Loose Canons

Neutered Nabobs of NATO

The Libya fiasco confirms: multilateralism is no substitute for an alliance.

By 4.18.11

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It was hard to surpass President Obama's incoherence on Libya, but British Prime Minister David Cameron managed it. Speaking to a Sky News reporter, Cameron said, "We're not occupying, we're not invading, that's not what we're about. And that is obviously a restriction on us, but I think it is the right restriction…. It's because we've said we're not going to invade, we're not going to occupy, this is more difficult in many ways, because we can't fully determine the outcome with what we have available."

The late James Jackson Kilpatrick would have warned Cameron against what Kilpo called "portmanteau sentences" such as the last quoted above. If we unpack Mr. Cameron's suitcase we find the reasons for the Libya stalemate and the corpse of the once-great NATO alliance.

Having decided to join in the UN-designed and French-led military action in Libya, Obama later admitted that American interests weren't at stake. He committed U.S. combat aircraft to the conflict, then withdrew them, and then sent some back, holding back the attack aircraft which NATO's anti-Gaddafi operation needs most.

Even before Cameron's enlargement on it, the depth of the confusion over Libya was explained in the joint op-ed article Obama authored with British PM David Cameron and French PM Nicholas Sarkozy on April 14.

Ambitiously titled "Libya's Pathway to Peace," the three said that they were united from the start in responding to the Libyan crisis and remain united in what needs to happen in order to end it. What is needed, they say, is for Gaddafi to be removed from power. Otherwise, they warn, Libya will be a pariah state, a "new" safe haven for "extremists." Which wouldn't be new at all because Libya has always been just that under Gaddafi.

(Gaddafi's embassy in East Berlin congratulated the "extremists" who committed the Berlin disco bombing. As a result, President Reagan sent a few F-111's to punish Gaddafi, missing him one late night. Two years later, Gaddafi's "extremists" blew Pan Am Flight 103 out of the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland. Twenty-four years after that, Gaddafi welcomed the only person convicted in the Lockerbie bombing back to Tripoli as a national hero after the Brits released the man.)

As Obama, Cameron, and Sarkozy explain, the current UN mandate doesn't include removing Gaddafi. It provides only for protecting civilians. And though they assert boldly that tens of thousands of lives are being protected, they write, "… the people of Libya are still suffering terrible horrors at Qaddafi's hands each and every day. His rockets and shells rained down on defenseless civilians in Ajdabiya. The city of Misurata is enduring a medieval siege, as Qaddafi tries to strangle its population into submission. The evidence of disappearances and abuses grows daily. "

Any terrorist dictator can visit horrors on his populace, but Gaddafi is worse: he's capable of terrible horrors. (Obama apparently believes that only Paul Ryan is capable of the terriblest horrors. But I digress).

We won't remove Gaddafi because the Arab League and the UN -- the multilateralist base for the Libya action -- mandated the lowest common denominator in defining the Libya mission. Hence the difference between multilateralism and alliances: the former are a cacophony of wishes, beliefs and hopes, the latter are predicated on nations' most dire national security interests.

NATO's Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, is panhandling unsuccessfully for more combat aircraft for Libya. Britain and France -- the latter so eager to establish a "no-fly zone" that it entered the conflict quickly -- have demurred. Having sent U.S. combat aircraft in, Obama quickly withdrew them and lately recommitted some fighter aircraft but denied the return of the attack aircraft the NATO command needs most urgently -- A-10 Warthogs and the AC-130 gunships -- which other NATO nations don't have.

Sooner, not later, British and French aircraft will be gradually withdrawn as well because together or singly, neither has the ability to sustain the force for much longer.

The political autopsy on NATO reveals that the lack of attack aircraft is not the proximate cause of the alliance's death, only one symptom of one of its illnesses: the failure of our putative allies to invest in their own defense.

For almost twenty-five years, few of the NATO nations have made a significant investment in their own defense. Germany, Italy and Spain spend less than 2% of their GDP on defense. (In 2009, U.S. defense spending reached 4.7% of GDP.) Even Britain and France, which spend about twice as much as those three, spend less than half of the percentage of GDP we do.

Worse still, the investments they've made haven't been in the capabilities that could enable them to operate effectively -- jointly -- with our forces. The Germans are a prime example. As former NATO commander Gen. Joe Ralston told me a few years ago, if the Germans decided to modernize their forces to join us on the "network-centric" battlefield, it would take them as long as a century to catch up.

Tony Blair sank the British armed services in a budgetary black hole but Cameron has kept digging. Now the RAF -- once the only force that stood between freedom and Hitler's Germany -- doesn't have enough pilots to replenish the one squadron of Typhoon aircraft operating over Libya. To rotate that one squadron's pilots for rest and recuperation -- only 18 men -- the Brits are forced to rob instructors from their pilot school to man the aircraft. Cameron has imposed such drastic cuts on the British military that its army sent e-mail layoff notices to 38 troops serving in Afghanistan.

Among NATO's members, there are several -- Belgium, Latvia, Estonia, Iceland, and Slovakia, among others -- that cannot be expected to invest as heavily in defense as the major members. But their membership, and the failure of so many such as Britain, France and Germany to invest adequately in their own defense, undermines the purpose of the alliance.

Which brings us back to the real cause of NATO's expiration and why we should bid it farewell. NATO existed because its member nations shared a common existential interest in containing and deterring Soviet Russian aggression. But after 1989, there was -- and still is -- no threat sufficient to unite them. Not terrorism, as the half-hearted NATO force in Afghanistan proves. (NATO won't fight, and it doesn't, as many military leaders have told me.) Not China or Putin's resurgent Russia. Nothing.

By sending American forces to Libya in the absence of U.S. interests, Obama has proved redundantly that he is dedicated multilateralism and that it is the antithesis of alliance. We could commit ourselves to the mutual defense of nations dedicated to the defense of freedom. At least we could if we weren't sunk in Obama's quagmire of multilateralism.

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. He is coauthor (with Herbert London) of the new book The BDS War Against Israel. You can follow him on Twitter@jedbabbin.