NATO has taken charge of the West’s Libyan war, but in doing so it has confirmed that it is split by serious internal divisions, and lacking in mission. When NATO waged war against Yugoslavia 12 years ago, the effort was bogged down by a “war by committee” approach and an aversion to taking major risks. Still, NATO remained officially in agreement that the war was one worth fighting. Today, absent strong direction from Washington, NATO is being pulled in several directions by the competing interests of its major member states, and several of the most important allies want no part of what has been a primarily Anglo-French adventure. Far from being a new chapter for NATO as a new “out-of-area” campaign, Libya will likely mark the first and last time that the alliance ventures beyond Europe without overwhelming American involvement.

As the alliance’s mission has become increasingly detached from its original purpose of securing Europe, it has been looking for a new reason to exist. Once the Cold War ended, NATO became redundant — but vested interests, habit, and inertia prevented it from being disbanded. Facing no serious external threat, NATO became a useful instrument for exercising U.S. influence and leadership in Europe.

The Balkan interventions in the 1990s at least had a tenuous connection to the interests of some NATO members, but each new war has taken allied forces farther away from their primary responsibilities, and turned NATO into one part international police force and one part auxiliary for U.S. foreign conflicts. The war in Afghanistan initially had some relationship to treaty obligations on account of the 9/11 attacks on the United States, but NATO’s role has long since devolved into providing multilateral cover for a war that most Europeans and most Americans no longer support and have long since ceased to understand.

Libya promises to give the alliance a reputation of an organization goaded into unnecessary war by its most aggressive members.

NATO’s involvement in Libya is similar. In addition to providing a convenient way for the U.S. to reduce its leading role in the attack, it provides the illusion of broad, multilateral support for a mission that is being actively supported by the smallest Western coalition of the last 20 years. Claiming to represent all 28 member states rather than the handful of European governments actually contributing military forces, NATO gives the war the false appearance of
consensus and extensive burden-sharing.

The reality is that three of the largest militaries in Europe — those of Germany, Poland, and Turkey — have no part in patrolling Libyan skies or bombing Moammar Gadhafi's forces. Their governments have been outspoken in opposing military action. Poland’s prime minister, on the verge of seeing his country assume the rotating presidency of the European Union, denounced the “hypocrisy” of attacking Libya. Handing over official control of the Libyan war to NATO was a concession to win continued Italian participation, and it was a way for those governments that opposed the intervention to rein in the war against Gadhafi and limit it to the official mission authorized by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973.

For the sake of maintaining this illusory consensus, NATO has traded effectiveness for strict legality. Besides miscommunication and accidents — such as the mistaken bombing of rebels by NATO planes — NATO’s effort has been hampered by restrictive rules of engagement that have enabled Gadhafi’s forces to press their advantage in their siege of the western, rebel-held city of Misurata, and in the east against poorly organized rebels near Ajdabiya. Rebel commanders continue to operate under the false impression that the alliance has intervened to provide them with air support, which is an impression that the initial French, British, and U.S. strikes encouraged. There has reportedly been great frustration and resentment among Libyans over this issue.

Because the war is being fought to protect the Libyan civilian population, strikes on Gadhafi’s forces that could endanger civilians are not permitted. Because many alliance members are strongly opposed to any action that could contribute to regime change, NATO has been compelled to declare its impartiality in enforcing the no-fly zone. In practice, this has meant that NATO will provide support for rebel forces only when regime loyalist attacks threaten civilian centers. From the perspective of the allies, this may be the least bad course of action now that the war has started, but it cannot help but make NATO look bad to all those in the West and in Libya who expect much more.

Libya is distracting NATO from its sole legitimate purpose, which is to provide for common European defense, and it is alarming new members in eastern Europe by consuming allied resources and attention in a conflict that has virtually nothing to do with European security. The opposition of major allied governments to the Libyan war shows that many allies understand and fear the consequences of Libya for the future of NATO. Libya promises to give the alliance a reputation of an organization goaded into unnecessary war by its most aggressive members, while at the same time giving it the appearance of being unable to prosecute a war effectively because of the deep political divisions among its members. That is bound to be damaging to the NATO's political future, and its credibility as a defensive alliance.