European countries, led by France and the United Kingdom, urged the United Nations to authorise a no-fly zone to protect civilians in Libya. Yet now that the no-fly zone has been established, the hard work is just beginning – and will affect the future of Nato just as much as it affects the people of Libya.
The initial phase of the allied military operation to prevent mass killings of Libyan civilians by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's forces is rapidly ending. The overall decline in cruise missile strikes suggests that Libya's surface-to-air weapons have been suppressed and the immediate threat of a massacre in Benghazi has been alleviated for the time being. President Obama limited the US military's commitment to those missions where the American capabilities were required and pledged to transfer responsibility for the operation "in a matter of days and not a matter of weeks".
Nato has now agreed to enforce the no-fly zone and naval embargo, but the alliance remains divided about whether Nato should also attack Libyan ground forces that are massing near Libyan cities. The hard truth is that Nato's European allies are the only countries that can ensure the protection of civilians, particularly those countries like the United Kingdom and France that pushed vigorously for intervention. Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have pledged to participate in air operations and other Arab League members may follow, but make no mistake: the ultimate success or failure of the mission will depend on the willingness of the European allies to sustain ongoing air operations and to protect civilians. And a failure to do so may permanently undermine US support for the Nato alliance.
US concerns about the European allies as reliable partners date back almost two decades, to the first years of the war in Bosnia. Buoyed by the end of the cold war and increasing European economic integration, the European allies actively sought the lead in addressing the conflicts of the former Yugoslavia. Their halting and incoherent efforts were so beset by internal divisions that the war in Bosnia raged for almost three years before the United States forcefully pushed all the warring factions to adopt the Dayton Accords. When ethnic cleansing again erupted in Kosovo, the United States took on a more significant role in addressing the crisis from the start because of the Europeans' perceived inability to handle it on their own.
Trends since then have only reinforced US scepticism. For the past nine years, Nato operations in Afghanistan have been plagued by internal disagreements, troop limits and national caveats that restrict how each country's military forces can and cannot be used. Despite the close ties between the governments of the United States and its allies, the Afghanistan experience has revealed that their threat perceptions and domestic political support for sustained military action are vastly different. Many Americans have concluded that European countries are simply unwilling to take the steps necessary to prevail in a military conflict.
These questions about the European willingness to use military force are compounded by the fact that European military capabilities have been declining for more than two decades. Washington has become increasingly disturbed by this "demilitarisation of Europe", with Secretary of Defence Robert Gates repeatedly warning the allies during his tenure that they must not cut their forces too significantly if they seek to remain relevant. Yet the United Kingdom recently announced plans to cut its defence budget by more than 8% by 2015, and the Nato secretary noted last month that spending by the European alliance members declined by more than $45bn in the past two years alone.
Libya provides an unparalleled opportunity to start reversing this scepticism. France and the UK actively sought this intervention, and now the European allies must demonstrate the resolve to sustain it – despite inevitable political and military challenges and the fact that the ultimate outcome in Libya remains unclear. This will require making decisions and resolving disagreements through a deliberate and consultative process, and avoiding unilateral actions that could undermine operational effectiveness.
The stakes for the European allies are high. If they achieve the objective of protecting Libyan civilians, they will send a powerful signal that they remain a valuable and capable security partners for the United States. If they do not, they will further marginalise themselves and make it even easier for future US policymakers to dismiss their perspectives and concerns.