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Libya's Strains on NATO

Interviewee: Charles A. Kupchan, Whitney Shepardson Senior Fellow, CFR
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
April 4, 2011

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With the United States starting to remove warplanes from frontline Libyan missions, France, Britain, and other NATO nations will be at the forefront of the aerial conflict in Libya. The United States' move highlights strains in the NATO alliance that could become "serious divisions" if NATO tries to ramp up support for Libya's rebels, says CFR Europe expert Charles A. Kupchan. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has resisted participation, largely for domestic political reasons, says Kupchan, and Turkey has been uncomfortable with the appearance of "another Western war in a Muslim country." Kupchan says that French President Nicolas Sarkozy led the effort to involve NATO in Libya to compensate for his reluctance to take a pro-democracy stand in Egypt and Tunisia. Kupchan adds that looking forward, the problem for the coalition is "the ambiguity that prevails on the question of the mission's scope and objectives."

Why did U.S. ally Germany abstain in the Security Council vote on a no-fly zone over Libya on March 17 and announce it would not participate militarily in the subsequent operation in Libya?

The roots of the German position are in the troubles the current government faces at home. The Merkel government has been in a tailspin, with its poll numbers dropping and having received a series of setbacks in regional elections. Merkel has attempted to stabilize the situation with a number of policy decisions that have backfired. One was a decision to change her position on nuclear power plants in Germany. She had essentially been in favor of the continuation of nuclear power electrical generation and then after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, she flip-flopped (Reuters), but that cost her credibility with the German electorate. On the Libya question, Merkel seems to have calculated that she would be able to follow in the footsteps of Gerhard Schroeder [German Social Democrat chancellor from 1998 to 2005], who rallied his domestic supporters in 2002-03 by standing up to George W. Bush and allying with France and Russia to oppose the Iraq war in the UN Security Council.

The German vote in the Security Council was to abstain, but in effect it kept Germany outside the transatlantic center of gravity and aligned the country with China, Russia, Brazil, and India. Again, this did more harm than good to her political fortunes. Part of the problem is that even though going to war has very little resonance in Germany, for historical reasons the German public has tended to see the Libya mission as a humanitarian intervention and therefore the opposition to the operation has been not as strong as Merkel had suspected it would be. [Her] decision has been exacerbated because now that NATO has taken control of the Libya operation, Germany has essentially gone along for the ride. Technically speaking, Germany could have vetoed NATO's taking over command and control because NATO makes decisions by consensus, but that would have been an extremely costly move. Essentially Germany has simply sat on its hands during the Libya operation.

So Germany is officially in the NATO operation, but not really doing anything?

German military are not participating (DailyMail) in the operation. But that's not all that unusual. Other NATO members have also chosen to sit out this mission in terms of concrete contributions.

The French were one of the first say there should be a military no-fly zone over Libya. Some press reports suggest the French involvement came about because well-known French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levi was in Benghazi when the fighting picked up, and he telephoned Sarkozy and set up a meeting between Sarkozy and Libyan rebel leaders in Paris. Then he introduced the rebel leaders to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was in Paris at the time.

There are three factors that help explain the French position.

The first is that Sarkozy has always attempted to use foreign policy and France's place as a great power to shore up his domestic political support. We've seen since the beginning of his presidency his readiness to step out ahead of the pack and play a leading role on foreign policy issues. He was the leading personality in attempting to negotiate a ceasefire between Russia and Georgia during their war in August 2008. He took the lead in proposing and fashioning (BrusselsJournal) what has come to be called the Mediterranean Union, a new effort to build greater regional integration among Mediterranean states. There are many other examples.

We are in a stage in the fighting in which at times it appears that NATO forces have become the air force of the rebels. If things head down that road and NATO begins to arm the rebels, we will see some pretty serious divisions emerge within the NATO coalition.

Secondly, he felt vulnerable because of claims that France was behind the curve on Tunisia and Egypt and that Sarkozy had shown too much sympathy for the leadership in those countries and not aligned [France] readily enough with the democracy movements. Many analysts believe that his readiness to rush into Libya was to make up for his previous political mistakes.

The third factor would be that for both geographic and historical reasons, France continues to view North Africa as part of a broader French sphere of influence. Libya figures less in that than former French colonies like Algeria and Tunisia, but there still is a sense that France should play a leading role in this part of the world. I think those conditions combined to impress on Sarkozy the need to act boldly on Libya and made him want to get out in front of the issue.

In some ways, it's safe to say France has been leading the pack on the Libya intervention and that the intervention may well not have occurred had it not been for French leadership.

Did France push the United States into the military operation over Libya?

It's safe to say that the United States moved toward intervention reluctantly, and one of the factors that I think forced Obama's hand was that you had not only the Arab League but a coalition of willing European countries saying to Washington, let's go! It put Obama in an awkward position.

But now, the United States is essentially withdrawing from the military field and turning it over to NATO command. But of course the United States is the biggest player in NATO. What's Washington's thinking?

Obama has been in the awkward position of justifying the war to the American people as a necessary act of humanitarian intervention while at the same time acknowledging that the United States doesn't have vital interests in Libya. [It also means] being aware that the United States is passing through a period politically in which building support for the projection of power abroad is more difficult given the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the budget deficit. Obama from the very beginning has said, "We're in this, but we don't want to take the lead. We're in this, but we want the timing and the scope of our involvement to be limited." To some extent, the handoff to NATO is more perception than reality. That's because the United States is the dominant power in NATO, and the United States will still be calling the shots on a day-to-day basis. It's not as if the United States is getting out. My guess is that when we look at the numbers of sorties being flown by NATO aircraft, and who is launching missiles, we really aren't yet at a stage in which U.S. participation is dramatically dropping. [There were reports that the number of flights flown by the United States in Libya would drop.]

The word is that the United States is going to try to decrease that number, but I think a lot depends on the military situation.

My guess is that when we look at the numbers of sorties being flown by NATO aircraft, and who is launching missiles, we really aren't yet at a stage in which U.S. participation is dramatically dropping.

The situation on the ground is very fluid, and clearly the rebels have had some setbacks in the last few days. Some of the airpower can be provided by European allies alone, but if the mission calls for close air support for ground forces and going after Qaddafi's forces more difficult to identify--those who have taken off their uniforms, [or] those who are in pickup trucks and sedans rather than armored vehicles--some of the flying will need to be done by American pilots flying aircraft that the Europeans don't have.

At first Turkey, a NATO member, was opposed to military action in Libya, but it has gone along, right?

The Turks were reluctant from the beginning, in part because of concern that a NATO mission in Libya would be seen as yet another Western war in a Muslim country. The Turks were also riled by the fact that Sarkozy was in the lead. That stems in part from longstanding tension between Ankara and Paris because of Sarkozy's open opposition to Turkish membership in the European Union. Relations between France and Turkey have not been good for several years. Then, Sarkozy called a meeting in Paris just as the operation was coming together, and he didn't invite the Turks to participate. That led to a situation where for a week or so the Turks were openly dismissive (DerSpiegel) about the operation and about French leadership. That then led to a stalemate of sorts, with the Turks essentially insisting that the mission be put under a NATO chapeau rather than let the French lead it. The French initially were unwilling to put the military mission formally under NATO. Apparently, Obama had to really twist arms to get the French to sign off on the NATO mission.

Right now, I would say that the danger for the coalition, looking forward, is the ambiguity that prevails on the question of the mission's scope and objectives. The Turks, for example, have been quite explicit in arguing that the UN authorization of the mission restricts NATO to the protection of civilians. That essentially would mean bombing campaigns only against Qadaffi's forces that are going after civilians. Now we are into a stage in the fighting in which at times it appears that NATO forces have become the air force of the rebels, in which they may therefore be supporting offensive operations. If things head down that road and NATO begins to arm the rebels, we will see some pretty serious divisions emerge within the NATO coalition.

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