NATO Confusion over Libya

As Obama seeks to hand over control of the Libya campaign to NATO, member nations are squabbling over who does what, and how. John Barry on the inside discussions.

"We are considering whether NATO should take on the broader responsibilities in accord with the UN Security Council mandate, but that decision has not been reached yet," said Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO's secretary general. (Credit: Yves Logghe / AP Pho

Libya’s opposition has launched a new offensive into the strategic city of Ajdabiyah, meeting pro-Gaddafi forces with heavy gunfire. Residents have fled the city. If rebels fail to recapture Ajdabiyah, their lost momentum could endanger their hold on Benghazi, their base. Coalition airstrikes continue to pummel the city.

Meanwhile, as Obama seeks to hand over control of the campaign to NATO, member nations are squabbling over who does what, and how. John Barry on the inside discussions.

“The only thing in war worse than having to fight with allies is having to fight without allies,” Winston Churchill once remarked. That was in World War Two; but President Obama, grappling with the immeasurably smaller air-campaign over Libya, must be of a mind to agree.

Obama is determined to hand over control of the Libyan campaign, Odyssey Dawn, to the Europeans in “days not weeks.” NATO is the only European military organization with the command procedures and control structure to take over. But NATO is a voluntary alliance of, now, 28 nations—all with their own agenda. Unsurprisingly, this week’s negotiations within NATO over who does what, under what auspices, call to mind the exasperated comment of a U.S. military commander in Europe a few years back that getting NATO members into line was “like herding cats.”

Beneath the flurry of rival leaks and press statements, though, the debate in Europe has fallen into two stages.

Stage One: France didn’t want the Libyan intervention to be a NATO operation. France is a founder member of NATO, but has long dreamt of a purely European military alliance distinct from America, so for years stood aloof from NATO’s military command structure. Besides, French President Nicolas Sarkozy—facing a tough re-election campaign—was keen to continue France’s leading role in galvanizing action. Italy shot Sarkozy down by responding that it would open its airbases, the nearest to Libya, only for aircraft flying the NATO flag. Other Europeans said they wouldn’t contribute aircraft. Sarkozy backed down to a fallback position: NATO operations must be under the political control of a group that would include Arab and African nations—which are not part of NATO.

The impasse can be resolved—or, more likely, fudged. NATO has long-practiced skill in that.

That’s proven relatively easy to fudge. The predictable compromise was hashed out in Thursday’s four-way conference call between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her French, British, and Turkish counterparts. There will be two committees running things: an operational committee comprising the 14-at-last-count states actually engaged in Odyssey Dawn; and a political committee including other NATO members, plus those nations outside NATO. (There will be meetings of both in London next Tuesday.) What role the political committee will play is quite unclear. But French amour propre is appeased.

Success? Not quite.

Now comes Stage Two. Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, pronounced himself delighted with Thursday’s outcome: “The operation will be handed over to NATO in a very short time.” Not so fast. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that it had been agreed only that NATO will take over enforcing the no-fly zone. “We are considering whether NATO should take on the broader responsibilities in accord with the U.N. Security Council mandate, but that decision has not been reached yet.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explained: NATO “has authorized military authorities to develop operational plans for NATO to take on the broader protection mission."

What’s going on? The answer is that nobody trusts Turkey’s intentions. The reason stems from the difference between the two resolutions that propelled the U.S. and its allies into action. The Arab League called for international action to ground Gaddafi’s air force by imposing a no-fly-zone over Libya . The U.N. Security Council then went much further: authorizing not just a no-fly-zone, an embargo on arms shipments to Libya, and a freeze on Libyan assets, but—crucially—“all necessary measures…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack” by Gaddafi’s forces.

This last part of Security Council 1973 the U.S., France, and the U.K. have taken as allowing not just airstrikes against Gaddafi’s forces besieging rebel-held towns like Benghazi, Misurata, and Adjabiya but also an increasing onslaught against Gaddafi’s headquarters and military bases in and around Tripoli—including at least two British cruise-missile strikes against buildings in Gaddafi’s own compound (though, deliberately, not against the building he is known to live in).

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

The logic is straightforward, as U.S., French, and British officials explain it. Only by demolishing Gaddafi’s military capabilities can they ensure the protection, long term, of his civilian population in what looks set to be a long-running civil war.

But the logic concerns Turkey. As the only Muslim nation in NATO, and with an uneasy governing coalition including Islamists, Turkey sees itself as representing Arab concerns. So Turkish Premier Recep Erdogan has spoken out fiercely against the scale of the air campaign. (Erdogan has actually gone much further than the Arab League. Aside from a single comment by its secretary general, Amr Moussa, the League has been silent. And a second Arab nation, the UAE, has now announced it will send combat aircraft to join those of Qatar in the campaign.)

The U.S., France, and the U.K. suspect that Turkey would like NATO to confine Odyssey Dawn to meeting the limited "no-fly zone" appeal of the Arab League. Turkish officials in Washington don’t explicitly deny that. Ankara, they say, is deeply uncomfortable with the wider offensive sanctioned by the Security Council. (Though Turkey has now dispatched six vessels to aid in the arms embargo and humanitarian relief also sanctioned by Resolution 1973.)

Therein lies the problem that Thursday’s telephone conference call couldn’t patch over. NATO operates on a basis of unanimous decision-making. If NATO were to take over command of all aspects of the campaign, would Turkey seek to use that unanimity rule to veto any offensive going beyond the Arab League’s no-fly zone? A source in Brussels privy to the four-way says that Turkey’s Foreign Minister Davutoglu “hemmed and hawed” on this point in the four-way and finally claimed everything would depend on circumstances.

But that is the critical issue; and it explains Thursday’s split decision: NATO will take over command of the no-fly zone because Turkey approves of that. Until Turkey gives assurances that it also supports the wider actions sanctioned by Resolution 1973, though, the U.S., France, and the U.K. are adamant in declining to give NATO authority over those.

The impasse can be resolved—or, more likely, fudged. NATO has long-practiced skill in that. It can be resolved by a Turkish declaration that, in NATO discussions, it will agree to all aspects of Resolution 1973. (NATO’s operational military commander, U.S. Admiral James Stavridis, has been in Ankara trying to persuade the Turks of the wisdom of this.) One theory making the rounds in Brussels is that Turkish Premier Erdogan wants a price for agreeing to this—the price most likely being some advance in Turkey’s efforts to join the EU. (Erdogan and Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul have fairly explicitly twinned the two issues in recent comments.)

Failing a deal with Turkey, one fudge being mulled in Brussels is that control of Odyssey Dawn could be divided among three committees: one overseeing the no-fly zone; one the arms embargo and humanitarian operations; the third riding the wider offensive. Turkey could have a voice in two—could even be given the chair of the second—but not the third. (French foreign minister, Alain Juppe, floated this week a prototype of that fractured structure.)

Militarily, it would be a cockamamie arrangement. Especially since all three operations would, in practice, come under the tactical command of the NATO military headquarters directing operations, which will be the U.S. headquarters in Stuttgart for the air campaign, and joint force command headquarters in Naples for naval actions. But if that is what it takes to get a 28-nation alliance on board, OK.

Ironically, this debate is unfurling against a background of broad political agreement in Europe: Gaddafi has to go. Although there are press headlines in the U.S. that the allies are split on the goal and strategy of the Libya Mission, such headlines overstate the divisions. The Europeans are far less “split” over the political goal of Odyssey Dawn than the U.S. Congress seems to be. As Obama seems to be having difficulty acknowledging, the military goal of the operation is to do mortal damage to Gaddafi’s military in the name of “protecting civilians and civilian populated areas.” The political goal is that this damage will persuade those around Gaddafi that he has to go. What happens then? Time has been bought for a negotiated settlement, everyone hopes.

John Barry joined Newsweek's Washington bureau as national security correspondent in July 1985. He has reported extensively on American intervention in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Haiti, Bosnia, Iraq and Somalia and efforts for peace in the Middle East. In 2002, he co-wrote "The War Crimes of Afghanistan" (8/26/02 cover) which won a National Headliner Award and was a finalist in the ASME National Magazine Awards for public service and a finalist in the SPJ Deadline Club Award for investigative reporting.