NATO and Libya: Déjà Vu or Exceeds Expectations?

Photo Credit: Flickr/BRQ NetworkMUCH of the discussion about Libya has reminded some people of Rwanda, but it seems most like a replay of Kosovo.  First, there is a tremendous amount of impatience.  Second, people seem surprised that countries in NATO might disagree.  Third, some of the countries pushing the action are motivated less by concerns about the humanitarian plight and more by what it means for themselves.  Consequently, observers view NATO as failing here, but that is because they have unrealistic expectations.  NATO is neither as effective as people would like or as obsolete as some fear.  

When the bombs started dropping on Belgrade in 1999, there was a general sense that the NATO effort to compel Slobodan Milosevic to accede to the international community’s demands about Kosovo would need to last just a few days.  Instead, it took nearly three months.  Ultimately, the international effort, at tremendous cost to the Kosovars, was able to achieve its goals and then some.  The “Yugoslav” military was ejected, the UN and NATO took control of the province, and it eventually led to the downfall of Milosevic.  Not a bad outcome for a fractious organization whose members, including the most powerful, were unwilling to risk significant casualties.

We are almost two months into a far more limited campaign in and over Libya,  yet we expect victory to have been achieved.  Yes, there is a significant possibility of stalemate, but Qaddafi’s resources are not infinite and the willingness of his remaining armed forces to fight on may reach some limits.  This may not be what the Libyan rebels want right now, but the reality is that these kinds of things do take time.

Simply put, in the aftermath of the Cold War, conquest may appear to be easy, taking a few days or weeks when a superior opponent faces a weaker one, but compelling a leader to give up something of significant value is actually more difficult.  Why?  Because coercive diplomacy in this way is bargaining (a la Thomas Schelling), and if you make extreme demands, such as surrendering territory or political office, then the other side is not going to give up easily.  This is especially true when the one making the threats is a coalition of the ambivalent.  Using limited means inherently signals limited commitment and a relatively weak bargaining position.  This means that the opponent, Milosevic then and Qaddafi now, can try to play for time and hope that the international coalition breaks down.

This leads to the second non-surprise: that NATO is divided.  Not all NATO members viewed the Kosovo operation with the same level of enthusiasm.  Greece, for instance, was not a big fan of the effort.  The books written since that operation, including one entitled Winning Ugly, note that there was a lot of dissensus among members of a consensus-based organization.  There was micro-management of the lists of targets to be bombed.  This was topped by the Russians and the British racing to seize the Pristina airfield, with the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, General Wesley Clark, trying to push the Brits into confronting the Russians.  Clark famously got into a shouting match with the British General, Mike Jackson, when the latter refused to comply.

Now, the British and French are complaining about unequal burden-sharing, with only a few other NATO countries willing to engage in air-to-ground strikes.  The Germans have been far more reluctant here than over Kosovo (or even in Afghanistan) to participate significantly.  The Italians are providing bases, but are unwilling to do much more than that.  

This should not be surprising. NATO is not a supra-national organization that can force its members to participate, but rather an organization of sovereign countries.  Even if Article V is invoked, where an attack upon one is considered an attack upon all, each member state is supposed to respond as it sees fit.  Even on the battlefield, any contingent can say no to orders from the NATO chain of command.  This is not news, but the coverage of the conflict tends to make it appear that NATO’s limits are a revelation.  

Of course, this raises the question of why NATO members are half-heartedly engaging in the Libya effort to begin with.  One of the motivations back in 1999 was the desire to limit the flow of refugees from Kosovo to Macedonia, Greece and Italy.  Today, one of the drivers of the Libya intervention is to prevent refugees from washing up on Italian and French shores.  With xenophobic parties on the rise everywhere in Europe, even Finland, we should expect that the desire to limit refugees will be a major factor in shaping when and where countries intervene.  Libya is a much greater challenge to Europe than Bahrain or Yemen or Syria because proximity in this case means migrating populations rather than military threats.  

As far as compelling national interests go, the refugee risk is significant but not as dire as a more direct threat to territory or citizenry.  So, countries motivated by immigration prevention will want to do something without having to sacrifice a great deal.  They will want to end the conflict, on the cheap.  Other interests can undercut the commitment.  On the other hand, coinciding pressures may help encourage greater effort.  It’s no accident that President Sarkozy is the most enthusiastic member of this coalition.  Here, immigration prevention coincides with other French national interest, like protecting Chad from Libyan predation; playing on old themes of France as a great power; distracting from other domestic issues, and so on.  For most other countries, concerns about immigrants and perhaps even humanitarian interests will matter, but are not powerful policy-drivers. 

So, where does this leave us?  With diminished expectations about what NATO is supposed to achieve, especially what it will achieve quickly.  NATO can still fail here, with difficult choices ahead if a stalemate endures.  But, to be clear, it is not so much about the organization as it is about its members.  Their lack of enthusiasm matters because it not only shapes how many planes drop bombs on Libya today but also the calculations of Qaddafi and those upon whom he relies for support.  The international ambivalence reduces leverage in bargaining with Qaddafi, and it provides a bit less impetus for those under him to think about switching sides.  

Still, as the conflict continues, the stakes will increase, just as they did in Kosovo, to include NATO’s reputation and the desire to see it not fail.  My best guess is that NATO will continue in the effort, the Americans will reinvest to prevent its failure, and those around Qaddafi will start to realize that the international community will not go away.  This does not mean a quick, easy resolution, but rather exactly the opposite.  The funny thing is that if we had reasonable expectations about a longer campaign, and prepared accordingly, the alliance might have had more leverage, and we might have actually seen a shorter effort.  But that isn’t the way these things play out. Politicians tell themselves and their supporters that an intervention will not be expensive or long, and thus produce less commitment up front.  


Stephen Saideman, PhD, is the Canada Research Chair in International Security and Ethnic Conflict at McGill University. He writes the Xenophile column at Current Intelligence; this is his first entry.