A couple of years ago, I suggested that
Involvement of allies reduces the requirement for U.S. military forces, and a show of international solidarity could alleviate the need for armed intervention. You might also raise the issue of why we’re always the ones trundling our military forces around the world searching for a place to replay the Battle of the Bulge. Couldn’t we and our allies learn some lessons from the Vietnamese, Afghans and Iraqis that we could use in those conflicts that do pop up? (Pentagon Labyrinth, p. 70)
And apparently we did. As summarized by Ivo Daalder and Admiral James Stavridis (US permanent rep to NATO and SACEUR, respectively):
… an historic victory for the people of Libya who, with NATO’s help, transformed their country from an international pariah into a nation with the potential to become a productive partner with the West. (“NATO’s Success In Libya,” Intl. Herald Trib, 31 Oct 2011)
We achieved our objectives, avoided an occupation, suffered no US casualties, lost no aircraft, tanks, or HUMVEEs, and spent a trivial amount of money. So why don’t I feel like gloating?
One reason might be that from their “lessons learned,” it’s clear that NATO believes that it has found a new raison d’être and a template for accomplishing it:
Demonstrable need. Regional support. A sound legal basis. These are what made intervention necessary. NATO is what made successful intervention possible.
It’s always nice when the home team wins, but in the interest of a balanced after-action report, one might add a few caveats,
- Libya had one of the more incompetent militaries on the planet. Like any typical Third World military, it was a significant threat only to its own population.
- “Regional support” was spotty to say the least. With the sole exception of Morocco, no African nation participated in the operation.
- Apparently Qadhaafi enjoyed substantial support within Libya until near the end of the 8-month civil war and NATO bombing campaign. These people are still there.
- In order to liberate the country, we destroyed 6,000 targets, according to Daalder and Stavridis, and from the scenes of destruction, Qadhaafi’s supporters and the victorious rebels destroyed many, many more. Casualties are unknown but certainly number in the thousands.
- Oil exports to finance rebuilding may not reach pre-war levels for at least two years, and some estimates predict much longer.
I have no way to do the calculus to show whether the results were worth the price. Perhaps “the potential to become a productive partner with the West” is return enough for our modest expense, and we can only and sincerely hope that it proves sufficient for the Libyans.
Even if Libya evolves bloodlessly into a Maghrebian Turkey, we need to be most careful about drawing conclusions based on this one episode. As Fabius so often reminds us, the plural of anecdote is not “data.”
Libya, after all, had some attributes that made it an attractive candidate for NATO intervention:
- Libya lies less than 300 miles from NATO territory.
- Most of Libya’s population lives within a few hundred kilometers of the coast
- Deserts, some 90% of the country, make for good targeting. Libyan forces were destroyed, unlike the Serbian Army, which withstood some 78 days of NATO air onslaught in 1999 and then withdrew in good order and practically unscathed.
- Qadhaafi had no allies of any consequence within easy reach (contrast with the Taliban, for example)
- Qadhaafi was unable to wage the type of guerrilla / insurgent warfare that developed nations find so difficult to counter. His (conventional) military just provided convenient target sets.
So let’s assist the Libyans in rebuilding their country in any way we can — think Marshall Plan — and reserve for ourselves a healthy dose of humility and perhaps a heartfelt sigh of relief.