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George Will / June 19, 2011

Libya and the Potemkin Alliance

WASHINGTON – America’s intervention in Libya’s civil war, the most protracted and least surreptitious assassination attempt in history, was supposed to last “days, not weeks,” but is in its fourth month and has revealed NATO to be an increasingly fictitious military organization. Although this war has no discernible connection with U.S. national security, it serves the national interest, in three ways. It is awakening some legislators to their responsibilities. It is refuting the pretense that the U.N. sets meaningful parameters to wars it authorizes – or endorses, which is quite different. And it is igniting a reassessment of NATO, a Potemkin alliance whose primary use these days is perverse: It provides a patina of multilateralism to U.S. military interventions on which Europe is essentially a free rider.

WASHINGTON – America’s intervention in Libya’s civil war, the most protracted and least surreptitious assassination attempt in history, was supposed to last “days, not weeks,” but is in its fourth month and has revealed NATO to be an increasingly fictitious military organization. Although this war has no discernible connection with U.S. national security, it serves the national interest, in three ways. It is awakening some legislators to their responsibilities. It is refuting the pretense that the U.N. sets meaningful parameters to wars it authorizes – or endorses, which is quite different. And it is igniting a reassessment of NATO, a Potemkin alliance whose primary use these days is perverse: It provides a patina of multilateralism to U.S. military interventions on which Europe is essentially a free rider.

Recently, one-third of the House of Representatives – 87 Republicans and 61 Democrats – unavailingly but honorably voted to end American involvement in Libya in 15 days. Were Barack Obama not taking a Nixonian approach to the law – the War Powers Resolution – his intervention would have ended last month. The WPR requires interventions to end after 60 days, absent congressional approval.

Some people, who know better, insist that although the WPR is a 38-year-old law – passed over Richard Nixon’s veto – it is somehow a “dead letter.” Their theory is that any law a president considers annoying, or Congress considers inconvenient, or some commentators consider unwise, is for those reasons nullified.

America’s Libyan involvement began because Moammar Gaddafi threatened to do to Benghazi what Bashar al-Assad’s tanks and helicopter gunships are doing to various Syrian cities. When, in March, Obama said “building this international coalition has been so important,” he meant merely that a minority of the members of a 62-year-old alliance would seriously participate. Eight of NATO’s 28 members are attacking Gaddafi’s ground forces.

Obama, a novel kind of commander in chief, explained in passive syntax that “it is our military that is being volunteered by others to carry out missions.” These “others” would rather finance their welfare states than their militaries, so they cannot wage war for 10 weeks without U.S. munitions and other assets.

Last month, this column noted that NATO was created in 1949 to protect Western Europe from the Soviet army; it could long ago have unfurled the “Mission Accomplished” banner; it has now become an instrument of mischief, and when the Libyan misadventure is finished, America should debate whether NATO also should be finished. Defense Secretary Robert Gates had another purpose – NATO’s revival – but he recently fueled that debate when, in Brussels, he predicted “a dim, if not dismal future” for the military alliance unless its members reinvest in their militaries.

Since 9/11, U.S. military spending has more than doubled, but that of NATO’s 27 other members has declined 15 percent. U.S. military spending is three times larger than the combined spending of those other members. Hence Gates warned that “there will be dwindling appetite and patience in” America for expending “increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.” Already, U.S. officers in Afghanistan sometimes refer to the NATO command there – officially, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) – as “I Saw Americans Fighting.”

After a recent NATO attack on a tented encampment where Gaddafi has met foreign leaders, The New York Times reported: “The desert strike appeared to show the alliance’s readiness to kill Col. Gaddafi. A NATO statement described the target as a ‘command and control facility.’ But apart from small groups of soldiers lurking under trees nearby with pickups carrying mounted machine guns, reporters taken to the scene saw nothing to suggest that the camp was a conventional military target.”

In March, Obama said U.S. intervention would be confined to implementing a no-fly zone: “Broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake.” By May, Obama’s Bushian mission was to make Libyans “finally free of 40 years of tyranny.” After more than 10,000 sorties, now including those by attack helicopters, NATO’s increasingly desperate strategy boils down to: Kill Gaddafi.

Then what? More incompetent improvisation, for many more months.

Disgust with this debacle has been darkly described as a recrudescence of “isolationism,” as though people opposing this absurdly disproportionate and patently illegal war are akin to those who, after 1938, opposed resisting Germany and Japan. Such slovenly thinking is a byproduct of shabby behavior.

© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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