Americans should celebrate the downfall of Col. Muammar Qadhafi’s more than 40-year old regime. As U.S. ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in the 1980s, I saw the worst he had to offer.Qadhafi’s intelligence services were then supporting terrorist groups in Western Europe and his agents killed U.S. servicemen in the 1986 Berlin discotheque bombing.President Ronald Reagan ordered a retaliatory 11-minute airstrike on Qadhafi’s personal headquarters. Unfortunately we missed — and two years later Qadhafi’s agents carried out the infamous bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.As Libyan rebels stream into Tripoli, Qadhafi’s days look numbered. Only weeks ago, however, foreign policy experts feared that the NATO military action had led to an intractable stalemate. Qadhafi seemed secure in Tripoli; NATO looked ineffective, and the rag-tag Libyan rebels appeared disorganized.
Many politicians and pundits, including the majority of Republicans, criticized President Barack Obama for a violation of the 1973 War Powers Resolution. This despite longtime GOP opposition to the War Powers Act.Others complained, off the record, that the president was “leading from behind” and this would lead to a permanent stalemate.Both right-wing and left-wing pundits and politicians saw this stalemate as symptomatic of NATO’s irrelevance. They used the opportunity to question the value of NATO and our overall relationship with Europe 20 years after the Cold War.
The postwar and Cold War generations which had viewed the transatlantic relationship as crucial are now retiring from government. The newer generations, regardless of political party, are less invested in the alliance.But what a difference a few weeks make. As Qadhafi’s regime teeters on the edge of oblivion it is now worth reexamining NATO’s Libyan intervention.Three months ago, as criticism reached its zenith; I visited NATO’s military HQ in Belgium to learn more about the Libyan operation. I was shocked to learn of the mission’s success.The NATO Supreme Allied Commander Adm. Jim Stavridis and the NATO ambassadors detailed the speed with which this operation was carried out. Stavridis had successfully navigated Turkish and German opposition to the intervention.
Amid all this Washington-based criticism, NATO was operating at a stunning level of speed and effectiveness.
Speed is critical to military effectiveness, and the NATO response in Libya has been significantly faster than previous operations in both Bosnia and Kosovo. On March 17, the U.N. Security Council imposed a no-fly zone in Libyan airspace. Just two days later, French planes were flying missions over Libya. On March 25, NATO announced that it would assume command of the operation.During the Bosnia carnage of the 1990s, the U.N. passed a similar resolution calling for a no-fly-zone over Bosnia. It took NATO 12 days to begin operations.In addition, this Libyan intervention resulted in far fewer civilian casualties than either the Bosnia or Kosovo operations. Libya shows that the alliance, though expanded to 28 from 16 members, has grown more efficient — not less.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s comments on the distressing decline of European defense investment are warranted. But for all the complaints about the lack of burden sharing, we have just witnessed the first NATO military intervention where the U.S. was not forced to bear the brunt of operations.By letting France and Britain take the lead, Obama avoided the usual anti-Americanism that has accompanied previous U.S.-led interventions. Endorsement of NATO’s involvement by the Arab League and Gulf States also helped the operation’s legitimacy.Cold War nostalgists may insist that NATO has lost its absolute unity. But as someone deeply involved in the 1980s missile deployment debates, I saw that the alliance always disagreed over the severity of threats and the appropriate course of action.Despite these disagreements, however, the alliance managed to win the Cold War without firing a shot. It shaped the strategic environment and allowing our respective militaries to train together and build critical relationships.The end of the Cold War also allowed NATO to expand eastward — fostering stability and democracy in Central and Eastern Europe. The current diverse array of international security threats, combined with increasing constraints on national defense budgets, makes NATO’s cooperative aspects more critical not less.While the U.S. has always been NATO’s historical leader, this leadership is usually most effective when it was indirect — as with Libya.
David Abshire was the U.S. permanent representative to NATO, 1983-1987. He is now president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. He co-founded the Center for Strategic and International Studies in 1962.