Military professionals ask their civilian masters, “What is it you want to have done? What is the outcome you seek?” With that information the military can plan, resource, and conduct a mission. As long as the United States — and its allies — remain conflicted over whether Qaddafi has to go, can stay if he behaves, can stay as long as a ceasefire holds, as long as he pumps oil, or as long as he engages in negotiations, there is no mission to accomplish — no way to know when we’re done.
That makes Secretary of State Clinton’s announcement that NATO will take over operations disingenuous on two counts. NATO’s mission will be to “protect civilians, enforce the U.N. arms embargo, and support humanitarian aid efforts.” The NATO countries are agreed only on those points, and those points constitute an open-ended commitment. (The U.N.-approved no-fly zone in Iraq lasted 12 years; only the U.S. and Britain were there at the end.)
On the other hand, the bombing of Libyan military assets is a parallel effort that will continue to be done by the countries that have done it thus far — the U.S., France, and Britain — commanded from Naples by an American admiral. Which is inevitable: Philip Stephens of the Financial Times has written that the U.S. share of NATO countries’ defense spending has increased from 50 percent to 75 percent in a decade — not because we spend more, but because they spend less. In the past two years, spending by the European members of NATO shrunk by $45 billion, the equivalent of the entire German defense budget.
If there is fighting to be done, the United States will still have to ante up most of the planes, ships, and personnel. The question remains: “What is it we want to have done? What is the outcome we seek?”
— Shoshana Bryen is senior director for security policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.