The celebratory gunfire and Allahu Akhbars that accompanied the rebel advance into Tripoli on Sunday all but drowned out a subtler undertone to the long-awaited breakthrough: the sighs of relief at Nato headquarters.
Nato warplanes began pounding targets in Libya back in March in order to rescue the country’s pro-rebel citizens from a grisly fate at the hands of Colonel Gaddafi’s army. But by finally punching through to the capital, Libya’s revolutionary fighters appeared to be returning the favour: this time Nato was the one being spared.
Commentators had been queuing up for weeks to plunge the knife into Nato’s Libyan intervention – and into the alliance itself. Andrew McGregor of the Jamestown Foundation recently told CNN that, “It’s absolutely wrong to think that an air campaign can win this,” and dismissed the rebel campaign as a farce which Nato ought never to have associated itself with. Many others damned the futility of dropping bombs without sending in troops to finish the job.
The problem was that Nato was on the ropes even before Libya came along. Iraq and Afghanistan had badly wounded the alliance, exposing the reluctance of all but a handful of its 28 members to do any actual fighting. The US has grown particularly exasperated by the feebleness of some Nato partners. Shortly before retiring in June, Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned of America’s “dwindling appetite and patience” with the expectation that it would continue subsidising the defence of shirking Europeans. It was truly pathetic, he said, to see Nato members running out of ammunition just a few weeks into the relatively straightforward Libyan mission.
As Operation Unified Protector dragged on over Libya, it looked as if Gaddafi might kill Nato and not the other way round. France and the UK, prodded into leading the mission by a jaded Washington, hadn’t bargained on such a lengthy action, and this forced the allies to try to end the conflict by taking out Gaddafi himself, even though their UN mandate never really extended beyond the protection of civilians. By June, the British government admitted it had spent £260m (€296m) on Libya – money it doesn’t have right now. And this belied the fact that the US, despite assuming a backseat role, was still flying a quarter of all Nato sorties.
Today, notwithstanding the incomplete nature of the rebel victory, Nato can claim some vindication. It took a lot more time and money than anyone wanted, but the goal of clearing the revolutionary path to Tripoli has finally been achieved.
Nato’s headaches are far from over, though. If the ongoing battles in Tripoli foreshadow the chaos that many always feared would stem from Nato’s targeting of Gaddafi, then the alliance may be compelled to finish what it has started and, as much as it dreads the prospect, send in a peacekeeping force. Moreover, the Libyan experience may finally have convinced an America increasingly focused on the Asia-Pacific that the North Atlantic alliance has had its day.