Site Description Booth Link
Header Logo sans Ad Space

NATO Summit Provides Opportunity for Reflection on the Organization's Strategy

By Dave Werthan, '13  |  may, 2012

Local Chicago officials are not the only bureaucrats who have been busily preparing for the NATO summit. Similarly, NATO officials have been prepping the proverbial track for a victory lap following the Libyan intervention that concluded in October of last year. They should save their energy for the marathon they are still running in Afghanistan as well as the more strenuous mental calisthenics that will be required to reformulate NATO’s raison d'être.

When Ivo Daalder, the US Permanent Representative to NATO, spoke in Chicago earlier this year, he tallied the successes of Operation Unified Protector. The operation was truly an alliance, rather than American, effort. NATO acted with regional support from the Arab League and a legal mandate from the United Nations. Daalder even noted that for the first time in its history, NATO “ended an operation it started.” I would add that only one coalition soldier lost his life during the engagement, and that NATO officials developed three thoughtful criteria for military intervention: demonstrable need; a legal mandate; and regional support.

So what’s the problem with a bit of self-congratulation? First, it takes the focus away from the ongoing mission in Afghanistan and gives the impression that foreign interventions are safe, cheap, and short. The Libyan intervention (thankfully) exemplifies all of these qualities, but that is more the exception than the rule. In fact, in the run-up to the Libyan intervention then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said, “any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined.” He likely had in mind the human and financial costs of Afghanistan after over a decade of sacrifice on the part of NATO and US troops: over 3,000 coalition casualties; roughly $100 billion of annual US expenditures; and a mixed (at best) record of establishing a functional, extremist-free state. When contemplating intervention in the future, as some have called for in Syria, NATO officials should consider the searing (and continuing) experience in Afghanistan rather than the anomalous experience in Libya.

The heads of state, and President Obama most importantly, should also better integrate NATO operations with broader strategic goals. As cartoonishly evil as Muammar Gaddafi was, removing him from power was low on virtually every member country’s list of national security needs. Doing so also complicated efforts to achieve higher-priority goals. Russia and China agreed not to block the UN mandate for NATO troops to “protect civilians” in Libya only after extensive negotiations. When it became clear that regime change was in fact the goal of the operation, Russian and Chinese cooperation reportedly evaporated on more important diplomatic efforts related to Iran. One can imagine President Obama’s frustration that a NATO action he appeared skeptical of from the beginning might jeopardize one of the most important foreign policy initiatives of his administration. In Chicago, President Obama should remind his more-eager-to-intervene counterparts of the need to prioritize.

Overall, NATO troops and functionaries deserve the praise they receive for their conduct in Libya. The decision makers who choose when to deploy those forces, however, should recall that the Libyan operation forced diplomatic tradeoffs and that it went far better than past performance might have predicted. The criteria they established for intervention should be the necessary, but not the sufficient, justification for any future NATO operation. Leaders must also integrate strategic considerations into the equation.

Last Updated 7/20/12