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The widening cracks in the Libya alliance

President Obama wanted the international intervention in Libya to exemplify the virtues of joint military power, but it has begun to look more like a case study in its shortcomings, Lawrence Kaplan writes in The New Republic. Washington built a strategy for Libya that assumed it could hand things off to Europe and/or NATO as though they were equal partners or better, but as Kaplan writes, Europe isn't proving up to the task. And even though one subtle reason the White House wanted a multilateral intervention was to repudiate what the Bush administration did in Iraq, he says the simmering tensions over Libya show that acting alone might not always be such a bad idea after all.

Wrote Kaplan:

If it reveals anything, the war in Libya shows that Obama’s predecessors didn’t spin their proclivities for unilateral action out of whole cloth. “The Libyan crisis has strikingly exposed the lack of a European defense policy: no ability to achieve a common political vision and no capacity to take on an operation of this kind,” said French defense analyst Bruno Tertrais, while a European diplomat predicted to the German news agency Deutsche Press Agentur that a common European defense policy “died in Libya—we just have to pick a sand dune under which we can bury it.” Indeed, the Germans have remained strenuously neutral during the conflict, other than to snipe at the French and the British, while the latter, according to The Washington Post, have nearly run out of bombs to drop.

Far from caviling about the American hyperpuissance, the Europeans have been reduced to pleading for an escalation of U.S. involvement (such as it is). To which the American response has been swift, unequivocal, and wholly beside the point: “Unilateral, open-ended military action to pursue regime change isn’t good strategy, and wouldn’t advance American credibility anywhere,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor insisted, even though what was on the table was a request for multilateral, limited action to pursue a humanitarian end. Perhaps sensing that if America wills the ends, America really ought to will the means, the administration has now dispatched Predator drones to the skies above Libya. Animate pilots, according to the Beltway buzz, may soon follow.

One quick note: American "animate pilots" never left the Libya effort; they're flying Suppression of Enemy Air Defense missions and refueling missions, and they're available for ground attacks, if NATO commanders ask. (The question, as we've asked before, is why NATO doesn't ask if it wants the extra help so much.) And the presence of Predador drones means dozens and dozens of Americans involved, even if none of them are physically on board the aircraft.

The element that Kaplan doesn't fully address is the politics. The Libya operation is an example of one of those lessons that Washington chooses not to learn: In recent history, Europe and NATO have never proven the kind of decisive actors that any White House might have hoped they'd be, but they did provide a crucial short-term political victory for the Obama administration: Libya is off the front pages, doesn't lead the TV news casts and is no longer the top agenda item for many top Pentagon decision-makers. The crucial question now is whether the straining alliance could cause it to become a big enough liability that it pop back up.

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