Libyan Intervention as a Global Security Wake-Up Call

The potential long-term impact of the Libya intervention has more to do with changing people's thinking than with changing the reality on the ground in Libya. The past 40 years have already demonstrated that the West can manage the discrete problem represented by Moammar Gadhafi. What it cannot handle is the aggregate problem represented by a continuation of the status quo, both in the broader region but also in the shifting geopolitical landscape beyond it. By highlighting a number of major shortcomings in that status quo, the Libyan intervention just might be the wake-up call needed to generate a more urgent effort to address them.

Europe as a security provider and not a security consumer. As in the Balkans during the 1990s, Europe was politically incapable of intervening in Libya without U.S. backing, and militarily incapable of doing so without NATO as the operational structure. In the intervening decade, there has been a lot of talk about developing an independent European capability to project force as a global strategic actor. European militaries have also accumulated a decade's worth of experience fighting a war in Afghanistan. For the most part, Europe has been dragged into Afghanistan kicking and screaming. By contrast, the push to intervene in Libya came from Paris and London, not Washington. For all that, when it came time to act, Europe was incapable -- not of taking unilateral action, as the Stateside caricature suggests. The French and British were perfectly capable of taking out Libyan forces with their initial strikes, and could have gone on doing so. What forced them to turn to the U.S. in the first week of operations and NATO thereafter was the lack of structured command and control capabilities needed to coordinate the kind of coalition force that the political mandate of the intervention -- and European political sensibilities -- required. When the dust settles, there will be a lot of very serious soul-searching going on in European capitals about how to enable Europe to act independently. Whether the answer is a truly autonomous European pillar within NATO or a structured permanent cooperation within EU defense remains to be seen. But this was an eye-opener for European strategic thinkers, in the same way that the operational gap between U.S. and European forces during the First Gulf War was.

Afghanistan as a strategic distraction for Europe. The war in Afghanistan has been a hard enough political sell for European governments during the past decade, when no other risk or crisis threatened closer to home. The Arab Spring has changed that calculus. The European emphasis in Afghanistan has already shifted toward withdrawal timelines, security training missions and state-building development aid. That will accelerate now that the need to develop the southern rim of the Mediterranean has become more apparent. The same resources currently being committed in Afghanistan are just as urgently required in Northern Africa, with the difference being that Europeans can see Northern Africa from their windows, both figuratively and literally, in the form of immigration.

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