NATO planes are still in the air and bombing targets over Libya and Moammar Gadhafi is still on the loose. Nonetheless, NATO is taking something of a victory lap in the wake of an operation that broke new ground for the military alliance.
But the Libyan operation also raised questions about its mission, its future role in such conflicts, and how it determines when to intervene.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told NPR he sees the Libya operation as a template for future NATO missions and proof the United Nations can outsource its muscle to the alliance.
"I don't see that as a negative" he said. "On the contrary, it's very, very positive that NATO is able to support the United Nations Security Council and help implement its decisions. That adds to the credibility of the U.N. and I'm very pleased to see NATO in that role."
Throughout the conflict, NATO has insisted that its actions are limited to supporting the U.N. resolution that calls for protecting civilians and enforcing an arms embargo.
But NATO certainly pushed the boundaries, and critics say NATO ended up providing close air support for anti-Gadhafi rebels. To most observers, NATO was clearly taking the rebel side in a civil war and backing efforts to oust Gadhafi.
Those critics worry that NATO risks becoming an armed service provider for the U.N. and other allies. That job description is a long way from what NATO still insists is its core, founding mission: to protect its members' territory and population.
In addition, there are questions about possible interventions in the future. Critics point out that NATO moved quickly to intervene in oil-rich Libya, while there's been no serious discussion of such action in Syria, where President Bashar Assad has been waging a deadly crackdown on opponents of his government.
European Countries In The Lead
But Rasmussen said it was important to note the leading role played by European countries in Libya. European powers carried out the vast majority of the air strikes and only one of the eighteen ships enforcing the arms embargo was American.
"This time European allies and Canada took the lead. And that's an answer to an American public that requests more European engagement," Rasmussen said. "You saw it in Libya and I hope to see that model used also in the future."
But it's hard to take the lead – and maintain that position — when you run critically low on precision-guided bombs after barely two months into a conflict, as NATO's European allies did in Libya. The U.S. stepped in and sold the alliance ordnance, saving NATO from embarrassment.
American Assets Crucial
The U.S. launched 97 percent of the Tomahawk cruise missiles that crippled Gadhafi's air defenses at the start of operation. And throughout, the U.S. also provided about 75 percent of all the aerial refueling and reconnaissance flights and supplied key targeting and intelligence assets such as unmanned drones.
"Without critical American assets this would not have been possible and I suppose one could argue that if the operation had to go on too much longer it also would not have been possible," says Ian Lesser executive director of German Marshall Fund's trans-Atlantic center in Brussels.
"Clearly Europe was very, hard pressed," Lesser adds, "They were running out of stocks. The lesson really is that the US and Europe together need to refine their defense planning and procurement so they can get more for the amount they can spend."
Rasmussen concedes the mission underscored weaknesses in NATO. "The operation has made visible that the Europeans lack a number of essential military capabilities," he said. He says getting European NATO members to spend more wisely on defense, especially in a time of austerity, will be a key mission of his until the next big alliance gathering in Chicago next spring.
But only five of the 28 NATO members are meeting the NATO requirement, which calls for members to spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense, according to the alliance's own figures. And Britain and others in the two percent club have announced plans for sharp defense cuts.
Former British foreign secretary Douglas Hurd believes the Libya mission represents a worrying trend for NATO because Europe's two largest military powers - Britain and France - shouldered most of the burden.
"We are the only two countries, apart from the United States, in NATO who actually have the will, the guts if you like, to intervene where intervention is clearly needed to prevent a slaughter."
Only eight NATO allies took part in combat in Libya. European powerhouse Germany even pulled its crews out of NATO support aircraft. Germany's move revived concerns that the economic giant is not living up to its international political and military obligations.
"That's a serious weakness for the whole of Europe," says Giles Merritt, a military analyst at the Brussels think tank Security and Defense Agenda. "German foreign policy still has not yet connected itself with European foreign policy in a meaningful way. And the German failure to put its shoulder to the wheel on Libya raised big question marks about how we're going to run European defense and security policy for the future."
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