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Will the Libya intervention bring the end of NATO?

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On a tour of a Tripoli hospital last week, a Libyan government escort showed Western journalists evidence of the “civilian casualties” caused by NATO airstrikes. They weren’t fooled — and he knew it. “This is not even human blood!” he cried, disgusted by his own government’s pathetic propaganda.

The incident made for a few amusing newspaper stories: We Western journalists love to mock the foreign dictators who try to manipulate us. But how often do we notice the more delicate fibs told by our own leaders? It isn’t quite so blatant as fake blood, but when Western leaders talk about the Libyan campaign as a “NATO operation” they are, at the very least, being economical with the truth.

Think about it: There was no NATO discussion of the operation, no debate, no vote, no joint planning. Technically, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization operates only in the wake of an attack on a NATO member. The war in Afghanistan followed such an attack and was, in the beginning, widely perceived as a war against a common enemy. Libya is different: There was no attack, there is no common enemy, and now there is no consensus.

Two very important NATO members, Germany and Turkey, openly oppose the Libya mission and are refusing to play any operational role. A number of smaller members have made their objections known behind the scenes and aren’t sending anything much beyond the odd crate of food. The NATO secretary general has spent the past several days calling around Europe’s secondary capitals, asking for planes. More than once, he has been refused.

Even those who support the mission aren’t doing much about it. With a certain flourish, the Swedish parliament approved the deployment of Swedish planes abroad for first time in more than 40 years. Alas, the Swedish jets are allowed only to enforce the no-fly zone: That means they can shoot down Libyan government planes but cannot bomb ground targets. Since there aren’t any more Libyan government planes, this shouldn’t be too difficult.

But then, Dutch planes operate under the same restrictions. Norwegian planes, meanwhile, are apparently allowed to bomb air bases but nothing else. Italy’s planes have flown more than 100 missions but have not yet dropped a single bomb. The Canadians are doing a bit more, it is true — though Canadian politicians are bending over backward to avoid talking too much about it.

As for the United States, one could be forgiven for thinking that the American military is no longer a part of NATO at all. It has been odd and somewhat eerie to hear American officials refer to “NATO” the past few days as if it were something alien and foreign. The American president made it clear that “NATO” will now be in control of the Libyan operation — which, to him, means that the U.S. military is out of the picture. “It is not going to be our planes maintaining the no-fly zone,” President Obama said at the beginning of the bombing campaign and, indeed, American planes stopped flying several days ago. Which is extraordinary, given that, until last week, most people assumed NATO was an American-led alliance.

In truth, the Libyan expedition is an Anglo-French project and has been from the beginning. Yet neither Britain nor France wants responsibility for the operation — and neither feels comfortable relying on the other. The French grumble that the American withdrawal has encouraged Moammar Gaddafi; the British think the French might now be distracted by a war in their former colony, Ivory Coast. This failure to cooperate is hardly surprising. This, after all, is the first Anglo-French military operation since the Suez escapade of 1956 — and that one ended rather badly.

But if this historically unreliable Anglo-French coalition proves unable to sustain a long operation, what then? There is certainly no European force that can replace it. There isn’t even a European foreign policy: Years of diplomacy, debate and endless national referendums culminated, a couple of years ago, in the selection of two powerless figureheads as Europe’s “president” and “foreign minister.” Attempts to create a united European army have never moved beyond pure symbolism. If Britain and France run out of planes, fuel, money or enthusiasm, it’s over. And NATO — an organization that, I repeat, did not plan for, prepare for or even vote for the Libyan operation — will shoulder most of the blame. The use of NATO’s name, in Libya, is a fiction. But the weakening of NATO’s reputation in Libya’s wake might become horribly real.

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