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NATO in Libya: The Saga of the Tortoise and the Hare

Imagine Europe had rapidly brought to bear all the firepower imaginable in Libya. Would the world be better off?

June 17, 2011

Imagine Europe had rapidly brought to bear all the firepower imaginable in Libya. Would the world be better off?

Seemingly all the major U.S. newspapers, including the New York Times and Washington Post, are editorializing harshly that NATO (read: Europe) shows itself a complete failure in Libya. It acts too slowly, with too little force — and proves shamefully dependent on U.S. firepower.

Following on the heels of U.S. Secretary of Defense Bob Gates’ stern warning about the future of NATO, such displays of what increasingly seems like self-righteous indignation were to be expected.

To be sure, the European response to Libya leaves much to be desired. And yet, I wonder: Imagine the Europeans had brought to bear all the firepower imaginable and had done so rapidly. Would the world be better off?

The answer is not a matter of conjecture and speculation, but of hard evidence because there is a relevant precedent: Iraq. The key question that needs to be asked is: Just what has shock and awe brought us in Iraq? Or in Afghanistan, for that matter?

The evidence is that even the best-resourced military the world has ever known, rife with its impressive hell-from-the-sky and boots-on-the-ground skills, has not succeeded where it moved fast, in Iraq. Far from it.

Hundreds of billions of dollars and a decade later, the United States is likely to have very little to show for its interventions, especially considering the human lives lost and financial treasures expended in those two large-scale missions.

The key question is this: What does all that firepower really yield? Cockiness? Temporary, mucho macho self-satisfaction? A live-action training ground for toys for boys?

In the end, what has been forgotten amidst all the naïve and, yes, boyish, fascination with state-of-the-art military equipment is that all those conflicts require a political solution.

And the prospects for that definitely do not get advanced much by rapid, “decisive” military action. Quite the opposite: The action may come too fast, exceeding ground commanders’ ability to steer the process of political change.

Remember L. Paul Bremer, that dapper Timberland “boot guy” who quickly determined, in his infinite wisdom and really quite idiotically, to dissolve the Baath Party instead of cleansing it and preserving a semblance of a non-Shiite, non-Iranian-steered power structure in Iraq?

Those are exactly the kinds of mistakes that are made if things go too well and too swiftly militarily.

So the bigger question, with the U.S. media rush toward rapid action in Libya, is: Who’s kidding whom? The Europeans are far from perfect — and they know it. But it is important to recognize that their scarce resources-induced go-slow approach actually helps settle the political battlefield in Libya.

Assume the NATO partners and related parties had succeeded wildly and toppled Gaddafi in next to no time. The problem has been all along that, when it comes to the opposition, we don’t know whom we are dealing with, who had the skills to lead — and we are still grappling with these questions.

So what time has really been lost? The “delay” has only prevented us from making yet another rash, L. Paul Bremer-like pact with yet another potential devil.

As things stand, Libya’s post-Gaddafi regime, in a way, is slowly shaking itself out by virtue of allowing plenty of members of the previous elite to disassociate themselves from the despot.

As a result, a gradual internal self-cleansing process is taking place, which can only be said to help the transition — and lay the groundwork more deliberately for the subsequent transformation, which is going to be difficult enough.

Even in Poland, perhaps the biggest success story in terms of self-liberation, it took eight long years, from the imposition of martial law under General Wojciech Jaruzelski in December 1981, to October 1989, when Solidarnosc had finally won the upper hand.

Given that, how could Libya, fraught with tribal conflicts as it is, realistically expect to have a transition lasting but a few weeks?

In closing, it’s worthwhile to reflect on NATO: NATO, or so it seems, increasingly only brings out the worst in the transatlantic partners these days, even when it seems they are finally pulling on the same rope and in the same direction.

I remember attending a dinner in Washington at a very pro-NATO organization — and some people around the table, ardent transatlanticists, spewed with disgust over the Europeans’ actions in Libya.

“Wimps,” “incompetents” and “cowards” were probably among the nicer words I heard. My own view, that the NATO intervention actually gave the previously rather ephemeral “responsibility to protect” some real meaning (and also created a precedent), didn’t cut it. Neither did my point that, in comparison to the eternal hesitation in the 1990s in dealing with the Balkans, this ought to be considered progress.

If you engage, I was told, bring maximum force. Act decisively. Since the Europeans, as a matter of political and public will, as well as of finances, were not only unable to do it now, but really will be unable to do so at any time in the future, why uphold the charade that is NATO?

And there you have it: On the rare occasions when one might surmise a happy meeting of the minds between those who are usually keen to pull the trigger and those who are hesitant to do so, it’s still not good enough.

That is indeed a wide ocean to bridge, one that will perhaps prove unbridgeable.