NATO’s New, Less U.S.-Centric, Way of Waging War

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NATO Secretary General Rasmussen in Washington Thursday / NATO photo

“So did you kill Gaddafi last night?”

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen laughed generously at the temerity of the question. The former Danish prime minister — now chief of the most powerful military alliance in history — unspooled his political answer to an impolitic query. “Let me stress that we do not target individuals,” he responded in his precisely clipped English. “We target military facilities that can be used to attack civilians in Libya…We have significantly degraded the Gaddafi war machine.” After two months of war — two weeks led by the U.S., and now six by NATO — there are signs of progress for the rebels seeking to oust Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi after 42 years in power.

Gaddafi forces have been pushed back from the city of Misrata, and rebels have taken the airport there after stepped-up NATO bombing in recent days. They are now advancing on the key oil town of Brega. “We have succeeding in taking out a lot of his capacities, and now you see the opposition is gaining ground,” Rasmussen says during a Thursday chat at his Washington hotel. “So — it works. We are making progress across the country so my message is very clear: time is up for the Gaddafi regime.”

Rasmussen is on a whirlwind tour of the U.S. — he meets with President Obama on Friday — and Libya is at the top of his to-do list. Unlike Afghanistan, where the U.S. has the key role — providing 100,000 of the 140,000 allied troops there — the ongoing Libyan campaign is something new on the world stage: Europe and Canada are now the key NATO players.

Of course, patience has been wearing thin in Western capitals since the Libyan campaign began under a UN mandate to protect civilians — only to watch Gaddafi’s forces shell Misrata for weeks. “I’m OK with the pace,” Rasmussen says. “Obviously, we all want a solution sooner rather than later.”

There are two reasons for the less-than-blistering speed of Operation Unified Protector. First of all, the UN mandate is weak: it only calls for protecting civilians, which is a game of perpetual defense. It would make more military sense to target Gaddafi himself deliberately and directly, but the UN wouldn’t approve that. Rasmussen says he isn’t fazed by having one hand tied behind his back. “This is actually how democracy works,” he patiently points out. “The military operates within a political framework.”

The second reason for the slow and steady pace is that the U.S. is not playing the lead role in the Libyan campaign. After the first two weeks of U.S. control — because of its unique ability to take down Libya’s air-defense network — NATO took over. It lacks U.S. firepower, so the going has been slower than if the U.S. were running the show.

But many Americans feel it makes sense for European nations to do the heavy lifting in Libya. After all, it’s in their neighborhood and the U.S. is busy in Afghanistan and Iraq. More importantly, the U.S. has long pushed for its NATO allies to do more when it comes to alliance military operations. “Now we see in the Libya operation that the majority of aircrafts are being provided by Canada and European allies,” Rasmussen notes. “All ships in our operation are provided by Canadians, Europeans and partners in the region.”

Rasmussen thinks it could be a new way of waging war. “We have been used to the fact that the U.S. should be in the very front line, and absolutely be in the lead, to carry out NATO operations,” he says. “How could it be that the U.S. should always take the lion’s share of the burden — couldn’t European allies step up to the plate?”

Rasmussen pauses, before answering his own question. “Here we see the balance shift a bit,” he says. “That’s a new concept that will strengthen the alliance in the long term.”