Libya Exposes Transatlantic Contradictions

My first piece for CNN has been posted at Fareed Zakaria's Global Public Square.

My first piece for CNN, “Libya Exposes Transatlantic Contradictions,” has been posted at Fareed Zakaria’s Global Public Square. It’s reposted below in its entirety.

As the Libya crisis has unfolded these last several months, some long-festering contradictions have come to light.

First, for a variety of reasons, many of us opposed American intervention in the conflict. As horrible as the potential humanitarian crisis in Benghazi could have been, preventing it did not strike us as a vital national interest worthy of going to war. Further, we had and continue to hold doubts about whether the end state — which the United States would have great responsibility for given our role in bringing it about — would be the stable, pro-Western democracy for which we would hope. Also, given fatigue from ten years of constant war fighting and the strains of the global recession, it’s clear there is little appetite for post-conflict reconstruction.

At the same time, however, once President Obama committed the United States to war and declared the ouster of Moammar Gadhafi as the only acceptable end game, it was very frustrating to simultaneously rule out a lead role in the mission.

The late-night comedian Jon Stewart’s quip that “the U.S. handing Libya over to NATO is like Beyoncé saying she’s ceding control to Sasha Fierce” constantly came to mind as the fight dragged on. Yes, Gadhafi was ultimately ousted — after six months — with a European face on the fight. But it came at the cost of undermining our partners’ confidence in American leadership as well as rendering hypocritical our complaints about European “caveats” in Afghanistan.

Second, the fight has both reaffirmed my belief that NATO is an absolutely vital vehicle for transatlantic cooperation and underscored my fear that it is structurally unsound. Headline writers to the contrary, the toppling of the Gadhafi regime is an unqualified success for the Alliance. Who else could have, in short order, coordinated a complex operation with American, Canadian, European and Arab states? Certainly, not the European Union. Nor was the French offer to simply lead in an ad hoc fashion acceptable to Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and others. Years of working and training together under a stable institutional framework had created vital trust.

At the same time, however, the lack of investment in defense infrastructure that so many of us have been warning about for years — and that Bob Gates so eloquently outlined in his parting shots as U.S. defense secretary — was laid bare in the skies over Libya.

Despite the Europeans having far more at stake in their own backyard than the Americans — and France and the United Kingdom spearheading the intervention — the fact of the matter was that the operation would simply not have been possible without the United States. Not only did the Americans do most of the heavy lifting in the early days but, even after the ostensible handover, we supplied almost all of the aerial refueling, ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), and SEAD (suppression of enemy air defenses). And some European militaries infamously ran out of fuel and bullets and had to pass the proverbial hat around to stay in the fight.

Third, there is a serious disconnect between the will to intervene and the ability to do so. The Germans are rightly taking blistering criticism from not only their NATO partners but many of their own elder statesmen, most recently former Chancellor Helmut Kohl. But at least their reluctance to invest in their own defense is matched with reluctance to project power. Lamentable as the German pullback from the steady leadership position they’ve held the last quarter century may be, it is consistent with the will of the German people. In a democratic republic, that’s perhaps as it should be — although Kohl might argue that strong leadership could change public sentiment.

In the UK and France, by contrast, the combination of war weariness and the ravages of the economic crisis have forced austerity. Two countries who stood astride the world for centuries — frequently in direct competition with one another — by virtue of their ability to project military power are now reduced to sharing a single aircraft carrier. With massive unemployment and the demands of large welfare states, the political will to spend on defense just doesn’t exist. Yet, this has not thus far been met with a decreased appetite to project power.

The United States, meanwhile, is in a strange netherworld in between. Austerity is coming at the Pentagon, too, with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta expected to find tens of billions in savings. But, with a defense budget larger than that of the other twenty-six allies and its likely military competitors combined, the pain will be felt mostly in lost jobs rather than diminished capability. Yet, as Libya demonstrated, the United States is no longer interested in carrying the burden.

At the Lisbon Summit last November, the Alliance put out a new Strategic Concept that paid lip service to a bold, ambitious future. At the time, many of us praised the words but noted that they would have to be followed by deeds. Ironically, the victory in Libya has demonstrated the hollowness of the words.

When they meet in Chicago next May, it will be time to re-align NATO’s strategic ambitions with its capabilities and will.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Ben Wolf says:

    Why is it the responsibility of the U.S. to make up for Europe’s lack of military muscle? Because that’s all that retaining NATO does: it enables countries who don’t want to spend on defense to leverage the power of the United States for their own purposes.

    Given this reality I’m hard-pressed to understand your continued support for the alliance.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Ben Wolf: As noted above, it’s an invaluable planning and organizing institution. While the “handoff” was less than advertised, it nonetheless allowed the US to let others do a lot of the dirty work. Those others included non-traditional “partner” countries unlikely to take orders directly from France.

  3. michael reynolds says:

    But it came at the cost of undermining our partners’ confidence in American leadership

    I don’t see where that comes from.

    If it was “But it came at the cost of Europeans feeling they can always freeload,” then I’d buy it.

    I have a bias in favor of reality. If the net result is that Europeans are forced to admit that they are bit players militarily, and they then decide to align their ambitions to their capabilities, great. They can go either way: ramp up their militaries, or ramp down their pretensions.

    I suspect as you do that it will be the latter. In fact I expect they’ll actually cut their military budgets further on the realization that their forces aren’t of much use, really, except as a sort of Me-too Brigade to follow us into one skirmish or another.

    One question I have is of the “dog that didn’t bark” variety, the unseen things that didn’t occur because we have been so dominant. What might have happened, and what might still happen, in a world where the US pulls back and dilutes our global hegemony? Our power is so overwhelming that ambitious countries take one look, shrug, and decide to do something other than become military superpowers. Germany, Japan, the UK, France, China, Russia, they are all capable of projecting much more power than they do. They’ve made choices predicated on unchallengeable US dominance. What happens when that changes?

  4. RW Rogers says:

    Agree with Michael. Answer to his question: Oh, I don’t know, about what is happening now – the UK, Germany, France and Japan will probably dawdle and not do much, China is already set on establishing a global military presence of some sort, at least naval, in order to protect its energy requirements and Russia will continue to undermine its neighbor states. BWDIK?

    BTW, guess I missed the memo stating that “Like or Dislike” had been turned off. Never used “dislike” but found “like” to be valuable. Ah, well….

  5. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds: I’m sympathetic to your position here. Problem is that “NATO” has always meant “the United States with some help from us” to the Europeans. It meant that when we helped push through 1973. They were understandably pissed when we changed the rules mid-war.

    @RW Rogers: Sorry–it broke in an upgrade a couple days ago. Hopefully, we’ll get it fixed soon.

  6. Ben Wolf says:

    As noted above, it’s an invaluable planning and organizing institution.

    Yes, but planning for what? The U.S. wasn’t lagging behind the impetus to intervene in Libya; it was at the forefront bribing Saudi Arabia to support a no-fly zone. Not only did the organzation you say we need do nothing to keep us out of a war you opposed, it gave the U.S. a facade of international unity to justify its actions. The only value NATO had in this instance was:

    1) Providing the U.S. with political cover when it attacks yet another sovereign nation with the goal of installing a client regime.

    2) Subsidizing European coercive power via American military might, thereby averting Ghaffafi’s imminent nationalization of Libya’s oil industry. Note that prior to Ghaddafi’s threat to Europe’s highest quality supply of diesel oil no one gave a damn what he did to his own people.

    Your argument seems to be that although NATO is turning tricks it shouldn’t be, it turns them so efficiently it would be a shame to get rid of it because maybe someday it will turn the right tricks. Thus the organization you value serves to create the conditions for actions of which you explicity disapprove.

  7. @michael reynolds:

    I have a bias in favor of reality. If the net result is that Europeans are forced to admit that they are bit players militarily, and they then decide to align their ambitions to their capabilities, great. They can go either way: ramp up their militaries, or ramp down their pretensions.

    The problem is that isn’t the lesson Europe seems to have learned. They recognize that their will for intervention exceeds their capability, but their solution is not to some up with a plan to balance the two, but to better enable Europe to force the US’s hand.

  8. OzarkHillbilly says:

    You all know where I stand on this. If you don’t…. you ain’t been listening.