NATO airstrikes were critical to Qaddafi's fall, but behind the scenes, the weakness of Europe's militaries and its leadership revealed problems for the US in its prime alliance – and in coming defense cuts.
Get ready. America’s big deficit debate revives next month when Congress returns – this time with an intense focus on military cuts. And because US security is based not only on assessing potential foes but also reliable friends, it is time to examine Europe’s role in dispatching Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi from his perch.
Only a few European nations took the lead in the NATO airstrikes on Qaddafi forces, and even they had to ask for additional Pentagon assistance. The Libyan campaign was the first action by the transatlantic alliance that was not led by the United States.
Many of NATO’s 26 European allies sat out the five-month fight, either because they were unwilling to directly participate (notably Germany) or their recent defense cuts made them incapable of joining in (most of them).
Europe’s performance, in other words, was just good enough to aid the rebels’ hard-fought victory but it was an eye-opener for Washington on the sad health of America’s most important military partnership.
Members of Congress – or the super committee of 12 lawmakers tasked to reduce the deficit – must now factor in NATO’s shaky future as they come up with a possible $1 trillion in cuts to the Pentagon’s budget over the next decade.
America’s longtime plea with Europe that it increase defense spending has largely gone unheeded. And now the continent’s own debt crisis is projected to lead to even more cuts, and will reduce its backup role for the US in Afghanistan.
The recent US Defense secretary, Robert Gates, tried to make the case that the US can best help itself by “helping others defend themselves.” But Europe isn’t buying in.