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When the U.S., France and Britain decided to take military action to support U.N. efforts to protect civilians in Libya, they made a critical decision. They would act through NATO. The intervention in Libya broke ground for the alliance. But it's also raising new questions and concerns. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports from Brussels.

ERIC WESTERVELT: NATO planes are still in the air and dropping bombs over Libya. Colonel Gadhafi is still on the loose. Nonetheless, the NATO alliance is taking something of a victory lap. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told NPR he sees the Libya operation as a template for future NATO missions and proof the United Nations can outsource its muscle to the alliance.

Secretary General ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN (NATO): Very, very positive that NATO is able to support the United Nations Security Council. That adds to the credibility of the United Nations, and I'm very pleased to see NATO in that role.

WESTERVELT: But NATO has certainly pushed the boundaries of its U.N. mandate and critics say the alliance ended up providing de facto close air support for anti-Gadhafi rebels. Those critics now worry that the alliance risks becoming an armed service provider for the U.N. and other allies. That's a long way from what NATO still insists is its core mission to protect its members' territory and population.

The second way Secretary General Rasmussen sees Libya as a potential model is that America, he says, took a relative back seat, unlike NATO operations in Afghanistan and Kosovo. In Libya, European powers provided the majority of the airstrikes and almost all of the ships enforcing the arms embargo.

Mr. RASMUSSEN: This time, European allies and Canada took the lead. And that's an answer to an American public that requests more European engagement. You saw it in Libya and I hope to see that model used also in the future.

WESTERVELT: But it's hard to take the lead when you run critically low on precision-guided bombs after barely two months, as NATO's European allies did in Libya. The U.S. stepped in and sold the alliance ordinance, saving NATO from humiliation.

And it's largely NATO spin that American took a back seat this time. The U.S. launched 97 percent of the Tomahawk cruise missiles that crippled Gadhafi's air defenses at the start of the conflict, and the U.S. still conducted more sorties than any other country - 26 percent in all. And throughout, the U.S. has provided the majority of the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, aerial refueling and targeting capabilities.

Ian Lesser directs the German Marshall Fund's Trans-Atlantic Center in Brussels.

Dr. IAN LESSER (Director, Trans-Atlantic Center, German Marshall Fund): Without critical American assets this would not have been possible. And I suppose one could argue that if the operation had to go on too much longer, it also would not have been possible.

WESTERVELT: The U.S. Ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder, notes the essential U.S. role but insists Libya was an alliance-wide effort that saw huge contributions from Norway, Denmark and Belgium, as well as NATO partner countries Jordan, Qatar, Sweden and the UAE.

Ambassador IVO DAALDER (U.S. to NATO): Key, large military countries proved indispensable but others contributed in an important and, indeed, in a decisive manner. And that is what an alliance like this is all about.

WESTERVELT: But only eight of the 28 NATO members took part in the air combat. And NATO officials concede the mission underscored deep weaknesses in European capabilities. Britain and France together attacked nearly half of the targets in Libya. And former British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd believes the Libya mission represents a worrying trend for NATO, because Europe's two largest military powers shouldered most of the burden.

Mr. DOUGLAS HURD (Former Foreign Secretary, U.K.): That's ourselves, the British and the French. We are the only two countries - apart from the United States - in NATO who actually have the will - the guts if you like - to intervene where intervention is clearly needed to prevent a slaughter.

WESTERVELT: European powerhouse Germany declined to take part at all in the military operations and even pulled its crews out of NATO support aircraft. Analyst Giles Merritt, with think tank Security and Defense Agenda, says Germany's move underscores a serious weakness for all of Europe.

Mr. GILES MERRITT (Security and Defense Agenda): The German failure to put its shoulder to the wheel on Libya raised big question marks about how we're going to run European defense and security policy in the future.

WESTERVELT: In June departing U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned that unless NATO's European members commit more weapons, money and personnel to lessen its reliance on the U.S., the alliance risks becoming irrelevant. Despite the NATO self-praise over Libya, it's a warning that still lingers in the halls of Brussels.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Brussels.

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