James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council and blogs at www.outsidethebeltway.com.
NATO's operations in Libya got off to a rocky start. Although the venerable treaty organization's member countries — principally Britain, France, and the United States — were dropping bombs on Moammar Gadhafi's military as soon as the ink was dry on the March 17 U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing a no-fly zone over Libya, as of late March the allies still couldn't agree on whether NATO itself should lead the mission. Turkey, opposed to intervention, insisted on the alliance acting unanimously, which was to say, not acting at all; hawkish France opposed NATO leadership, fearing less-enthusiastic countries would muck up the ad hoc coalition's campaign. Weeks later, confusion still persists, with heads of member states issuing conflicting statements and military leaders contradicting their civilian bosses.
These hiccups have spawned the inevitable prophecies of doom for the alliance. "Will the Libya intervention bring the end of NATO?" asks the headline on a column by Anne Applebaum in the Washington Post this week. Other interested parties in the Libyan conflict, meanwhile, have engaged in no end of backseat driving over the alliance's performance. The Arab League, whose call for action in Libya was a crucial catalyst for spurring intervention, denounced NATO for being too aggressive once the action began. The anti-Gadhafi rebels bitterly complained the alliance wasn't doing enough.
These dire predictions are nothing new — they've greeted every NATO operation over the past several decades. NATO's critics were wrong then, and they're wrong now. Indeed, the case for the alliance is stronger than it has been since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
To take the current critiques of the alliance one at a time: Applebaum claims that the NATO label is but a fig leaf for what is "an Anglo-French project and has been from the beginning," arguing that they insisted on intervening in Libya under the alliance banner because "neither Britain nor France wants responsibility for the operation — and neither feels comfortable relying on the other."
In truth, however, the political value in a NATO operation is that the alliance's name is a stand-in for the developed world and operating under its name confers a legitimacy that national flags don't. This is particularly the case for Britain and France, whose colonial histories bring enormous baggage in the Middle East and North Africa — not to mention the United States, with its own more recent complicated history in the region. With the notable exception of Russia, NATO does not have imperialistic connotations. In its 62 years of operation, the alliance has deployed its might sparingly: humanitarian protection missions in Bosnia, Kosovo, and now Libya; maritime missions against the Somali pirates; and fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. While not all uncontroversial, these operations all had widespread international approval.
This is not insignificant. Domestically, the NATO aegis provides assurances to publics — particularly in Europe — that are weary and skeptical of war. Internationally, it takes much of the edge off the use of hard power, making it clear that humanitarian interest, not a thirst for foreign oil, is the motivation for action. It's true that, in the case of Libya, the call for action by the Arab League and the imprimatur of the U.N. Security Council provided substantial cover, too. But, as the comedian Dave Chappelle memorably pointed out, the United Nations doesn't have an army. NATO does — or at least its member states do.
This fact does raise the question, however, of whether the existence of an official NATO alliance adds anything to a collective action by countries such as Britain, France, and the United States — which are, after all, allies anyway and supply NATO's soldiers and military hardware. As the Iraq war demonstrated, the United States and its allies can fight just fine apart from NATO as a coalition of the willing.
But this sort of ad hoc alliance comes with lower legitimacy — as the Iraq war also demonstrated — and without an institutional framework that has benefited from six decades of development. Though NATO's bureaucracy is a favorite butt of jokes by even the alliance's staunchest supporters, its existence provides a massive head start. As a standing alliance, NATO has been the main venue for making sure that different countries' command structures and systems can work together, creating standard operating procedures, and ensuring a degree of uniformity in weapons and equipment. The commencement of a war is a really awful time to work these issues out, as we saw in the first Gulf War and its numerous friendly-fire incidents.
The most militarily significant members of NATO have been working together now for generations. Alliance members constantly train together and, over the last two decades, fight together. While an American has always been supreme allied commander for Europe, major operations have been commanded by generals and admirals from almost all major NATO partners. There is no hesitation for British troops to take orders from French generals or vice-versa.
NATO's engagement in Libya has also given lie to the argument that the alliance has no place in the strategic realities of the post-Cold War world — a criticism that has grown in strength since the war in Afghanistan began to turn sour. In 1993, U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar famously declared that NATO must go "out of area or out of business": that the alliance had to prove its value beyond Western Europe in a world without the Soviet threat that had justified its creation. Otherwise, there was little incentive for the United States to invest in an alliance that would not be able to fight in actual wars.
NATO avoided having to answer this existential question in the 1990s thanks to several in-area operations in the Balkans. In those wars as in Libya today, a reluctant United States was shamed into action by insistent European allies. And then as now, after an initial lead role during intense air operations, the United States handed over the long-term responsibility to the Europeans. It was the post-9/11 mission in Afghanistan, rather, that proved NATO's relevance beyond Europe. For the first time ever, NATO invoked Article 5, the linchpin of the alliance, which insisted that an armed attack on one member be treated as an attack on all. The Europeans stepped up to the plate, even after offers of help were initially brushed off by George W. Bush's administration.