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NATO's Decline over Libya

Interviewee: Robert E. Hunter, Senior Advisor, The Rand Corporation
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
April 19, 2011

President Barack Obama and the leaders of France and Britain have in effect called for the ouster of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, yet the failure to apply sufficient military force is a blow to NATO and U.S. credibility, says Robert E. Hunter, an ambassador to NATO in the Clinton administration. Hunter says NATO's enforcement of the no-fly zone has prevented a sweep of pro-Qaddafi forces across Libya, but "using the current methods, it would be most unlikely to succeed" in ousting Qaddafi. The decision by the United States to withdraw the AC-130 and A-10 war planes from the Libyan theater, he says, "is going to be read in Europe as the United States not pulling its weight in NATO. That is something I never thought as a former ambassador that I would live to see happen." Hunter says the Obama administration seems too worried about alienating Middle Eastern nations when it should be doing more to make sure that NATO prevails in Libya.

It's been almost a month now that NATO countries have been maintaining a no-fly zone over Libya and dropping bombs on Qaddafi's forces. But so far it looks like Qaddafi's forces are not really losing. Is this bad for NATO?

The airstrike campaign and no-fly zone campaign authorized by UN Security Council Resolution 1973 has been successful in stalling a Qaddafi sweep across the whole country and preventing the high likelihood of a massacre of an awful lot of people. But, carrying out the joint statement (IHT) of the presidents of France and the United States and the British prime minister, you could say that so far what NATO has done has not succeeded, and using the current methods it would be most unlikely to succeed.

And that is to get rid of Qaddafi?

No, not just that. NATO is unable right now even to protect civilians, which Resolution 1973 had said to use "all necessary means" to achieve. Look at the pounding of Misurata by Qaddafi forces, and the ability of Qaddafi to bring up forces and supply ammunition. This has occurred after the United States withdrew the most credible effective instruments against the Qaddafi forces, the AC-130 gunship and the A-10 warthog ground attack war craft. Without these aircraft, the chances of NATO even succeeding at its most general objective are most remote. As for going beyond that to the removal of Qaddafi, that is not included in the UN resolution and even though proclaimed as a goal by President Obama, he also indicates that the NATO campaign is not designed to do that. So you have a fundamental dilemma built in.

And the United States seems adamant against putting any ground forces into Libya, right?

NATO is unable right now even to protect civilians, which UN Security Council Resolution 1973 had said to use "all necessary means" to achieve.

Well, the United States isn't the only country against putting in ground forces. British Prime Minister David Cameron has ruled it out; even countries that have been more assertive like France wouldn't want to do it. You would never get a resolution for ground troops through NATO, where all decisions have to be unanimous. For the United States--already fighting two major ground wars--having another one would be not just politically excruciating for the president [but] I suspect there would be an uproar in Congress and in the country at large. That doesn't mean that push might not come to shove at some point. Look back at the recent congressional testimony by General Carter Ham, who used to command U.S. and NATO forces and land forces in Europe and is now the head of the new African Command, who admitted that it looks like a stalemate and that at some point the question of ground forces might have to be considered.

Can there really be a NATO force without Germany agreeing to it?

One of the things that has contributed to NATO's strength is that throughout its entire history whenever it has taken a decision by consensus it has never failed to follow through. Now, the decision does not imply every nation will take part in the actions. The Germans reluctantly allowed the decision to go through but made very clear they was unhappy about it and that Germany would not take part. When Resolution 1973 was approved, Germany happened to be a non-permanent member and [abstained].

Clearly that decision to abstain and not add their forces to the fight against Qaddafi is for domestic politics right?

Given what happened in World War II, in recent years they've only just begun putting forces abroad where they might be engaged in the application of lethal force. In Afghanistan, Germany has the third largest contingent of troops, but they're clustered in the north and operate under certain kinds of limitations, which means that the Germans don't do a lot of the fighting. To go into Libya was just too much for the traffic to bear in Germany, certainly at this point in its evolution.

Do you consider Libya similar to Bosnia, in that it is so close to Europe that if NATO and the European Union do not do something more the institutions will be in trouble?

The answer is clearly yes. It would have been an ideal case to have the European Union under the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) take over the leadership [of the Libya action]. But the EU couldn't do it. The Germans wouldn't have anything to do with it, and I'm afraid this has set back the European Union aspirations (NYT) to be seen as a grownup in this area. Le Monde had a headline over an editorial a couple weeks ago that said, "Defense in Europe Dead and Buried in Libya."

There were despite various reports that the United States was trying to persuade Qaddafi to leave the country and to find him a safe home, but he seems determined to stick it out.

He's made it very clear, just like Saddam Hussein, that "I'm going to go out of here feet first." Now, it might have been possible if the outside world had acted when Qaddafi was losing to the rebels, some of the people around him who wanted to save their skins might have turned against him. Now there is no incentive for anybody to turn against Qaddafi.

How significant is it that the United States has deliberately taken itself out of the lead military role in NATO and says it is just a secondary player in Libya now?

This can be a serious blow to the future of NATO. Over recent years, there has been developing a new bargain across the Atlantic, [which] in action terms is absolutely clear: that the United States will remain deeply committed in Europe even though it hasn't seen any immediate threat, [in order] to reassure the countries that it will manage future relations with Russia. In exchange, the allies agreed to take part in something we were interested in well outside the NATO area, even though they do not see that as a threat to themselves, at least not something they can sell at home. By that I mean Afghanistan.

The bargain is that they will put troops in Afghanistan--admittedly not as much as we'd like--while [the United States] continues to show a vigorous engagement in Europe. The problem is, where does Libya fall? Is it outside of area, therefore something NATO doesn't have to look at? Is it within the area? Is it so close to the Europeans that they should be doing it by themselves? I'm afraid the way it is going to be looked at and how it is already being looked at, is the United States is sitting it out [by] not deploying the aircraft that can work. I'm afraid that the decision on removing the AC-130s and the A-10s--particularly if it means that Qaddafi prevails even in one part of the country, or is able to beat back the challengers--is going to be read in Europe as the United States not pulling its weight in NATO. That is something I never thought as a former ambassador that I would live to see happen.

What was the thinking within the administration on this? Why did they so publicly want to not take the lead role?

It's kind of obvious. On the one hand, we're already fighting two wars! Ask the American people for the United States to take the lead and be actively involved in all kinds of combat that could lead to ground forces in Libya, [and] there would be revolts on Capitol Hill. Congressmen and senators would say, "We're fighting two wars, why don't you let the Europeans, even under the cloak of NATO, take the lead on this?" Secondly, the United States has got other fish to fry and what's going on in Libya, especially if the United States would be even more deeply engaged, could work against these other things. I heard an unnamed senior official of the administration last week say that the idea of ground forces and things like that would work directly against other interests we have in the region, of which Egypt really is the most immediately important. But so are events in the Persian Gulf. Third, there is a view in the administration that the United States has had a rotten reputation among the people of the Middle East because of its very strong support for Israel. For the United States to be out front, particularly with offensive military force, could earn more opprobrium in the Arab world.

Why do you think the French are taking such a strong role in this?

First, Libya is very close to home. Second, after Italy, the French face the greatest flood of refugees [from North Africa]. And third, a lot of it was electoral politics, the fact that [President Nicolas] Sarkozy is worried about election next year and always looking for a way, as French tend to do, to strut upon the world stage, took the lead and sold it to David Cameron. The question now, of course, is that once one is involved, one has to persevere. I'm afraid that NATO is not looking like a great pillar of strength when it comes to the application of force and to resolution. Now maybe something will happen in the next few days to prove me wrong, but I'm afraid that this is a blow to NATO's credibility for the future and also to America's credibility, whether we like it or not.

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