Up Front

Libya, a Model of Fighting Together that Worked

Justin Vaïsse

If the victory against Gaddafi was first and foremost that of the courageous rebels on the ground, these rebels could not have prevailed without an air force – which NATO provided. And behind this successful operation, the new repartition of roles between Americans and Europeans is another cause for celebration, and should become a template for future operations, as both Transatlantic partners got what they wanted.

In March, while the French and the British were pushing in favor of intervention, Washington was reluctant to commit its full support given its existing engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq. From the moment he made the decision to intervene militarily (around March 15), President Obama made it clear to Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron that he was ready to participate, but not to take the lead. For the first time, Washington allowed its allies to be in the driver’s seat. After helping to suppress Libya’s air defenses, the United States withdrew its bombers two weeks after the intervention started, while it kept providing critical military assets – intelligence, jamming and refueling – in support of operations now carried out by Europeans. On top of bombing operations, the French, with help from the Qataris, also decided to provide weapons to the rebels, and commit helicopters, which helped turn the tide.

Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, Europeans have tried to create a common defense, to be in a position to act when America did not wish to be involved, or only in a minimal way. The Libyan model provides one possible option to this effect, a variation on what specialists know as the “Berlin Plus agreements,” whereby Europeans can benefit from the support of American assets without having Washington fully involved and bearing the brunt of the fighting, as in Kosovo or Afghanistan.

This is what Transatlantic burden-sharing should look like. For too long, the U.S. military has provided Europe with a shield – but this shield proved a powerful disincentive for Europe to provide for its own defense. To let Europeans take the lead in operations they want to conduct is a much sounder basis for the Transatlantic relationship. It encourages them to do more on their own, and forces them to test and confront the limits of their military capabilities, which, given the current budgetary crisis, is a rising concern.

The Libya operation is also a reminder that in spite of shrinking military budgets, Europeans have shared the burden either alongside Americans (in Afghanistan, for example) or in other settings, on their own – in Côte d’Ivoire, where French military support was critical to deposing another dictator earlier this year, or off the coast of Somalia, where the largest anti-piracy mission is led by the European Union. European defense expenditures, if they represent less than a third of American ones, still dwarf those of Russia or China.

Let’s hope that the management of the post-conflict situation in Libya will be a continuation of the good cooperation that has taken place to help depose Gaddafi, with Europeans once again in the lead.