By Noureddine Jebnoun
During the NATO campaign in Libya from March 19 through October 20, 2011—“Operation Unified Protector”—the United States declined to take center stage. After contributing to the neutralization of Libya’s air defenses and launching air-to-ground strikes during the preliminary phase of the campaign, Washington handed over the command of the operations to NATO’s members. France and Great Britain proceeded to mainly lead the military engagement.
It appears that America’s disastrous experiences in the Middle East in recent years, particularly in Iraq, affected its decision regarding intervention in Libya. Furthermore, the United States has not viewed Libya as a vital strategic interest, but rather as a challenge to “common security and common humanity.” Its involvement was geared toward preventing massacres of civilians and sending a clear signal to autocratic leaders across the region, as President Obama asserted in his address to the nation on March 28. He averred that the United States should not “be afraid to act,” but that any action should be taken within the frame of multilateral partnership.
What does this newfound American reluctance to engage aggressively in armed conflicts in the Middle East mean for NATO as a whole? Though the Libyan intervention was ultimately successful, it appears that its attainment was in many ways despite, rather than because of, European military control. This article seeks to shed light on the military lessons learned from the campaign and particularly from the shift in NATO leadership.
The Europeans’ inclination to opt for military action against Libya can be explained by the fact that they misunderstood and underestimated the pro-democratic momentum across the Arab world. Earlier in the year, for example, the French government had been willing to provide Ben Ali’s regime with security expertise in order for it to quash the Tunisian revolt. The Europeans thus decided, unlike their equally misguided American counterparts, to try to correct their former actions by aiding the Libyan rebels, who were in a more vulnerable position than the Tunisians and Egyptians had been. Europe’s choice of full-on engagement was also spurred by the fact that from 2004 through 2011, France, the United Kingdom, and Italy developed a closer relationship with Qaddafi and his regime by selling them weapons such as aircraft and missiles. Of course, France is now reported to be looking for oil deals in the aftermath.
Skepticism aside, the use of force in Libya was intended as a last resort and was decided within the international legal framework of United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1973 with very clear rules of engagement that sought to “protect civilians and civilian-populated areas” against “violence and all attacks” committed by the Libyan government. The resolution authorized a “no-fly zone over Libya” and reinforced the “arms embargo” and action against mercenaries that had been initiated in UNSCR 1970. However, the strategic objectives of the campaign were rather ambiguous. On April 14, Obama, Cameron, and Sarkozy published an article in the New York Times in which they pointed out that “our duty and our mandate under UN Security Council Resolution 1973 is to protect civilians, and we are doing that. It is not to remove Qaddafi by force. But it is impossible to imagine a future for Libya with Qaddafi in power.”
The NATO Alliance flew more than 26,000 flight missions, including 9,658 strike sorties. This pales in comparison to the U.S.-led “Desert Storm” Gulf War air campaign of 1991, which lasted less than 45 days and saw the international coalition fly over 100,000 sorties and drop 85,000 tons of bombs. NATO’s “Operation Allied Force” against Yugoslavia in 1999 lasted slightly longer at 78 days, in which more than 38,000 sorties were accomplished. As such, NATO’s “Unified Operation Protector” over Libya proved to be the longest air strike campaign in the post-Cold War era, but with far fewer sorties. With fragmented enemy forces that mixed with the civilian population, NATO could not easily identify its targets and thus exercised more caution than usual.
The NATO airstrike campaign helped the rebels advance by confronting the regime’s armored battalions with Apache and Tiger helicopters. A decisive event also occurred at the beginning of August, when rebels in the Western mountains—after being supplied with weapons from France, Qatar, the UAE, and Jordan—started to move toward the city of Zawiya, with its strategic oil refinery. From there, they cut off Tripoli’s main fuel supply and achieved control over the lines from Tunisia. The regime’s hope that it could defend Tripoli was dashed, and the rebels continued to make progress. Key defections from within the regime, including large battalions of presidential guards that had previously handled Qaddafi’s personal security, also helped the effort. Though sustained opposition from Qaddafi loyalists hampered the outright success of the rebellion, the rebels’ advance into Tripoli in August was ultimately victorious.
Though the rebels had an advantage in the eastern front, with Benghazi as the cradle of the revolution, it took them months to seize the city of Brega as well as Ras Lanuf. The former houses a major petrochemical complex and is near Qaddafi’s former stronghold of Sirte, which was partially seized by rebel forces on October 11, though many of Qaddafi’s followers cornered in the city center continued to wage a fierce battle. The dramatic shift happened nine days later, on October 20, when the rebels captured Sirte and Qaddafi was killed while trying to flee. Qaddafi’s son Muatassim was also killed after trying to escape, and Muatassim’s older brother Saif al-Islam was arrested on November 19 and now awaits trial in the city of Zintan.
The length of the campaign is a result of the fact that air power alone cannot achieve strategic goals, such as toppling regimes. Despite U.S. military assets, including air close support (Tomahawk cruise missiles, A-10 Thunderbolt II); intelligence (drones and AWACS, or airborne warning and control systems); JSTARS (joint surveillance target attack radar systems); and tanker refueling systems, a ground component with substantial tactical capabilities is fundamental to avoid a stalemate. In the Libyan context such an element took the form of the rebels, who emerged as a capable force only several months into the conflict—thus prolonging the battle.
The intervention did not seek to destroy Libyan military assets on the ground. Rather, it intended to inflict damage on Qaddafi’s battalions, undermining their military capabilities so as to cause division within Qaddafi’s security apparatus that would either bring about a defection from within or precipitate the fall of the regime. Certainly, not only the United States but also the coalition as a whole was haunted by the Iraq scenario, in which the post-Saddam demobilization and dismantling of security and military forces created a state of chaos and insecurity. From NATO’s point of view, maintaining minimum cohesion and operational capability among Qaddafi’s forces was vital for managing the security challenges that would emerge in the country’s future.
Though the French and the British decisively contributed to the campaign via their oft-employed precision-guided ammunitions as well as an integrated command, control, and communications platform, NATO military intervention brought to light the limits of European military power. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates raised this subject in a speech he delivered on June 10 in Brussels. Regarding the future of the Alliance, Secretary Gates openly denounced “NATO’s serious capability gaps and other institutional shortcomings laid bare by the Libya operation,” such as when the French deployed their only aircraft carrier (Charles de Gaulle) but did not succeed in keeping it operational during the eight months of conflict. He also warned against the “growing difficulty for the U.S. to sustain current support for NATO if the American taxpayer continues to carry most of the burden in the Alliance.”
Indeed, Gates criticized the low budget allocated to the defense sector in Europe and pointed out that “while every alliance member voted for the Libya mission, less than half have participated at all, and fewer than a third have been willing to participate in the strike mission.” He added that “many of those allies sitting on the sidelines do so not because they do not want to participate, but simply because they can’t. The military capabilities simply aren’t there.” Not without exasperation, he recognized that “just five of 28 allies—the U.S., the UK, France, and Greece, along with Albania—exceeded the agreed 2% of GDP spending on defense.” He concluded with the statement that if “the decline of European defense capabilities are not halted and reversed, future U.S. political leaders…may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost.” In this regard, inadequacy of defense mechanisms and new geostrategic realities on the ground will make for a steep learning curve for European governments in the future. And forthcoming funding does not look promising. In the aftermath of the conflict, Britain was forced to reduce its Tornado frontline squadrons due to cuts in defense spending.
One can argue that the Libyan campaign was conducted when the major NATO members—including, of course, the United States—were boxed in an Afghan corner. The progressive disengagement from the Afghan theater will free these countries’ assets for other potential military operations. That may come none too soon, as Europe’s ability to support future synchronized missions is in question due to the various shortcomings of the mission outlined above. As a result, NATO is not yet ready to conduct operations even in a neighboring area without substantial American military support. Washington, however, seems more inclined to “lead from behind” in armed conflicts arising from the “Arab Spring.” If belligerence toward Iran can be kept in check, and if Obama remains president, the American role in “Operation Unified Protector” may be an indication that direct U.S. military intervention in the region could continue to lessen.
Noureddine Jebnoun is a faculty member at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University. He previously served as an assistant professor at the Tunisian War College, Tunisian Command and General Staff College, and Tunisian National Defense Institute, where he taught courses on strategy and geopolitics.
 America’s role did, however, remain crucial to the campaign in that it accomplished air refueling missions as well as provided intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities for the NATO allies.
 “Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on Libya,” Washington, D.C., National Defense University, 28 March 2011. Available at: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/03/28/remarks-president-address-nation-libya. Retrieved 15 January 2012.
 Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes, “Tunisie: Alliot-Marie doit-elle démissionner?” L’Express, 17 January 2011. Available at: http://www.lexpress.fr/actualite/politique/tunisie-alliot-marie-doit-elle-demissionner_953049.html. Retrieved 15 January 2012.
 Derek Lutterbeck, “Migrants, Weapons and Oil: Europe and Libya after the Sanctions,” The Journal of North African Studies, Vol. 14, No. 2 (June 2009) 169-184.
 Vittorio De Filippis, “Pétrole: l’accord secret entre le CNT et la France,” Liberation, 1 September 2011. Available at: http://www.liberation.fr/monde/01012357324-petrole-l-accord-secret-entre-le-cnt-et-la-france. Retrieved 15 January 2012.
 See Resolution 1970 (2011), adopted by the Security Council at its 6491st meeting, on 26 February 2011 (particularly paragraphs 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15). Available at: http://daccess-dds ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N11/245/58/PDF/N1124558.pdf?OpenElement. Retrieved 15 January 2012.
 Barack Obama, David Cameron, and Nicolas Sarkozy, “Libya’s Pathway to Peace,” New York Times, 14 April 2011. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/15/opinion/15iht-edlibya15.html. Retrieved 15 January 2012.
Edwin E. Moïse, “Limited War: The Stereotypes,” Clemson University. Available at: http://www.clemson.edu/caah/history/FacultyPages/EdMoise/limit1.html. Retrieved 15 January 2012.
 Michael W. Lamb SR. (Lieutenant Colonel, USAF), “Operation Allied Force: Golden Nuggets for Future Campaigns,” Maxwell Paper No. 27, Alabama: Air War College, Maxwell Air Force Base, 2002, 1. Available at:
 “Transcript of Defense Secretary Gates’ Speech on NATO’s Future,” The Wall Street Journal, 10 June 2011. Available at: http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2011/06/10/transcript-of-defense-secretary-gatess-speech-on-natos-future. Retrieved 15 January 2012.