The Libyan imbroglio’s four-month mark is fast approaching. By now, NATO has launched nearly 5,000 air and missile strikes against Muammar Qadaffi’s bastions, and the alliance’s panjandrums, Britain and France’s leaders and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton proclaim, continually and confidently, that Qadaffi’s regime will implode—any day now. Yet the wily colonel has survived, defying the odds. The economic and military strain on Britain, France and Italy is mounting—they have conducted the bulk of the attacks and, incidentally, together authorized 606 million Euros in arms sales, three-fourths of the EU’s total aid to Qadaffi’s Libya between 2005-2009—and the Libyan opposition complains that it is not receiving sufficient external support.
The advocates for this intervention deny that there is a civil war in Libya, arguing that Qadaffi has no support. While the ruthlessness of his forty-two-year rule is undeniable, the proposition that a despot and his coterie of cronies have managed to hang on—for over three months!—through intimidation and violence alone is preposterous. Yet this what the interventionists maintain, never mind that their righteous rendition begs a question: Why, under such favorable circumstances, has the world’s most powerful alliance failed to oust a reviled ruler who presides over what is now a third-rate military machine and faces relentless air attacks, wide-ranging sanctions, and an opposition that is said to reflect the public’s sentiment and now receives external arms, training and money?
The March 17 Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized the no-fly zone, an arms embargo and a freeze on the Qadaffi government’s assets abroad, brims with humanitarian language and references to diplomacy; but what it has in fact enabled (given NATO’s poetic interpretation of its warrant) is a war that combines attacks from afar—an intervention that was justified by invoking the moral obligation to prevent a bloodbath has been chary of risking its combatants’ lives, even as civilian casualties increase and the ranks of refugees swell—with material support for anti-Qadaffi forces in an evident attempt to decide who will rule Libya.
Diplomacy has been shunted to the sidelines. No one now seriously believes that the campaign’s overriding aim is to safeguard civilians (in Bahrain and Yemen the shooting of unarmed demonstrators didn’t much bother NATO; in Syria, its response to the bloodletting offers a sharp contrast to its reaction to Qadaffi’s repression) while also seeking a settlement. The objective is externally engineered revolution—effected, if need be, by killing Qadaffi. (Shamefully, while the executors of the intervention stress the pristine principles that motivate them and that distinguish them from Qadaffi, they remained silent when a April 30 NATO air strike killed his youngest son and three grandchildren.)
Eventually, Qadaffi will be displaced and the guns will be silenced, though remnants of his regime will be part of any post-war settlement. That’s when the real problems will begin. The intervention’s architects will then confront a country with no definitive center of power and plenty of economic distress and political discord. NATO’s performance hardly inspires confidence about its capacity to handle these (much messier) challenges, not least because they cannot be addressed from the safety of the oceans and the skies and will require engagement that is up close, extensive, prolonged. Failure will bring renewed conflict and, with it, additional humanitarian crises. In a pinch, NATO can walk away from the chaos; Libyans cannot.
The auguries for post-war Libya are not auspicious. If the campaign drags on, there will be a multi-billion dollar bill. Already, the United States has spent close to $800 million and Britain over $300 million; France has exceed the anticipated costs by over 90 million Euros—this when Europeans and Americans are facing budget cuts and the US economy remains in a slump. With an American presidential election looming and public opinion in the United States, Britain and Italy increasingly unenthusiastic about the war, how likely is it that its spear carriers will spend what it takes and stay committed on multiple fronts for as long as it takes rather than devising an exit formula along the lines of “We’ve liberated the Libyans, now they must make their own future”? (And can Arab leaders, authoritarians who themselves face popular insurrection or live in fear of it, be counted on to take up the challenge? Not likely. Even though they played a crucial part in enabling this operation, through the Arab League March 12 vote for a no-fly zone over Libya, all but a few have wanted nothing to do with it.)
Yet Libya’s fate and NATO’s future are connected if one considers the common forecast for the alliance after the Cold War, which was that it must either “go out-of-area or out of business.” Seen thus, the Libyan operation is scarcely an instance of its successfully adapting to the new and expanded mission. Only a clutch of non-American NATO allies has taken part. Even fewer have participated in the bombing (and they could not have without intelligence and targeting information provided by the United States), and they quickly started running short of munitions and turned to Washington. Like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Libyan war demonstrates that non-US NATO lacks the unity, will, or muscle to conduct major extra-European missions. NATO is adrift, its waywardness camouflaged by pabulum about common values and eternal unity and the ethereal recommendations of establishmentarian committees convened to keep it going.
In Libya this rhetoric has once again encountered reality. The alliance is hoping for a smooth post-Qadaffi transition that paves the path to stability. What if the reality proves different? That, in the rush to arms, is a question it did not consider with care. But there’s no avoiding it now. Phase II of this ill-conceived adventure awaits.