The NATO-led coalition began its mission in Libya on March 19 with the limited objective of providing air cover to the rebel-held areas of the country, notably Benghazi, where Moammar Gadhafi, the nation’s dictator of 42 years, was threatening to exterminate the entire population.
That part of the mission, with the U.S. running interference to suppress Libya’s air defenses, disrupt communications and provide real-time surveillance, was almost immediately successful.
But the mission crept higher, as military missions will, with the NATO coalition basically providing both close- and long-range air support for the rebels as they advanced across northern Libya to the capital of Tripoli.
NATO’s last great contribution to the rebel cause was intercepting a convoy of 75 armed vehicles fleeing Sirte, Gadhafi’s hometown, and forcing it to turn back, where on Oct. 20 Gadhafi was extracted from his hiding place in a storm drain and killed.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen declared the operation “one of the most successful in NATO history” and promised to wind it up quickly.
It was a success for some, but by no means all, of the alliance’s 28 members. Only 17 members actually participated, with Britain, France, Canada, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and the U.S. doing the heavy lifting. Smaller nations such as Romania contributed within their limited means.
What was heartening, should NATO again have to undertake operations in North Africa and the Mideast, was the participation of Muslim nations such as Turkey, a NATO member, and Muslim nonmembers like Qatar, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, along with the political support of the Arab League.
Now NATO is declaring the formal end of the mission. For Chancellor Angela Merkel, who declined any meaningful role for Germany in the operation, the operation can’t end soon enough.
Declaring the mandate “fully accomplished,” even though she played a minimal part in it, she said, “Now we have firm ground for terminating our operations as we decided to do.”
Surprisingly, this proof that NATO is both effective and necessary may lead to it being substantially weakened or even allowed to atrophy. The U.N. is to take over the role of building a post-Gadhafi Libya. Meanwhile, the attitude of the European NATO governments is “Let’s get out of there and concentrate on our economic problems.”
To be effective, a military alliance has to train and re-equip itself constantly, and that costs money. European support for NATO has been cut to the point where former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates openly wondered whether it would survive.
The alliance, one hopes, may never again be called to the task of keeping an enemy like the Soviet Union at bay, but the West should never allow itself to think that the alliance won’t be needed again and in a hurry. Libya proved that.
Dale McFeatters is an editorial writer and columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service.