The Lessons of Libya

By Morgan Norval l April 26, 2011


Sources: NATO

Operating under a United Nations mandate, the U.S.-NATO intervention in the Libyan civil war is beginning to resemble the U.S.-NATO intervention in the Balkans during the 1990s, under President Bill Clinton. NATO’s Article 5, which states that an “attack on any member is considered an attack on all,” has only been invoked once since its founding in 1949 and that was after the 2001 9/11 attacks on the United States. The Obama administration’s bombing of Libya on March 19 did not involve the defense of Europe nor did Libya attack any member of NATO.

Although Russia was one of five nations to abstain from supporting the UN Security Council vote on Libya, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev issued a warning to both the U.S. and NATO in mid-April that the resolution must be observed. “What did we concede, in voting for the resolution? A no-fly zone…we got essentially a military operation, not on the ground for the time being, but from the air,” Medvedev protested. “And NATO has joined it as a military bloc. But the resolution contains nothing about this. It is a dangerous turn of events. What we see is the misuse of powers laid down in resolution 1973.”

Deep divisions and infighting erupted within the coalition causing it to fracture when President Obama made it clear the U.S. had no interest in leading the operation. Then on March 23 Germany pulled out of military operations, Italy threatened to retake control of its bases unless NATO took charge and Britain admitted the Libya intervention could last 30 years.

President Obama’s March 28 address to the nation, nearly 10 days after the first strike, explained his rationale behind the U.S. led allied attack on Libya and the NATO transition. “NATO has taken command of the enforcement of the arms embargo and the no-fly zone. Last night, NATO decided to take on additional responsibility of protecting Libyan civilians.”

Under its “NATO and Libya – Operation Unified Protector” section of its web site, NATO describes its mission this way:

“On March 27, NATO allies decided to take on the whole military operation in Libya under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973. The purpose of Operation Unified Protector is to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack. NATO is implementing all military aspects of the UN Resolution.”

The Libyan intervention may have been “turned over” to NATO but the U.S. is still heavily involved. TheAssociated Press (AP) even admitted that “turning over” the show to NATO “. . . the U.S. is turning the reins over to an organization dominated by the U.S., both militarily and politically. In essence, the U.S. runs the show that is taking over running the show.”

The Supreme Allied Commander of NATO is always a U.S. four-star general or admiral. U.S. taxpayers also fund almost a quarter of NATO’s budget paying 22% of the civil budget—funding NATO bureaucrats and 22% of NATO’s military budget. NATO relies on U.S. forces and capabilities for about 50% of its military equipment, logistics, and support infrastructure when NATO conducts military operations.

This dependency on Uncle Sam’s military might reflects two decades of European cuts in defense expenditures during which time European defense spending as a percent of GDP and as a percent of general government expenditures has declined in some cases below the two percent NATO threshold. Europe has neglected its own military while shifting spending to build massive social welfare programs to shower their citizens with six-weeks of paid annual vacations and retirement at age 55.

James Russell, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey points out NATO’s reliance on the U.S. stating, “The European armies will cease to be able to perform the kind of policing operations now going on in Afghanistan. Even the British and French will have a hard time getting forces any sort of distance and sustaining them on the ground.”

The European contribution to the Libyan venture – launched at the insistence of Europe, especially France and England – is heavily dependent on U.S. military support. The non-American NATO forces depend upon American intelligence, aerial refueling and electronic warfare capabilities. Of the nearly 200 tomahawk missiles, at a cost of 1 to1.5 million dollars each, fired at Libya, all but six came from American ships and submarines.

One week into the Libyan venture the U.S. cost had reached at least $600 million. Consider these costs and you can see why: operating F-16 jets at a cost of $10,000 per hour and 500 one-ton bombs dropped at a cost of $40,000 each. The U.S. even lost an F-15 jet to mechanical failure having a replacement cost of $60 million. We used three B-2 stealth bombers that flew round trip from a U.S. airbase in Missouri at a cost of $10,000 per hour. The 25-hour round trip cost $250,000 per plane. The three-plane mission cost $750,000. These figures do not include the cost of the bombs they dropped.

Less than a month into the Libyan campaign there were reports that NATO’s bomb supply was running short. Years of stinginess by Europeans on their defense investment is becoming quite evident to both NATO’s allies as well as potential enemies such as Iran and adversaries such as Russia.

“Libya has not been a very big war,” said John Pike, director of Global Security, a defense think tank. “If [Europeans] would run out of these munitions this early in such a small operation, you have to wonder what kind of war they were planning on fighting . . . Maybe they were just planning on using their air force for air shows.”

Such ridicule aside, it is well to remember that when an American plane drops a bomb or a ship fires a tomahawk missile under NATO auspices their costs are borne by American taxpayers out of the U.S. defense budget, not by NATO. On Wednesday, April 13, the Pentagon confirmed the transfer to NATO of 11 jet fighters to conduct airstrikes against Libya under NATO command. The money the U.S. contributes to fund NATO is primarily to fund the Brussels bureaucracy.

In fact, NATO is planning to construct a new Brussels headquarters at an estimated cost of $1.3 billion. AP reported on February 8 prior to NATO’s Libya operation, “…the move comes as member governments are cutting defense spending and as the alliance is struggling in the Afghan war, its most ambitious mission yet. Over the past two years, defense spending by NATO’s European members has shrunk by about $4.5 billion.”

was formed by the North Atlantic Treaty ratified in April 1949 in the wake of the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe at the height of the Cold War. This post-World War II collective defense system originally organized among the U.S., Canada and 10 European countries was designed to place the Western European treaty members under the U.S. nuclear umbrella in the event of Soviet attack.

For four decades the NATO alliance kept the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact threat in check. When the Reagan Administration dumped the Kissinger doctrine of détente, it forced the Soviet Union into an arms race that led to its eventual bankruptcy and collapse in 1991.

Without firing a shot, NATO helped to prevent another European war and seemingly had accomplished its mission. Yet, this politico-military institution was in search of a new mission. Brussels was determined to keep its bureaucracy alive to justify its existence.

NATO sought reasons to survive and expand even taking in former foes from the Warsaw Pact, eventually expanding to 28 members. The 2008 Bucharest Summit promised future invitations to the Republic of Macedonia, Ukraine and Georgia.

Having never fired a shot in anger during the Cold War, post-Cold War NATO soon intervened in the crisis in the Balkans (June 1993-October 1996) caused by the break-up of Yugoslavia and the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica. Under UN mandate, NATO’s action was not defensive but offensive as it provided cover for the U.S.-British three month bombing campaign (March 1999-June 1999) against Serbia in Kosovo.

In April 1999, at its Washington summit, NATO approved a transformative new policy it called the “Alliance’s Strategic Concept;” this to “meet the challenges and opportunities of a new century.” NATO’s newly crafted policy specified: “In an uncertain world the need for effective defence remains, but in reaffirming this commitment the Alliance will also continue making full use of every opportunity to help build an undivided continent by promoting and fostering the vision of a Europe whole and free.”

The 9-11 attacks against New York and Washington enabled NATO to invoke Article 5 of its treaty on collective defense to back the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in 2001. Two years later, NATO had an expanded role over Western forces in the on-going Afghan War thousands of miles beyond European borders. And NATO had evolved into a multi-purpose politico-military institution.

NATO’s mission creep was alluded to by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton during her press conference on April 15, while attending the NATO ministerial meeting in Berlin. “Our missions in Libya and Afghanistan show that NATO plays a vital role in protecting our security and interests around the world,” Clinton said. “We are seeing that new challenges will often drive us to develop new capabilities and work with partners outside the alliance when shared interests and values are at stake.”

NATO’s recent campaign in Libya further expands NATO’s role. Yet its performance there has exposed its on-going deficiencies to friends and foes alike. NATO’s military capabilities are less than they were during the Balkans civil war and Europe shows no inclination to reverse that trend. Under NATO, Europe is no better prepared now than they have been several times in recent history when the U.S. was forced to join European wars – WW I and WW II – and come to their defense because they were woefully unprepared and incapable of looking after their own security.

The U.S. continues to maintain what has become an apparent permanent military presence in Europe. These forces, some 200,000 stationed in Europe at U.S. taxpayer’s expense, act as trip-wire against an attack on Europe, by whom it is not yet known. Russia does not have thousands of tanks on European borders ready to invade. Russia has only to shut off the spigots supplying Europe with natural gas for a few days in the middle of a cold winter to get Europe to do its biding. Ironically, the situation in Libya has severed oil and gas supplies to Europe.

With trillion dollar deficits and a rapidly increasing national debt to the point where Standard & Poor’s is downgrading America’s bond rating, the time has come to look for ways to reduce, or even cut, redundant programs. NATO fulfilled its mission two decades ago and the European states are not poverty-stricken. No doubt Europe is in need of a strong military defense force. If the Europeans come to that realization on their own, they must be willing to pay for building and maintaining much more than a sparkling new NATO headquarters for the world to admire.

It is long past time Europe should be sorting out its own priorities by increasing their defense expenditures relative to GDP and modernizing their military as an insurance policy against future wars on the continent and relying less on America’s largess. America should be saying “NO” to NATO Europe.


Morgan Norval is the founder and Executive Director of the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to

SFPPR News & Analysis.