European Affairs

If American and European leaders are correct, it’s “game over” for Muammar Gaddafi – as Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Secretary-General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), recently declared – even as the Libyan dictator resists a tightening noose of rebel advances, Allied airstrikes and international sanctions. Best hold the celebration, however. Earlier predictions that NATO’s limited intervention would be quick and decisive have proved wrong. And given feeble government structures and complex tribal and regional rivalries that will remain, [the task of assisting the Transitional National Council to maintain basic security will be a serious challenge for the international community].

So far, no one’s volunteering. “We do not foresee a leading NATO role in a post-Gaddafi period,” Rasmussen told reporters last week. “We want the United Nations to take the lead in this effort to assist the Libyan people in their transition to democracy.” His caution is understandable, given NATO’s preoccupation with Afghanistan and signs of a fraying political consensus over Libya among European Allies – which is reflected, as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates complained publicly last month, in their inequitable sharing of operational risks and burdens.

[In a post-Gaddafi situation] the UN Security Council could agree to establish a UN-led peacekeeping force in Libya, although experience elsewhere in Africa and the Middle East shows that it could take months to assemble and deploy such a force.  Alternatively, the Security Council could effectively delegate the job to others—as in 2001, when it authorized creation of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, which came under NATO command in 2003.  But this process likely will take time, too, since veto-wielding Russia and China have complained that NATO’s actions have exceeded the Council’s Resolution 1973, which authorized member states “to take all necessary measures…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.”

A more viable option would be a UN-authorized “bridging” force able to deploy rapidly for 4-6 months, giving the UN time to stand up its own force, if needed, for a longer period. From a military perspective, the most efficient solution (absent a NATO lead) would be to organize the bridging force under a single “framework” nation experienced in the command and control of multinational contingents. But for different political, operational, and financial reasons, none of the three top military contributors to the NATO effort – the United States, France, and United Kingdom – is prepared to accept that role. Italy’s past colonial ties with Libya (and, until this spring, its particularly close relations with Gaddafi) make it an unlikely candidate. Other attractive options – for example, a Turkish-led coalition of Muslim nations, including Gulf States, Jordan, and perhaps a couple of the more capable African states – seem like a bridge too far. The African Union’s muddled approach to the crisis should rule it out.

To date, the European Union has been skittish regarding any military involvement in the Libyan crisis. Although it agreed in April to a legal and planning framework for a minimalist military operation (“EUFOR Libya”) to “contribute to the safe movement and evacuation of displaced persons and support humanitarian agencies in their activities in the region,” the EU stipulated that EUFOR Libya will not be launched until specifically requested by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs – an office reputedly reluctant to invite any military involvement in humanitarian assistance.

The EU should reconsider its recalcitrant stance. After all, the raison d’être of its 12-year old Common Security and Defense Policy has been to develop and use Europe’s capabilities to “take care of fires in its backyard” (as former French defense minister Alain Richard succinctly put it) where NATO is not engaged. Having gradually scaled back some of its unrealistic initial ambitions, the EU nonetheless has conducted several (albeit relatively short-duration and low-risk) peacekeeping missions in Africa. It also has established a rotating system of approximately 2000-man multinational and rapidly deployable “battle groups” capable, in principle, of performing a range of security missions, including the separation of warring parties, for at least four months. (To date, no battle group has been operationally deployed.) Moreover, the EU advertises its “unique” ability to integrate civilian stabilization and reconstruction tools – from police trainers to experts in building judicial and government institutions – with military peacekeeping roles.

An EU bridging force in Libya would demonstrate the EU’s political will and practical ability to lead a complex operation of critical importance to its neighborhood. It could repair the rifts caused by the refusal of several member states – notably Germany – to contribute militarily to the current NATO operation. The EU could enhance the strategic benefits of its engagement by reaching out to Turkey, which has provided important military assets to EU operations in Bosnia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as to non-Europeans (for example, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates) who participate in the International Contact Group on Libya. In doing so, the EU could build upon the work of the ad hoc International Stabilization Response team – a UK-led team, including Danish, Italian, Australian and U.S. experts – that’s already working with the Transitional National Council to plan for a post-Gaddafi Libya. Finally, existing “Berlin Plus” arrangements could be used to facilitate Alliance support – for example, in headquarters structures, logistics, and training teams – for the EU’s effort.

The United States will continue to have a strong interest in seeing that our European partners, whether acting under a NATO or EU lead, do not run needless military risks in Libya. But U.S. support for EU stabilization and reconstruction efforts there also makes sense. In fact, thanks to a little-noticed bilateral agreement signed in May 2011, American civilians can be more easily integrated into EU teams that assist crisis-torn countries in stabilization and reconstruction tasks. (The agreement builds upon the successful experience of some 70 American police trainers currently working within the EU’s 2000-person “rule of law” mission in Kosovo.)

Is the EU up to the task in Libya? Truth be told, many officials and experts on both sides of the Atlantic are skeptical, especially given Europe’s preoccupation with financial and economic woes. But it’s also true that if Gaddafi’s legacy of a fractured state and society explodes into violence, generating thousands of refugees and displaced persons and creating a fertile environment for anti-Western extremism, Europe will be the first to suffer the fallout.

An abridged version of this article appeared in the July 14. issue of the Brussels-based weekly European Voice.


The authors are members of the Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University. Leo Michel is a Distinguished Research Fellow in the Center for Strategic Research and retired Ambassador John Herbst is Director of the Center for Complex Operations. The views expressed are their own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.