NATO confronts the Libya vacuum
NATO’s defense ministers met yesterday in Brussels and issued a statement affirming the alliance’s committment to the Libya operation. It included this notable paragraph: We will continue to coordinate with other key organisations, including the United Nations, the European Union, the League of Arab States and the African Union, and to consult with others such ...
NATO's defense ministers met yesterday in Brussels and issued a statement affirming the alliance's committment to the Libya operation. It included this notable paragraph:
NATO’s defense ministers met yesterday in Brussels and issued a statement affirming the alliance’s committment to the Libya operation. It included this notable paragraph:
We will continue to coordinate with other key organisations, including the United Nations, the European Union, the League of Arab States and the African Union, and to consult with others such as the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, and we encourage these organisations’ efforts in the immediate and longer term post-conflict period. Once the goals laid out in Berlin have been achieved, NATO stands ready to play a role, if requested and if necessary, in support of post-conflict efforts that should be initiated by the United Nations and the Contact Group on Libya.
This appears to be the beginnings of the alliance grappling with its responsibilities in a post-Gaddafi era. But it comes in the context of a call for a range of other organizations to play a role and with the caveat that NATO will be involved "if requested and if necessary." The ministers appear to view a NATO ground presence to stabilize Libya’s political transition as a possibility, but a somewhat abstract one. There is no sign that the alliance has made serious operational plans for a deployment or even knows which members might be willing to send forces.
NATO’s sluggishness opens the possibility of a damaging vacuum of power. Gaddafi’s regime could crumble at any moment. As a key actor in his imminent demise, the alliance has a political and moral responsibility to provide basic law and order while a new political order emerges.
Transitional moments are critical. As Iraq demonstrated, a failure to ensure order can have devastating long-term consequences. And recent history has shown that even when troops are ready and plans are in place, the seam between war-fighting and stabilization can create space for extremist forces to create facts on the ground. In Bosnia after the Dayton peace accords, NATO’s very large stabilization force did not arrive in time or act assertively enough to prevent the large-scale exodus–in part through a process of "self-cleansing" by extremists–of Bosnian Serbs from the suburbs of Sarajevo. And in Kosovo, some Albanians used the time after Belgrade’s capitulation but before the arrival of NATO forces to terrorize Serb populations and exact retribution.
For Libya, there are no troops ready and no plans in place. The notion that some other organization–the African Union? The Organization of the Islamic Conference?–will stride forward to fill the vacuum is illusory. Certainly for the first critical weeks after Gaddafi’s fall, it will be NATO or it will be no one. Which members are ready to contribute? Britain, France, and the United States have done the bulk of the airstrikes, but the Obama administration has made clear it will not send ground troops. Britain and France might be willing, but their forces are badly stretched in Afghanistan. What’s more, they will feel–not without some justification–that those NATO states who opted out of the air campaign, notably Germany and Turkey, must step forward in the post-conflict stage.
Yesterday’s recognition that the alliance may play a significant role in the post-conflict stage was important. But expressing that recognition is no longer enough. Unless the alliance moves fast to plan for a stabilization operation, it could well snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
David Bosco is a professor at Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies. He is the author of The Poseidon Project: The Struggle to Govern the World’s Oceans. Twitter: @multilateralist
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