A Small War With Big Consequences

Compared to the West’s military interventions in the Gulf, Afghanistan or the Balkans, the war in Libya was a modest affair, with the engagement of about 100 combat aircraft and a baker’s dozen of attack helicopters.

Yet this small and successful war will have major strategic consequences for both NATO and the European Union, as a result of President Barack Obama’s decision to “lead from behind,” and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refusal to get involved.

After the first days of the conflict, Obama signaled that U.S. strike aircraft would no longer be put in the firing line, and that the United States would not lead the coalition’s operations. This was the first time since the Cold War that the U.S. decided to neither exercise leadership nor fully share risks in a war in which it was otherwise participating.

The positive consequences were that the French president and the British prime minister got the opportunity to lead a successful coalition, and that the war was not conducted along the familiar American lines of “overwhelming force” or “shock and awe.”

Power plants, water purification facilities, telecommunication sites and other critical infrastructure were left largely unscathed by the air war. Provided that large-scale looting is prevented, the daily life of most Libyans should thus go back to normal fairly quickly.

At the same time, the leading-from-behind policy will have negative consequences for allied defense in general and NATO in particular.

Until the Libya campaign, Western force planners assumed that in any coalition operation certain military tasks would be undertaken largely by U.S. forces in order to avoid useless duplication of efforts. Suppression of enemy air defenses and close air support are in effect American monopolies. Yet in Libya, the absence of American A-10 close air support aircraft may have lengthened the war.

If “leading from behind” becomes the rule rather than the exception — a plausible assumption given the current inward-looking mood in the United States and cuts in defense spending — European force planners will have to invest in some of these areas. Given the debt crisis, such spending will come at the expense of other defense investments.

More generally, France and Britain (which account for some 60 percent of Europe’s military purchases) will presumably put a higher value on their ability to manage close-to-home operations, like the Libyan war, over playing second fiddle in far-from-home operations, like the one in Afghanistan.

The bottom line will presumably be that the Europeans will focus more on their near-abroad, with NATO becoming more regional and less global.

That trend will be worsened by the consequences of the division among Europeans toward the Libyan campaign. A majority of NATO and European Union members, led by countries as important as Germany, Poland and Turkey, refused to support the war, notwithstanding an explicit U.N. Security Council resolution.

In the case of Germany, 20 years of progress toward supporting participation in U.N.-backed and NATO-run wars were reversed. Even jointly-owned assets such as NATO’s fleet of AWACS radar aircraft were deprived of German personnel, although these were not strike aircraft.

Given these deep divisions, NATO was in no position to conduct the war in political and strategic terms: that was done by a half-dozen coalition partners in Europe and North America. The role of the alliance was that of a service provider, choreographing the intricate ballet of combat aircraft, in-flight refueling planes, information-gathering assets and warships.

Without NATO’s enabling machinery and the formidable American capabilities on which it rests, the war would have been a much-more fraught affair. But that is damning with faint praise. NATO as a political organization is a casualty of the Libyan war.

The same, and worse, can be said of the European Union, which played no identifiable part in the war. In the arena of defense, the war exposed the same structural insufficiencies and flaws that have been highlighted by the E.U.’s handling of the crisis of the euro.

Such a Union is unlikely to summon the political will to sustain a level of defense spending commensurate with the strategic uncertainties lying at its doorstep as America is set to lead from the rear. Nor can Britain and France be expected to pull a greater load than they did, to their credit, in Libya, and which they continue to do in Afghanistan.

By François Heisbourg, special adviser at the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research.

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