Even though Muammar Gaddafi has yet to be found, the battle over the legacy of the NATO intervention in Libya has already begun.
Numerous analysts have argued that the six-month intervention, which involved more than 19,000 sorties, showed critical alliance weakness.
Michael Clarke, director general of Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, called it a “curious victory,” pointing out that only nine of NATO’s 28 members were operationally involved. "It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that NATO emerges from this successful operation weaker than it went into it. The military operation itself created an image of NATO's limitations rather than its power," he said.
To be certain, the uneven representation of NATO member states on the battlefield - and the absence of Germany, once a key cornerstone to all alliance activities - was jarring, but with significant Western help, Tripoli is effectively in the hands of the rebels.
What we saw in Libya is the emergence of something akin to warfare for the networked age: the full-fledged emergence of shifting coalitions of the willing based on participating nations’ domestic political calculations and military readiness. We saw this in Iraq, of course, but in a diametrically opposed fashion.
This time, on the political side, leadership from France was critical to launching the operation. President Nicolas Sarkozy (along with British Prime Minister David Cameron) led the effort to overthrow Gaddafi. American leadership was nowhere to be found in the early weeks of the Libyan rebellion.
President Obama hesitated to intervene, joining the chorus after the Arab League itself called for regime change – and only when the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, then holding out for allied support, became the site of reprisals by regime forces who took advantage of Obama's indecision.
Despite an absence of American leadership at the outset, U.S. support and command and control operations were essential to victory. Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland wrote that “We refer to NATO warplanes playing a crucial role in the rebel campaign when we actually mean French warplanes.” The French were critical to the Libya mission - and supplied the sole aircraft carrier used in the operation, the Charles de Gaulle (severely tested and in "mothballs" for the next year), but they were using American space-based surveillance, battlefield intelligence, drones, precision munitions and tank and bunker busters, which significantly aided their effort.
The Libyan rebels, who bravely seized their opportunity and transformed themselves from a disaffected mass to a force capable of seizing Tripoli, deserve much of the credit for victory. But NATO was critical: if the alliance hadn’t eliminated the regime’s crucial battlefield and air assets - using more than 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles - the rebels would not have made it significantly beyond Benghazi. The rebels also benefited from extensive covert operations, involving military advisers and special forces from Arab countries including Qatar and the United Arab Emirates who fought alongside NATO forces for the first time.
The extent to which the victory in Libya represents a replicable template for other conflicts is yet to be seen. This was a limited operation in the Mediterranean backyard of some key NATO members, not a major conflict with, say, China or Russia, where the alliance might be significantly divided. And we have yet to enter the stabilization phase of the operation, a phase to which NATO has yet to commit, and the part of the Iraq operation that proved most complicated.
However, the fundamental point is that European states successfully took on more responsibility through NATO, not the EU, in a conflict that few predicted until earlier this year. The NATO alliance has proven its resilience. This may lead to a redistribution of roles and responsibility in NATO, but this is no bad thing. American leadership will not always be missing as in the early days of this conflict but greater contributions from the Europeans are needed. If the will Europe summoned in Libya is to be repeated in the future a critical question is whether the increasing unwillingness of European populations to fund defense programs will be reversed.
If so - and under stronger American leadership - a new and revitalized NATO, one whose members are called on more equally to contribute militarily, could continue to be a major factor in the decades ahead.
Let us build on this success while we await the emergence of the new Libya.