WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's insistence that NATO, not the U.S., take the lead in attacking Moammar Gadhafi's military is exposing a hard truth about an alliance that never before fought an air campaign with the U.S. in a back seat. Even against an enemy as weak as Libya, NATO needs the backbone of U.S. might to fight effectively.
It's not a matter of NATO's 27 non-U.S. member countries having too few combat aircraft, pilots or bombs. The problem instead is that while some, such as France and Britain, are willing to participate fully, others have limited their roles to noncombat action, and still others have decided not to participate militarily at all.
All have grown accustomed to a far different alignment — one in which the U.S. leads the way and bears the bulk of the combat burden. That's not a surprise, given that NATO was created in 1949 as a U.S.-led bulwark against the threat of an invasion of western Europe by the former Soviet Union.
Libya was supposed to be different.
In his March 28 speech explaining the mission to the American public, Obama described Libya as an instructive example of a problem that does not directly threaten American security. That means that while the U.S. should help protect civilians there, it should not have to bear the burden on its own, Obama said.
"Real leadership creates the conditions and coalitions for others to step up as well; to work with allies and partners so that they bear their share of the burden and pay their share of the costs," Obama said. He said he was fully confident that NATO, as "our most effective alliance," would be able to "keep the pressure on" those Gadhafi ground forces that had not already been destroyed or damaged in an initial U.S.-led air assault.
At the time of his speech, NATO had just announced the decision to assume full responsibility for commanding the Libya operation, with the U.S. providing support such as flying most of the aircraft that provide surveillance and reconnaissance of the battlefield, as well as flying planes to refuel NATO jets.
"Because of this transition to a broader, NATO-based coalition, the risk and cost of this operation — to our military and to American taxpayers — will be reduced significantly," Obama said.
But how effective has it turned out to be, with a reduced American role?
Gadhafi has not been stopped from pressing the fight against Misrata — the only major city in the western part of Libya that is partially held by rebels — nor have NATO jets succeeded in rolling back those Gadhafi forces that threatened the eastern city of Ajdabiya.
Rebel hopes for a military victory have faded amid pleas for a more aggressive NATO and U.S. air campaign, and even some NATO allies are complaining about a half-hearted effort. Some of the alliance members are sniping at one another, and some are laying blame for the military stalemate at the U.S. doorstep.
Hans Binnendijk, vice president for research at the National Defense University and a leading U.S. authority on NATO, said Wednesday it is now clear that Obama's decision to draw back the U.S. military into a secondary role in Libya carried an implied challenge to NATO: "Let's see what you can do."
"And it may well be a sobering lesson for the Europeans to recognize that it is very hard for them to do these operations without the United States," he said in an interview.
Not least among the reasons for his conclusion: the gap between defense spending by the U.S. and its allies is enormous. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen is fond of saying that whereas 10 years ago the U.S. accounted for just under half of NATO members' defense spending, it now is close to 75 percent. And the gap is likely to continue to grow, the NATO chief said, even with expected U.S. spending reductions.
That explains why, in Libya, the U.S. turns out to have performed more attack missions than it led many to believe it would after the April 4 handoff to NATO control. Pentagon officials on Wednesday disclosed that since the handoff, U.S. electronic warfare planes — with capabilities unmatched by any NATO ally — have dropped bombs on three occasions against Libya surface-to-air missile targets. Those missions have helped keep the skies clear for NATO to fly air patrols designed to keep Gadhafi's air force grounded.
Asked whether the U.S. might be persuaded to resume a larger role, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said questions relating to NATO's efforts would be addressed during a meeting of the alliance's foreign ministers Thursday and Friday in Berlin. But Toner suggested that the U.S. is not reconsidering.
"We believe NATO is fully capable of carrying out this mission," Toner said.
Obama's decision to withdraw from offensive air operations earlier this month was a calculated gamble that the Europeans, with help from Canada and non-NATO members Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, could accomplish the mission of protecting Libya civilians without U.S. combat power. They may yet succeed, but what has become clear in recent days is that it probably will take longer than if the U.S. had stayed at the forefront.