five months with  one eight hundredth of its spending is a pretty good return on investment.

Qualitatively, the Western powers were clearly unwilling to put ground troops into the fight. If Ghadafi had been able to force a stalemate—and he nearly did—the Western powers would have been faced with the same unpleasant choice Serbia tried for during the 1999 Kosovo war: relinquish your war aims or up the ante beyond what your interests and your public’s will tolerate.

Ghadafi may yet be able to spoil the party by instigating continued violence or an insurgency that discredits the new political order.  There is an emerging playbook for those who would retain their hold on power by force, and it entails: (1) forestalling international organizations from issuing mandates; (2) speaking softly while acting brutally; (3) giving Western militaries little of value to attack; (4) holding on long enough that support erodes in Western countries; (5) discrediting the new government.

Give the Rebels Their Due

While NATO provided important military assistance, preventing the Ghadafi regime from utilizing its military advantages, the rebels won this war. And they did so without—so far—touching off the secondary explosion of civil war, which is a major concern in a society as fractured as Libya has been. Despite their inexperience on the battlefield and in governance, the rebel leaders who have emerged in Libya have made superb choices.  They fought a superior adversary; built alliances across communities; quickly restored civil order in cities as they pushed the government out; resisted looting and reprisals; emphasized the reliability of the country’s justice system to adjudicate wrongs of the regime; put their best faces forward to gain international support; and they did not antagonize the international coalition by blaming it for their failures.

Yes, NATO provided important military assistance, but the rebels won this war.

This is nothing short of amazing. The rebels have done almost everything right. Let us hope the choices of Libya’s new leaders become a model replicated by freedom fighters throughout the world; but let us not plan a strategy (as the Obama administration seems to be doing) assuming these fortuitous circumstances will be the norm.

There is no “European Security and Defense Identity”

Since at least 1990, advocates of the European Union have championed the emergence of a “common European perspective” on defense. They claimed European publics that were stingy with funding for NATO militaries would be more generous when those same militaries were part of the European project. Even before the travails of Greece and other countries endangered the common market, it was clear there was no greater willingness to spend on an EU military than there had been to spend on NATO. Moreover, there was no convergence of views on defense issues: Britain and France retained the reflexes of great powers; Germany looked to avoid responsibility; Italy grandstanded ineffectually; and new NATO members focused on territorial defense while NATO’s traditional front line states gained a territorial buffer that made them less concerned.

The United States initially worried that a unified Europe would marginalize our country. Yet it has been clear for some years that we ought to be more concerned about a Europe unwilling or incapable of sharing the burden of common military ventures. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan reinforced the lack of both a common political perspective and military strength among our allies.

The Libya experience has resuscitated the belief that Britain and France are willing to lead military operations, but it has also shown the real limits of their capacity to fight without American assistance. Or, to be more precise: it demonstrated the gap between what Europeans aspire to and the risks they are willing to run to achieve it.

This is the NATO of the Future

The allies doing the work in Libya are frustrated that less than half of NATO’s twenty-eight member countries are participating in the operation, and less than a third are participating in actual attacks. But this a la carte approach to war is the wave of NATO’s future, and it’s not a bad outcome—because the alternative is for NATO to shrink back into solely caring about the territorial defense of its member states, and that is a NATO of little value to the United States. We need partners that are willing to step forward and help solve problems where those problems are occurring.

Should Syrian demonstrators take to heart our willingness to help those in Libya?

If NATO were to require every member to take a substantial role in every military operation, that would prevent those governments from giving their sanction to NATO undertaking operations. The unanimous agreement required in NATO provides a non-trivial legitimating factor by demonstrating that the world’s most powerful democracies approve of using military force. This is the closest thing to having a concert of democracies, and is internationally useful, especially if a UN Security Council resolution cannot be secured.

NATO allies certainly have differing interests, as well as differing levels of public support for the use of military force.  They also have differing balance sheets that can make financing their participation difficult. To argue, for example, that Greece should be contributing to the Libya war is a tough case to make given the magnitude of its economic problems. But that constraint did not prevent Greece from enabling its allies to act, and that’s valuable.

Where NATO allies might want to consider a change is common funding for operations. Changing that would facilitate participation by more NATO nations, especially the less wealthy ones, and accelerate the modernization of their forces. But it would also make it more difficult to agree on operations, whereas now the countries most concerned bear the greatest expense and risk.

UN Resolutions Become More Difficult

The Chinese and Russians were skeptical about giving the Western powers the running room to intervene in Libya, and seem now to regret having done so. We promised we would prevent genocide, and we went on to arm the rebels in violation of the embargo, to recognize the rebel council as the legitimate government of the country, to bilaterally release to it funds of the Ghadafi government, to advocate the violent overthrow of the Ghadafi government, and to attack military force and leadership targets.

The UN mandate not only set a precedent the Chinese and Russian governments may live to regret, it also showed both to be ineffectual bulwarks against the advance of Western values. An international “right to protect” people against their governments has now been given more support and China’s stock declined as an ally for despots (on which much of its mercantilist policy in Africa and elsewhere is based).

But the Russians and Chinese have both complained bitterly about Western nations exceeding the mandate granted by the UN. They are sure to be more exacting in their restrictions on future resolutions, and exact a higher price from the West for agreeing to any mandates. Our transparent exceeding of the mandate in this instance will serve as a warning to China and Russia not to give a mandate for future cases—like Syria—where the outcome is much more important to our interests.

Leading From Behind = Back Seat Driving

The Obama administration is quite right that it’s in America’s interest to strengthen and embolden allies to share the burden of shaping the international order. But the specific choices the administration made with regards to Libya will diminish rather than increase the likelihood of other states stepping forward to undertake the work of future problems.

President Obama didn’t give the allies anywhere near enough credit on the war. He and his UN Ambassador repeatedly claimed that America was the deciding force on the Security Council resolution that the British and French crafted and negotiated. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went to NATO meetings without a U.S. position, infuriating our allies and delaying the action they wanted to take to intervene in Libya. The administration released figures on U.S. participation in the war that made clear the operation depended fundamentally on American forces. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced how quickly the Europeans were forced to come begging for weapons they lacked and he issued a chill warning that the U.S. would not continue to carry such a disproportionate load of the NATO alliance.

President Obama did not give our allies enough credit for the war's success.

These are not the actions of an administration that is setting its allies up for success. The administration should go back and study the disciplined behavior of the Clinton administration during the UN operation in East Timor, where the United States underwrote Australia’s leadership. We have benefitted for fifteen years from that diplomacy, with Australia’s greater participation in our other wars.

The Easiest Wars to Win Might Not Be the Most Important Ones

Allies—the U.S. included—undertook to help the Libyan rebels because it looked “do-able.” That’s not an unimportant criterion, but it should not be the only one. Every administration calculates whether the objectives of a foreign operation are achievable at a reasonable risk and cost in lives, in money, and in attention diverted from other issues. But the Obama administration’s tortured debates about whether intervening in Libya was in our interests shouted just how limited our interests in that country were. Recall that Gates and the military leadership flatly said no to that question; Clinton said yes, then recalibrated to yes because it matters to our allies; and other administration officials argued for upholding the UN’s right to protect, upholding our values, and upholding multilateralism.

Where marginal interests can be achieved at acceptably low costs, pursuing them can lead to valuable progress toward a better international order. But they are no substitute for fighting the wars that are at the center of our interests. And to the extent that the president, any president, uses his capital on the marginal wars, he has less to direct toward the central ones.

The case of Syria is illustrative, where overthrowing the Assad government would not only benefit the long-suffering people of Syria, but would also remove a government invidious to American interests. Additionally, it would impede Iranian influence in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine.

Moreover, fighting marginal wars confuses allies and enemies alike. Should Syrian demonstrators take to heart (as the president suggests) our willingness to help Libyan demonstrators, or are we encouraging them to run risks when we are only bluffing a willingness to help? 

The Return of Stand-Off War

During the 1990s, with the breakup of the Soviet empire, the United States became vastly more secure. The risks of thermonuclear war reduced dramatically and former enemies became potential partners. Navigating the transition was, of course, often dicey, and there emerged new threats where states proved incapable of performing their functions without external assistance. Although the biggest threats were reduced, the less structured international order gave the sense of a proliferation of smaller but still deadly threats: nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and pandemics.

Across four administrations, the U.S. government has sought to manage these new risks by alternating between intense involvement in nation building and remaining aloof to the struggles of people in societies burdened with repressive or incapable governments. Intellectually, we have not yet come to terms with the extent to which we are threatened by what is occurring internally to other states. As a result, we swing between counterinsurgency and stand-off strikes as our military strategy.

If you believe that other societies’ problems are not a danger to us, or that they can be managed by containing threats that may emanate from those societies, then the United States does not need to fight counterinsurgencies of the kind we have in Iraq and Afghanistan. We can remain at stand-off range and strike inside countries with our military forces, punishing our enemies and those states that harbor them. And we can assist the overthrow of governments by insurgents, as we did in Libya, at very little risk or cost to ourselves (Libya has clocked in under a billion dollars for us, which is one ninth of what we are spending every single month in Afghanistan).

This strategy does not, however, provide much influence in the development of those societies. It is in states without the capacity or willingness to govern their territory where problems like terrorism and criminal activity thrive. It is in states that are unsuccessful in navigating the changes of globalization and the demands of their citizens that extremism takes root. 

The optimistic argument is that with all we have learned, and all the intelligence systems and alliance relationships we have put in place in the past fifteen years, we will be able to attack these threats with more knowledge and less military force. But it is equally possible that the unwillingness of the United States and other leading powers to fight those wars, or to fight them in ways that shape a society internally, will make us much less effective against these kinds of threats.