NATO's strategic incoherence costs Libyan lives
Libyan rebels scatter as mortars fired by Libyan army troops crash down.
April 21st, 2011
12:25 PM ET

NATO's strategic incoherence costs Libyan lives

Editor's Note: Dr. James Lindsay is a Senior Vice President at the Council on Foreign Relations (where he blogs), co-author of "America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy" and a former director for global issues and multilateral affairs at the National Security Council.

By James Lindsay – Special to CNN

Britain, France, and Italy took a step deeper into the Libyan civil war this week by announcing that they will send military advisers to aid the beleaguered rebels. The decision grabbed headlines, but it won’t do much to change the course of the fighting.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague justified the decision to send military trainers by saying: “As the scale of the humanitarian crisis has grown, so has urgency of increasing our efforts to defend civilians against attack from Gadhafi forces.”

Washington has applauded its allies’ decision, but it is not following suit. The Obama administration is only offering the rebels $25 million in body armor, tents, uniforms, and other nonlethal equipment.

The British, French, and Italian decisions are a tacit admission that the prospects for ousting Muammar Gadhafi have dimmed. The rebels have failed in their effort to retake key Libyan towns. Meanwhile, the situation in Misurata, Libya’s third largest city, has grown increasingly grim as pro-Gadhafi forces continue to attack rebel positions.

But deciding to do something is not the same thing as deciding to do enough. The British, French, and Italians are offering far less than the breathless news headlines suggest. The number of advisers headed to Benghazi is small—a maximum of twenty British advisers and perhaps ten or so French and Italian advisers. These trainers will operate under strict limitations on what they can do.

Even if NATO flooded Libya with military trainers the military balance on the ground would not change any time soon. Crack fighting forces aren’t built over night. Just look at how long the United States has been at it trying to build the Afghan and Iraqi armies.

Advisers and assistance probably won’t make a difference in the long run either. Pro-Gadhafi forces are relatively well-armed and trained. They also have good reason to continue fighting: the reasonable fear that they will lose their privileges if not their lives if the rebels prevail.

So the most likely outcome is that the fighting in Libya will drag on for months.
Will the rising civilian death toll eventually spur NATO to send ground troops into Libya? Probably not. Libya is not Vietnam, where the introduction of a few military advisers in the late 1950s eventually grew into a commitment of half-a-million troops by the mid-1960s. Although Vice President Joe Biden insists that “the traffic [at home] can bear politically more in Libya,” the polls suggest otherwise. Neither Americans nor Europeans are eager to send their fellow citizens to fight, and possibly die, in Libya.

This highlights the fundamental strategic flaw in NATO’s military operations. Washington, Paris, and London decided that Gadhafi must go, but they are unwilling to pay the cost to make that happen. Libyan civilians, precisely the people the NATO mission is supposed to protect, are paying the price for this strategic incoherence.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of James Lindsay.

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Topics: Europe • Libya • NATO • Politics

soundoff (46 Responses)
  1. Onesmallvoice

    Like I said before,only a stupid,crazy,amoral fool would say the England,France and Italy have ant right to be in Libya at all. I say a Libya for the Libyans!!!

    April 21, 2011 at 12:33 pm | Reply
    • Keith

      Nowhere has anyone said the opposite to what you've proclaimed. Your one small voice is misinformed. The west is responding from the experience of the past hundred years where leaders and dictators have trampled on the people. I agree that there could be a more effective roll out of plans to aid the rebels but then we'll be condemned for our actions in the end anyway.
      Personally... I think the neighbouring Arab states that have recently thrown their dictators off their thrones should be assisting so if this goes from bad to worse... it'll be a family feud. Freedom from tyranny comes at a price financially and in lives. Nobody said the streets of freedom were paved with gold. Good luck!

      April 22, 2011 at 9:22 am | Reply
  2. j. von hettlingen

    Let the warring parties decide the outcome of the conflict, without third parties poking their nose into this business. Whoever prevails shall govern. This is fair! However archaic it sounds, it is another human nature there. So in order to save lives, get the civilians out first.

    April 21, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Reply
  3. matthew

    What seems to never go mentioned, is that NATO is constrained by international law, not their "incoherence" or anything else. That is, NATO has absolutely no right to assist the rebels in their military aims, nor assist in regime change. If they go down this road, they know they will have spoiled the "responsibility to protect" (R2P) doctrine for ages. All the ciricisms of the smaller (south) countries will have been justified. They say that large Wetern countries would use R2P to actually achieve their strategic geo-political aims. Though NATO has already shown a willingness to exceed the UN mandate, making such disobedience obvious is not in the West's interest. NATO has no business in this war, except to get rid of a throrn in the side of the West. But that is not good enough under, if we truly believe in the rule of law.

    April 21, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Reply
  4. Chris

    I guess "strategic incoherence" is a very politically correct way of saying NATO is bullying-around, making Libyan's lives mireable so we can enjoy our Big-Macs and drive-around peacefully. We threw a monkey-wrench to the arab revolution.

    April 21, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Reply
  5. George

    Let's face it. NATO and the UN are lost without the US. They just can't function properly without the leadership or guidance of the US. Why do I have this bad feeling that there will be a Libyan War added to Afghan and Iraq Wars.

    April 21, 2011 at 3:28 pm | Reply
    • Onesmallvoice

      Quite right,George. All these useless and unnecessary wars are American led. This country needs both a new President and Congress who will not cater to the MIC(military-industrial-complex) as is currently the case.

      April 21, 2011 at 8:06 pm | Reply
  6. melcab

    that's their way even before....what i'm concern are the negative effect that were sown to the minds of the people of africa and the arab countries. one reason why terrorism are becoming bigger.

    April 21, 2011 at 7:13 pm | Reply
  7. Joseph Zrnchik, MAJ (Ret.)

    Now when some terrorists take out another embassy the US will be wondering why thay hate us for our freedoms.

    Obama, just like the ideologue supreme executive that preceded him, is willing to destroy a country and kill millions if need be because HE decided HE wanted someone else to rule another country. This war is an impeachable offense for which Congress should take action before the American people do.

    The media is showing a picture of an injured child, yet this is only 1/100,000th of the death cause by Bush’s “Shock and Awe” campaign in Iraq. The media never showed pictures of the limbless children from Bush’s war of choice. Does the media think Americans are that stupid and irrational that they can now get us to fight a war over what Bush did 100,000 times over?

    Then the media tried to play on our sympathy for a dead reporter, but Bush intentionally attacked Al Jazeera and mudered a handful of reporters and not a peep was mentioned. Now we should be up in arms becasue one got too close to the fighting. When Bush had the Al Jazeera reporters killed, they gave their coordinated to the American military so they would not be attacked, and Bush used those coordinates specifically to attack them.

    The rebels are a force of 1,500. Many are al Qaeda. They are not wearing uniforms and are placing civilians at risk by hiding behind civilians. This is an international war crime as is hiding behind civilians and in population centers. Why won’t they move into the open and fight like an army? They are not an army, nor are they representative of the people.

    They will never consolidate power without foreign occupation. The rebels represent less than .005 % of the population. The advisors ought to tell the rebels to flee. That should be their advice. War for regime change is an international war crime.

    Day of Rage in Washington D.C. on 6/30/11,_2011.html

    The American Revolution Has Begun

    Free the Hutaree

    April 21, 2011 at 8:15 pm | Reply
    • Onesmallvoice

      Barack Obama needs to be indicted,tried in an international war crimes tribunal and dealt with appropriately. He should spend the rest of his life in prison but unfortunately,he won't. Quite the contrary,he will end up living like a king back in Illinois if not in Hawaii. How repulsive!!!

      April 22, 2011 at 12:07 am | Reply
    • Keith

      @onesmallvoice: You go back and indict the Bush Empire and I'll even consider slapping Obama on the wrist. Cripes!

      America just can't seem to do too much right when it comes to foreign policy. Terrible track record post WWII. Maybe it's time to stay home. But then that would just add to the number of unemployed... war is good for the American economy and especially those who have invested in the various corporations of destruction.

      April 22, 2011 at 11:11 am | Reply
    • Sally Li

      You have done your research, but your argument falls apart when you reveal what Obama decided. How do you have any way of knowing what someone else is thinking? The truth is, this Libyan revolution was not started by Obama.
      Also, your numbers on the @l Q@ed@ involvement – 1500 – are a little bit too round for believability. This whole argument about +err0r!s+ involvement in the Libyan revolution is false intelligence, and you ought to be smart enough to figure out why this false intelligence was planted, and who planted it. It was planted by those who would rather see Arabs and Muslims kill off as many of each other as possible, and they want this more than they want to see genuine
      democracy in the Arab and Muslim world.

      April 22, 2011 at 5:12 pm | Reply
  8. Ed

    I don't know why or how NATO has the right interfering in another county's internal affairs. Demanding that a president of another country stepped down and helping rebels. Protecting civilians? Ya right, then why not do the same in other countries? Why Libya? I don't even want to get into the whole oil and gold thing... And like U.S. didn't bomb Iraq and killed civilians there. No one intervened to protect Iraqis and Bush didn't step down. The government of Libya should be allowed to handle their own affair and put down the rebellion. Ghadaffi obviously still has the support of Libyan army and most of the population.

    April 21, 2011 at 8:31 pm | Reply
    • Matt

      Thank you,Ed. That was well stated.

      April 22, 2011 at 12:10 am | Reply
      • Ed

        Thanks. I think Bush and his former cabinet should be tried for war crimes.

        April 23, 2011 at 1:38 am |
  9. Issa

    What's the difference here between Sierra Leone & Libya??Oil instead of Diamonds:) A war initiated by the west to buy cheap diamonds or oil in return for weapons:)I lost an older brother in Sierra Leone, slaughtered by the rebels. Does anyone out there really believe the West really care about the Libyan people more than Gadaffi does? HELL NO

    April 22, 2011 at 9:51 am | Reply
    • Sally Li

      It is a fact that in the 1990's, Sierra Leone made a request of the British Government – that Britain make Sierra Leone a protectorate again; essentially a territory of the UK. Britain refused the request very quickly Do you think that was a mistake?

      April 24, 2011 at 1:29 am | Reply
  10. Sally Li

    The incoherence is a direct result of all the money Khadafy has thrown at his propaganda machines all over the world,
    for years. But now that the world is beginning to see through the smokescreen, the stalemate is over, and Khadafy is
    on his way out, whether he likes it or not. He would be wise to shop for new real estate for himself, his family and his cronies, as far away from Libya as he can possibly get. If he doesn't make that his first order of business now, Khadafy will wind up prolonging this war for no reason at all, and finally he will be sharing a locker with Davy Jones.

    April 22, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Reply
  11. raja

    By the actions of Britain, it seem right if when the Irish uprise again, which seems evitable, then maybe one or a few countries could send in military advisers to the Irish Republic. How about that Sir! Or when the French have a pension revolt again or maybe a tax revolt, then advisors could be sent in to advise them on how to defeat the government.

    April 22, 2011 at 6:37 pm | Reply
    • Ed

      Good point

      April 23, 2011 at 1:37 am | Reply
      • Vincent

        Good point yes, but why does not world understand the equation of 'MIGHT is RIGHT'. More than a dozen times since 1990s, MIGHT has caused severe MISERY to any nation that it did not like and at will. That explains the double standards in global politics.

        April 23, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
  12. kc

    Pathetic Europeans. Pathetic Obama. Bush was right afterall! At least he had the galls and witherall to proceed with conviction instead of talking out of his ass as his successor has donE!

    April 23, 2011 at 1:58 am | Reply
  13. markjuliansmith

    It is the Libyan Rebels leadership who have cost the lives of fellow Libyans.

    It was Libyan Rebels who decided they did not want external military on the ground and insisted on the Keystone cops option of arming untrained citizens with guns and specialized weapons and said go that way to fight an urban war. Completely reckless attitude to fellow humanity – which resulted in the although every brave and committed citizens running up and down hills firing over the top = not even cadet standard resulting in inevitable horrific casualties.

    Also the Libyan Rebels position meant there was not 'on time' coordination possible with NATO. The deaths are attributable to the Libyan Rebel Leadership – anyone who is aware war is not a video game knows this to be the case.

    The fact is apart from the ridiculous Libyan Rebel military strategy the absence of Arab special services in significant or any numbers meant military engagements would bog down – now we are seeing external military on the ground – as predicted the nature of the war will change significantly with the inclusion of expertise and greater effective communication the life blood of effective combat outcomes.

    April 23, 2011 at 9:49 am | Reply
    • Vincent

      It is the EVIL NATO that prolonged the war since March 21 onwards. Get EVILNESS out of the equation and Libyans will decide their future on their own.

      April 23, 2011 at 6:09 pm | Reply
  14. bananarep07

    Obama has already said that Gadhafi must go and so he should. NATO is definitely lost without direct intervention of the USA. The latter is THE EMPIRE - the richest and most powerful nation on this planet. NATO should at least send ground troops in. It´s too late to back down. If so, the end results will be worse.

    April 24, 2011 at 7:40 pm | Reply
  15. bananarep07

    Moammar Gadhafi is a despot, demented moron, and murderer - an international shame for the 21st century - and should be executed quickly by Libya’s, or foreign, armed forces even for the sake of saving their skins if not solely to save Libyan lives, while at the same time taking over and installing a temporary military government that over a period of 2 years could bring things back to normal, including oil flows. Needless to say, in the process, the armed forces there should be purged of any of Gadhafi´s cronies so that the "revolution" continues to the benefit of the Libyan population.
    The only political system that will last forever, so to speak, will be a western style-type democracy. Apparently this truth has been realized by a whole new generation of Libyans educated within and outside of that country. The internet has helped bridge the technological gap and to come to full realization that their young lives were meaningless and had no future with corrupt animals like Gadhafi, and his family, in power.
    However, Libyans will not have freedom and dignity for a long time. They have to work at it, together with their armed forces that must see their role as only temporary - 2 years - until the country´s new institutional basis is set up so that political parties can prosper in peace and without fear. Once this is achieved, elections must be convened so that regional-party political representatives can be elected nationwide with a view to integrating a National Assembly to draft a new Constitution for the country. This would be the beginning of a new future for the Libyan population.
    Meanwhile, if captured alive, the military government should prosecute Gadhafi so that the death penalty can be brought to bear on this god forsaken animal, and his family. His own and family assets, in general, should be confiscated in Libya as well as outside of the country. Those monies belong to the people of Libya.
    But more than anything, the world must congratulate the Libyan population for acting with great courage, with their hearts and minds, to try to topple a ruthless and corrupt regime from the face of the earth.
    Needless to say many more countries will follow, not only in the Middle East – mainly, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Syria, Iran, etc. - but also in Latin America, especially in the case of those with presidential lunatics trying to emulate the Cuban political system which under the noses of the USA and the rest of the Americas has failed miserably, i.e., Venezuela and his gorilla Chavez.
    In general, the combination of authoritarian rule, high unemployment, poor opportunities for social advancement, demographic youth bulges, low public investment in education and health and other public services, and anger at high levels of corruption, and outright thievery, in the Middle East and North Africa, and in Latin America, will prompt public uprisings that will topple their leaders. Chavez, Saleh, Bashar are definitely in this list after their close friend Gadhafi moves on to better pastures! Needless to say, the Cuban government also needs to be overthrown!
    Instead, Presidents from these poor, backward economies, that have not even approached the take-off stage in economic development should instead concentrate their public administration efforts in fighting corruption, reducing the size of their inefficient and corrupt public sectors, and increasing public/private investments with the help of the multilateral financial community - including in the strategic social sectors; i.e., education, health, and basic services – to increase employment.
    The UN Security Council´s mandate for NATO to intervene in Libya and/or declare a well enforced no-fly zone will stop the slaughter of innocent people and thousands of Libyans will not be assassinated without reason - except to want to live in democracy and in peace - by Gadhafi and his obedient and unscrupulous followers.
    By having provided military support, the West has started to make peace with the people of Libya!
    While recognizing that imposing a no-fly zone is an act of war because it has required attacking Gaddafi's air defense systems, not just anti-aircraft guns and missile batteries, but also radar and communications systems.

    Nevertheless, this resolute and timely action must last for as long as it takes to overthrow him, even if rebel forces themselves fail to do so. Afterwards, Libya could be invaded with ground troops from Arab League Nations, mainly, and topple a weak, murderous, and corrupt regime that has only brought shame, blood, and tears to the Libyan people.

    Western allies should not look for asylum for Gadhafi. He should either be killed or captured to stand trial for crimes against humanity.

    April 24, 2011 at 7:43 pm | Reply
  16. Avsec Bostjan


    April 24, 2011 at 8:02 pm | Reply
  17. Objective view

    It is difficult to say how it will turn out in the end, however let's see NATO's gains so far:

    -Hijacking of the original Arab League request of a no fly zone into a killing zone of the Libyan army
    ( remember the Arab league protested the air strikes – this is not what they had in mind)

    – A close ally on Libyan soil, complete with CIA personnel, NATO military advisers, control of a port and some Libyan towns. Compensates for loss of Egypt as an ally

    -Greater security for a rebel held partition of Libya, now that Libya's military is reduced by 30% and its air defense capability neutralized

    -Lucrative military sales to the rebels in exchange for oil – the first shipment has left the port

    -Greater respect for NATO and its threat of military action which is now a possibility
    in the Arab region

    -A platform of legitimacy from which to assassinate Gadafii and his entire clan

    -An excuse to intervene in any military conflict they choose since always civilians are involved

    – Oh and the oil. You have heard 'Libya produces only 2% of the world's oil' That's obviously meant to mislead : Oil reserves in Libya are the largest in Africa and the ninth largest in the world !

    Please watch the Doha Debates : very revealing:

    Arabs should stay out of the conflict in Libya and leave it to NATO – passed

    April 24, 2011 at 9:29 pm | Reply
  18. BirthOfFreedom

    While many write of stalemate, I see the continued degradation of Gadhafi's forces, with a formerly missing support for the rebels slowly increasing. Europe sitting on the fence, waiting for others to do their job is increasingly polarized by Italy having Gadhafi contacts for commerce, Germany, Norway afraid of inflicting Gadhafi civilian collateral damage, France acting cowardly and the UK doin what it can facing political opposition. The rebels have some army defectors but for the most part are shopkeepers, workers, unemployed youth wanting their freedom at any cost, holding off the Gadhafi equipped forces with nothing more than fish bombs, molotov's and small arms. Give them some tows, more satelite comm, AKs, combined with getting the C130s into the air and this will turn around very quickly.

    April 25, 2011 at 6:38 am | Reply
    • woodsnut

      the cowards here are the united states and britian and france,they started the heavy bombardment and then turned it over to nato.the united states who has the best arial weapons around now runs and hides..obama is a big coward,if john mccain was our president this war would be over by now and the libyan people would be free of a cruel dictator..but for now the world sits back and watches innocent people die daily when we could just put a stop to it now ..i say the United States should step back up to the plate and FINISH what they started instead of being COWARDS run by the OBAMA ADMINISTRATION . as for bill gates send him packing down the road and put someone in his place that knows something..

      April 25, 2011 at 7:59 am | Reply
      • Jean Paul Sartre

        IF John McLame were president we would be in a war with all of the mid-east, Africa, North Korea, China and Mexico... the old coot is clearly certifiable!

        April 25, 2011 at 9:36 pm |
      • jimmo

        I think you are right about the poor decision of the U.S. to cut and run when the momentum was with the rebels. Obama said Qaddafi must go, and the only one who went was Obama for the hills. Obama was more worried about his election than doing "the right thing." And Gates should have been fired long ago. He is just another Republican retread kept on by Obama to placate the MIC Repugs. Obama has been shamed by the other countries and is now sending in drones to help. The others, like Italy, are stepping up because they know that what is happening now is not near enough to win this conlict.

        April 25, 2011 at 11:11 pm |
  19. woodsnut

    why don't all of you look at it this way :lets take america and put a dictator in power and let him collect all the money from all revenues and decide what to pay u instead of your employer paying u ,u now work for a dictator and he gets richer and richer while u get the same pay as everyone else ,he controls what u say ,what u drive,what u live in and where u live,he controls where u go,when u this puts the shoe on the other foot ,how long would it be before there was a civil war here ??? i bet not very long but this dictator controls all the heavy weapons and all the people have is small arms,how long would u last without outside help ???the point is that WE NEED TO STEP UP AND HELP THE LIBYAN REBELS WHO ARE OUTNUMBERED AND OUT ARMED AND OUT TRAINED .WE STEPPED UP TO THE PLATE AND STARTED THE BOMBINGS AND NOW WE NEED TO STEP BACK UP AND FINISH THE JOB AT HAND INSTEAD OF BEING A BUNCH OF COWARDS !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    April 25, 2011 at 8:19 am | Reply

    During WWI & WWII the Libya was the Colony of Italy and it became parts of axis of evil (Fasist-Nazi) empire. After it's independence Libya followed the mix policy of Fasism and Socialism under Gaddafi .That's why Lockerbe bombing happend .The Al-geria was ruled by France during during WWI &WWII .The Al-geria is more Stable than Libya because because France is 25 times more Stable than Italy from the period of WWI !!!

    April 25, 2011 at 9:50 am | Reply
  21. michael

    The west are doing very bad by using drone on libya soil.they aer not helping the situations rather than worstening it i hope one day drones will be used on their country.a peace maker is one who never use force by all means to impliment it,the U N and the west are woremongers,they are out there bto make profits not for peace.

    April 25, 2011 at 11:03 am | Reply
  22. michael

    John mcain i hope you did try your best with yr wrong ideas as repub senator of cos you will nevwr smells the white house, little tyrants.

    April 25, 2011 at 12:17 pm | Reply
  23. Jean Paul Sartre

    Look folks, this is really pretty damn simple!

    The Libyan's ASKED the USA and NATO for our HELP! They also indicated that THEY, themselves, wanted to be the ones who ultimately over throw Gadhafi. They do not want a foreign army in their country doing the job that they want and need to do. They have a lot of skin in the game and just want some assistance...

    Now, they keep asking for more assistance and NATO is giving that to them; at some point in time, they will ask for more assistance and through talks with NATO they will hopefully get it. NATO has its own constraints, as we all well know.

    In this "instant gratification" world that we live in, only a complete fool woud have thought that this would happen over night...

    April 25, 2011 at 9:29 pm | Reply

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