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Libya and NATO (II)

The use of NATO’s name, in Libya, is a fiction. But the weakening of NATO’s reputation in Libya’s wake might become horribly real. ~Anne Applebaum

It is very strange for me to say this, but for once Applebaum is right. I wrote something very close to this for my new column on Libya:

Libya is distracting NATO from its sole legitimate purpose, which is to provide for common European defense, and it is alarming new members in eastern Europe by consuming allied resources and attention in a conflict that has virtually nothing to do with European security. The opposition of major allied governments to the Libyan war shows that many allies understand and fear the consequences of Libya for the future of NATO. Libya promises to give the alliance a reputation of an organization goaded into unnecessary war by its most aggressive members, while at the same time giving it the appearance of being unable to prosecute a war effectively because of the deep political divisions among its members. That is bound to be damaging to the NATO’s political future, and its credibility as a defensive alliance.

Skeptics might say that I want NATO dissolved starting at least fifteen years ago and haven’t ever had much to say in its favor, so Atlanticists won’t care what I say. Unlike me, Applebaum is a longtime supporter of continued NATO expansion and a confirmed Atlanticist. It’s no surprise that she sees the use of NATO in Libya as an abuse of the alliance, because many member governments take the same sensible view that a defensive alliance dedicated to protecting Europe against external threat has no reason to be involved in an offensive war in North Africa. NATO also really has no business in Afghanistan, but at least the alliance’s involvement there was originally justified as part of collective defense in support of a member state.

Something I keep coming back to when discussing the Libyan war is how it seems almost perfectly designed to discredit all of the things it is supposed to be representing. War supporters have been eager to point out how legal the war is under international law. Of course, winning Security Council support and then appearing to exceed that mandate, as many of the abstaining states and one supporting Council member have claimed, may do more damage to the effective functioning of the Security Council than bypassing it all together. If other members of the Council conclude that the institution’s authority has been abused during this intervention, it will likely be much more difficult to win support for authorization in other situations. Humanitarian interventionists have cheered the application of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine, but by intervening in Libya they have applied the doctrine in a type of conflict for which it was never intended, and they have tied it to a war that the administration acknowledges will not be repeated again. This makes R2P look like the pretext for war that its critics feared and its supporters opposed.

Liberal interventionists congratulate the administration on how very multilateral the war is. Leaving aside the small size of the coalition of states that actually allow their forces to open fire on Gaddafi’s troops, the formal multilateralism of this war masks the complete lack of consensus within the main multilateral organization tasked with overseeing the war. This creates the illusion of international consensus for the war, when no consensus exists. Furthermore, the Libya experience seems sure to pull the alliance in two directions. New member states will conclude that their security interests are being subordinated to Anglo-French adventurism, and they are more likely to try to keep NATO from being co-opted in the future.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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