Huffpost WorldPost
Ryan Berger Headshot

NATO and Libya: A Model

Posted: Updated:

Colonel Muammar Gadhafi's death 11 days ago denoted an abrupt end to his 42-year reign; the chairman of the National Transitional Council (NTC), Mustafa Abdul Jalil, declared the liberation of Libya three days later. But the newest chapter in Libya's history begins today as NATO's military engagement in the North African country -- known as Operation Unified Protector -- comes to a formal conclusion.

Unified Protector, which began on March 31, was precipitated two weeks earlier by United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1973, which not only called for an immediate ceasefire between rebels and pro-Gadhafi loyalists but also established a legal basis to apply an arms embargo to Libya as well as "all necessary measures" -- save a foreign occupation force -- to protect civilians. One critical way of doing so was the implementation of a no-fly zone over Libyan airspace -- particularly above the larger, northern population centers abutting the Mediterranean Sea.

By sealing off access to the sky from the Libyan Air Forces, NATO by way of its military intervention successfully interdicted Gadhafi's ability to reach Benghazi, the NTC's de-facto headquarters, where he had pledged to crush the rebels "like rats." And as the Arab Spring turned into summer, the rebels proceeded to capture strategic towns like Brega, Misrata and Zawiya before storming Tripoli in August -- sending Gadhafi on the run for two months until he met his end in his hometown of Sirte.

Now Americans are left to reflect: Was our Libya approach a good model that the United States should exercise going forward? The answer is yes -- for a number of reasons.

For one, the NATO operation stressed the principle of collective action. The U.S., in tandem with the United Kingdom, France and other European Union partners, marshaled the global community for diplomatic approval in multilateral forums like the United Nations as a pretext to any military action.

Consensus-building in global institutions has become a cornerstone of President Obama's foreign policy, and a marked departure from his predecessor -- specifically with regard to the Iraq War. Obama ordered Operation Odyssey Dawn -- which eventually merged into Unified Protector -- exactly eight years to the day after President Bush announced Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The Bush State Department, at Colin Powell's command, did successfully pass a series of UNSC resolutions in the lead-up to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. But the final resolution before Iraqi Freedom got underway -- Resolution 1441, circa November 2002 -- did not include the harsh, militant parlance that Resolution 1973 did. Indeed, its watered-down language calling for Saddam Hussein to comply with "disarmament obligations" and readmit weapons inspectors into Iraq is likely why it passed unopposed. But then Bush tried to leverage Resolution 1441 to ratchet up pressure on Hussein in the following months, and became frustrated when other UNSC members -- many of them lifelong friends of America -- didn't buy the charges.

This all culminated in Powell's famous presentation before the UNSC in early February 2003, where he sought to introduce "proof" that Hussein harbored terrorists and was producing agents for biological warfare -- despite evidence to the contrary. Powell would later, in 2005, retract the intelligence that underpinned that speech.

Having failed to rally the United Nations, the United States pushed ahead in its mission to attack Iraq. That's how it worked under President Bush: when diplomacy fails, employ the "coalition of the willing" maneuver -- at the precipice of which earned the fierce condemnation of the Arab League and Kofi Annan, then the UN Secretary-General, who went on to claim that the U.S. contravened the UN Charter. The United States is still paying for that decision, as young men and women are presently stationed in Iraq -- albeit with an announced withdrawal date before year's end.

Fast forward to the present; the differences between Libya 2011 and Iraq 2003 are remarkable. A Washington Post article over the weekend revealed details about how Hillary Clinton -- now in Powell's old role -- demanded the Arab League's endorsement of a no-fly zone from a very early stage. Once she got it on March 12, Clinton and Susan Rice -- U.S. ambassador to the UN -- worked in tandem to shepherd global support for Western intervention. Ultimately, it was the Arab League imprimatur that led to the UNSC adoption of Resolution 1973 just five days later.

Arab countries like the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Jordan were part of Unified Protector -- compared to 2003, when our Turkish ally voted in parliament to forbid U.S. military to cross Turkey en route to Baghdad. And despite original U.S. concerns in 2011 about getting involved in a third military conflict in a Muslim country, especially given the pessimism in Iraq and Afghanistan, the gratitude of the NTC coupled with the Arab coalition will likely improve U.S. relations with the Muslim World. Not to mention, the NATO campaign in Libya received the full endorsement of Ban Ki-moon, Mr. Annan's successor, this time around.

Another reason that Unified Protector worked from a U.S. perspective is that the mission was cost-effective, totaling roughly $1 billion -- a drop in the bucket compared to Iraq. And once Gadhafi's financial assets, in the billions of dollars, are unfrozen the NTC will be infused with capital to begin rebuilding Libya in a democratic fashion.

Of course, we cannot ignore the vital, undeniable fact that not one American perished during the seven months. Although some American officials did in fact touch Libyan soil, those who did so were serving in an advisory capacity -- and there were never U.S. armed forces on the ground. Any U.S. military effort that puts soldiers further from harm is desirable.

Clinton has also thrown her weight behind a proposed UN investigation into the circumstances surrounding Gadhafi's death -- which underscores the new U.S. tone to rely more on collectivism than unilateralism. President Obama summed it up nicely in a speech last week, declaring, "We've demonstrated what collective action can achieve in the 21st century."

Nevertheless, the Libya approach should not be interpreted as a cookie-cutter model to be applied universally, especially in a fractious region like the Near East. For instance, it would be difficult to apply in Syria -- where Lebanon would object along with Assad's Iranian masters. But when the military, geographic and diplomatic circumstances allow, operations like Unified Protector have proven to succeed.

Tomorrow the NTC will assume control of Libya's airspace and military operations. In the face of this, many key questions remain: When will free elections take place -- as in Tunisia a few days ago? Who will fill the leadership vacuum in Tripoli? What will become of Saif Gadhafi -- Muammar's notorious son and advisor who is alive and wanted by the International Criminal Court? We don't know all the answers, but the signs thus far are encouraging. For one, Ian Martin, the UN envoy in Libya, has said that the NTC appears to be in control of sites that produce chemical and nuclear materials -- placating a principal worry of the West.

And as the world today welcomes the 7 billionth person, the milestone reminds us that this child must be born into a world where freedom is an unalienable human right. The Libyan people are finally in control of their own future -- and Operation Unified Protector has made this a reality.

Around the Web

NATO Chief in Libya as 7-Month Mission Ends

Libya's NTC Elects New Interim Prime Minister

NATO ends its Libya campaign

UN Security Council Votes to End NATO Libya Mission

NATO Libya mission will end on Oct. 31

Leading From Behind

Despite Mounting Bloodshed, Syria is Unlikely to See a Libya-style NATO ...

Kadhafi son in surrender talks as NATO ends Libya mission

Africa: Prime Minister Flays AU Over How It Handled Libya Crisis

Libya's "Other" Victims