Foreign Affairs Plus: Letter From NATO
This Foreign Affairs Plus collection includes a letter from NATO, by Gideon Rose, following his address there on July 8, 2011. It also includes a chapter from his book, How Wars End, and a PDF reprint of the article "NATO After Libya."
Download the last chapter from the book How Wars End, by Gideon Rose. Copyright © 2010 by Gideon Rose. Distributed with permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.
In How Wars End: Why We Always Fight the Last Battle, Rose asserts that leaders are often focused on defeating the enemy and find it difficult to switch gears and construct a stable political environment in the aftermath . . .
NATO's success in Libya shows how important and effective the alliance remains, writes its secretary-general. But with Europe rocked by the economic crisis and slashing military budgets, future missions will be imperiled unless NATO members get smarter about what and how they spend . . .
Letter from NATO by Gideon Rose
A couple of weeks ago, I gave a talk at NATO headquarters in Brussels about how to end wars properly. It was an honor to be asked to speak there, and great fun to be introduced by once-and-future Foreign Affairs author Ivo Daalder, now the augustly styled "His Excellency Ambassador Ivo H. Daalder, U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO." (It's a bit scary to watch one's demographic cohort make what Gramsci called the "long march through the institutions.") I was intrigued to find in discussions there, however, that my reservations about the current operation Libya were not universally shared.
From my perspective, the Libyan war is something of a screw-up. It seems to have been launched on the fly, without much planning or deliberation, and with very little sense of where things would end end up—a near-perfect example of what my book says you're not supposed to do. I said as much in my talk, but some people argued that I was being too harsh, that things were going better than I gave them credit for. I've heard similar arguments from people in the Obama administration, so I thought it would be worth laying out the dispute here and explaining why I remain unconvinced.
My own argument is straightforward. Wars are acts of force and acts of policy—the use of military means to achieve some desirable and durable political end. To bring them off successfully, one should start from the end and work backwards, knowing what sort of ultimate political settlement you want to achieve and reverse engineering it. Strategy consists of charting a plausible course for going from where you are to where you want to be.
None of this appears to have been done in Libya. The Obama administration and its allies rushed into battle with no clear vision of what a successful and stable outcome might look like. Officials set out a range of objectives, from narrow (protecting civilians) to broad (ousting Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi), even as they announced severe restrictions on the military measures being considered to achieve them (no ground troops and no lengthy involvement). And no contingency planning was done for what should happen if Qaddafi did not fold or fall quickly. Quite predictably, this has led to a lengthy stalemate, frustrating and embarrassing all involved.
Not so fast, say the operation's defenders. First off, I am wrong in assuming the war was entered casually. There was actually a lot of debate and a strong sense that without immediate Western intervention, Qaddafi's forces would crush the faltering opposition, carry out widespread massacres in reprisal for the rebellion, and slam the door shut on the Arab Spring. Second, I am wrong in claiming that the war has not achieved much to date. It has kept those massacres at bay, weakened Qaddafi, and offered hope that the regional political progress will continue, all at an acceptable cost. And third, I am wrong to be so skeptical about the war's ultimate endgame. Qaddafi is likely to give in soon, and it will be possible to oversee a transition to a better, freer Libya afterward—one achieved by Libyans themselves.
Perhaps. But I don't buy it. It is true that without external intervention, Qaddafi would have brutally suppressed the rebellion against him. But the sad fact of international politics is that such things happen all the time, and the Libyan case would not have been exceptional. The government in Bahrain brutally suppressed the rebellion there while the West looked on unfazed, and the Assad regime in Syria has been trying its best to do the same, killing well over 1,500 to date. Libya was no impending Rwanda, its developments were unlikely to have a dramatic effect elsewhere, and the rationale for military intervention there and there alone remains obscure.
While it is also true that intervention has forestalled some massacres, moreover, I believe the operation's defenders minimize the costs to date. They have not been vast, to be sure, but they have been significant, not least in terms of reputation. If the Yankees play a Little League team and the game goes into extra innings, it is not enough to say "we haven't lost and are likely to win eventually." The world's dominant military coalition has gone into battle against a minor regional power and shown itself unable to get swift, decisive results. Whatever the governments involved might tell themselves, Europe's military incapacity has been revealed for all to see, and the Obama administration has become a laughingstock for trying to claim it is not even engaged in a war (so as to avoid triggering the provisions of the War Powers Act). Rather than cowering in fear at the power of NATO's terrible swift sword, bystanders have learned only that giving up your nuclear capability opens you up to attack.
As for the endgame, finally, it remains to be seen. I don't doubt that NATO will eventually "win"—the disparity in strength between the belligerents is too great, and failure too humiliating, to expect anything else. But I continue to worry about what happens afterward. "Regime change" is one of the truly pernicious concepts of our times, I think, because it takes a very complex, difficult subject and makes it seem simple and easy. Planning now is being driven by hopes that many elements of the current Libyan "regime" can be repurposed to maintain order in the country after Qaddafi is gone, but nobody has any clue whether that will be possible. (It wasn't in Iraq.) If that won't work, what will take the current system's place? Until that sort of question is answered, the true costs and duration of the operation cannot be added up, and history suggests they will be higher and longer than anybody expects.
To bring it back to Ivo, a decade ago he and another friend of ours, Mike O'Hanlon, wrote an excellent book about another ill-starred NATO humanitarian intervention, the one in Kosovo. They called the book Winning Ugly, and argued that even though the operation was seriously flawed, the harshest criticisms levied against it were largely unjustified. The Libya intervention looks a lot like the Kosovo one, and so with Ivo busy in Brussels, I had Mike write a piece for ForeignAffairs.com making a similar case this time around. We called it "Winning Ugly in Libya." Now as then, he argued that "an ugly operation is not the same as a failed operation." All I can say is, I hope he's right.