NATO Allies Question Their Role In Libya

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In Libya, the violent, nearly month-long conflict between forces loyal to leader Moammar Gaddafi and rebel fighters is raising questions and frustrations about the urgency and scale of the NATO air operation. Host Scott Simon talks with Stephen Flanagan, senior vice president and Henry A. Kissinger Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, about NATO's engagement in Libya, the disagreement among allies over the level of engagement and calls from Britain and France to intensify strikes against Gadhafi's forces.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

In Libya the violent nearly month-long conflict between forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi and rebel fighters is raising questions and frustrations about the urgency and scale of the NATO air operation.

President Barack Obama joined leaders of France and Britain yesterday in saying they are committed to using force to prevent Moammar Gadhafi from slaughtering civilians in his country.

Mr. Obama signed a joint opinion piece published in European newspapers that said the objective of the U.N. resolution that authorized the mission, quote, "Is not to remove Gadhafi by force, but it is impossible to imagine a future for Libya with Gadhafi in power."

In recent days, both Britain and France have asked other members of the NATO alliance for more assets including ground attack fighter jets to attack Libyan military forces that are besieging civilians in Misrata and other places.

So that's where we begin this hour. We turn now to Stephen Flanagan, senior vice president and Henry A. Kissinger chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He's joined us in our studios. He's been on the staff at the National Security Council, and has taught at both Harvard and the National War College.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. STEPHEN FLANAGAN (Senior Vice President, Center for Strategic and International Studies): Nice to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: What do you read in, or even between the lines, of this co-authored piece?

Mr. FLANAGAN: There were two messages here I think, Scott. One was a message directed very much at Gadhafi, that if he continues on the path of trying to slaughter his people, that he will continue to see an escalation of the military campaign.

I think the second message was one very much a reassurance to the members of the coalition on the part of President Obama to say that yes, the United States is this. While it has transferred leadership of the overall effort of the military campaign to NATO, the president made clear that the U.S. is still a member of NATO. It's been supporting in a very robust way, but in a secondary and a supporting way, the NATO operations, and opening up the possibility, and I'm sure with some of the developments in recent days, increasing pressure that the United States fill some of the gaps that NATO realizes that they have, as you mentioned in combat ground strike aircraft.

SIMON: Well, it raises the question, is this genuinely a NATO mission, or is it now a U.S., British, and French mission?

Mr. FLANAGAN: No. It really has morphed. Now it is formally a NATO mission as of the 27th of March. And so NATO has been engaged. Not all of the allies -while they've all said they support this, not all of them are taking on the most risky and difficult mission, that is the ground strike to protect civilians from attack by the Gadhafi loyalist forces.

SIMON: Yeah. And help us understand that. Because there are a number of countries, member states in NATO, most notably Germany, that have some real ambivalence about their involvement.

Mr. FLANAGAN: Absolutely. Indeed, Germany abstained from the passage of the resolution that called for this action, and it then went to say as NATO undertook the mission that it would not support any element of it. And there are reports that it's even created some difficulties within the alliance in the conduct of the current operations.

This is an organization that's designed to work as a multilateral machine all the time, but still there are different restrictions that some of the countries put on their forces. Indeed, even the U.S. has put restrictions on its forces, as the French and the British have been complaining about the last few days.

SIMON: Well, that's what I want to follow, because it struck me that I thought both Prime Minister Cameron and President Sarkozy were blunt when they talked about the fact that they - Britain and France weren't getting the support that they would most devoutly desire from NATO states. And it seemed like they did not exempt the United States from that.

Mr. FLANAGAN: No, absolutely not. No. Indeed. One of the things - the hope was that the U.S. would come once again to the rescue, and in some ways this is what the Obama administration is laying down a bit of the challenge to the rest of the alliance, saying here's an operation that is very close to your borders in southern Europe. Your equities are most immediately at stake.

This is not that difficult, especially after the United States used its heavy and unique assets to basically decimate the Libyan air defense system. This is a mission that should be manageable by a number of the NATO countries, and indeed, President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Cameron seemed anxious to show that they could take this on.

The problem was that they didn't get a lot of their other European allies to come along, so they went to the Security Council and then finally to NATO to get this together. But certainly now what the hope is that that U.S. will provide some combat strike aircraft. And so that's really what the other NATO allies are looking for now, is the hope that the U.S. might step in. or other allies that have some of these assets too.

SIMON: The longer the situation goes on in Libya without resolution, Moammar Gadhafi stays in power. Does that increase the pressure on the United States to do something to get - move the situation along?

Mr. FLANAGAN: Absolutely, it does. Because the feeling that already, you know, we hear these complaints from some of the rebel leaders saying that it seems as if NATO has slowed down the tempo, or things aren't happening. But I think the strategy is that with enough pressure on Gadhafi, with the feeling that the resolve is there that these strikes will continue until Gadhafi decides that he has to consider turning over power.

In some ways this is very reminiscent of the campaign against Milosevic in 1999, where Milosevic thought NATO couldn't last - he could last it out. And after 78 days, he finally capitulated. I think the hope is that Gadhafi will look for the exits even sooner, but so far he's shown a remarkable degree of tenacity. But, of course, he's a rather mercurial leader and always full of surprises.

SIMON: Stephen Flanagan, senior vice president and Henry A. Kissinger chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Thanks so much.

Mr. FLANAGAN: Glad to be with you, Scott. Thank you.

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