Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 September 2011
Issue No. 1063
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Galal Nassar

NATO in North Africa

Nato can boastr to some success in its Libya mission, and yet if it seeks to repeat the experience elsewhere it will face resistance, writes Galal Nassar

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since the 1990s, NATO has been restructuring itself to meet the demands of the post-Cold War world. Above all, it has expanded to incorporate new members from Eastern and Central Europe, which had formerly been part of the Warsaw Pact, NATO's counterpart during the Cold War. The purpose of the expansion was not only to strengthen the territorial defence of Western Europe, but also -- and more importantly -- to enhance its capacity to intervene elsewhere in the world, in the name of the defence of international peace and security, and in order to safeguard the interests of its member-states.

It appears that NATO's star has risen since the downfall of the Gaddafi regime. After having backed the popular uprising in Benghazi and helping to pave the way for the 17 February movement's westward advance and final sweep into Tripoli, ushering in the post-Gaddafi era, NATO has triggered considerable speculation as to whether it will attempt to repeat the "Libyan model" elsewhere. But even as observers attempt to assess the extent to which this international organisation has redefined its role in international conflict resolution and in international relations in general, they are also wondering whether Libya will be able to overcome the many challenges it faces as it rebuilds itself into a democratic nation.

In any assessment of recent developments in Libya, it serves little purpose to either underplay or exaggerate the outside factor. NATO's more than 7,000 aerial sorties were crucial to ongoing strikes against the bases and defences of pro-Gaddafi forces and, hence, to the advance of the Libyan revolutionaries. However, the chief credit for the victory is still due to the forces on the ground; the revolutionaries who sacrificed their lives in order to overthrow a more than 40-year-old dictatorship and fulfil the aspiration for a new and modern state that will embrace all the Libyan people.

UMANITARIAN INTERVENTION: The intervention of NATO forces in Libya did not defy the rules of international law or go against the will of the Arab regional order, and these forces did not engage directly on the ground. Nevertheless, the intervention, which was set in motion by a UN Security Council mandate on humanitarian grounds, stirred widespread controversy in the Arab world and elsewhere over its legitimacy, its actual nature and its usefulness. The intervention was in part sanctioned by the Arab League, which issued a resolution appealing to the international community to protect civilian lives in Libya where civilian lives were increasingly jeopardised by the brutal and escalating violence and repression that Muammar Gaddafi had unleashed against an initially peaceful protest movement.

UN Security Council Resolution 1970, unanimously approved by the council's 15 members, invoked strict measures against the Gaddafi regime. It instructed UN member states to "immediately take the necessary measures to prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer to the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya... of arms and related materiel of all types, including weapons and ammunition, military vehicles and equipment, paramilitary equipment, and spare parts for the aforementioned... " Then about three weeks later, on 17 March, the Security Council issued Resolution 1973, stressing the need to protect the civilian population from the violence and gross human rights abuses perpetrated by the Libyan regime, condemning that regime's widespread and systematic attacks against the civilian population as crimes against humanity and determining that the situation in Libya continued to pose a threat to international peace and security. The resolution imposed a no-fly zone over Libya, which constituted "an important element for the protection of civilians as well as the safety of the delivery of humanitarian assistance and a decisive step for the cessation of hostilities in Libya," and it urged Arab League members, in particular, to cooperate closely with the UN in the implementation of the measures necessary to enforce the ban on all flights over Libya apart from those delivering humanitarian assistance.

Clearly, the resolution allows for violating the principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of a state when it comes to protecting the fundamental rights of the civilian population. Otherwise put, it supports the legitimacy of humanitarian intervention in the event that ruling regimes do not fulfil their international commitments and pledges under international law and international humanitarian law, and fail to take the necessary measures to protect their civilian populations and meet their essential needs, whether in times of peace or in times of domestic or international conflict.

An international coalition led by the US was created to implement Resolution 1973. Then the US administration handed the task to NATO, which was ready and willing to perform it. From 19 March to the present, NATO commanded the military operations, especially those related to the naval and aerial blockades, and then to the aerial strikes against the defences and installations of the pro-Gaddafi forces. With this development, NATO acquired a new role in the Middle East, triggering heated debate between those who champion humanitarian intervention to safeguard civilian populations against gross human rights abuses and acts of genocide, including those perpetrated against them by their own governments, and those who fear that humanitarian intervention may be serving as a guise for a new form of colonialism in spite of the undeniable oppression being exercised by tyrannical regimes. Perhaps the Libyan model offers some clues to a way out of this conundrum.

ATO'S NEW ROLE: With the success of its campaign to assist the Libyan revolutionaries to overthrow the Gaddafi dictatorship, NATO has acquired a new role in international conflicts and in the greater scheme of international power relations. For some time now, the alliance has been in the process of transforming itself from a purely military organisation primarily charged with the defence of Western Europe and the Atlantic against a potential attack from the Soviet Union to a global military-political force whose new mission is to attain and secure the interests of NATO members in various parts of the world. The broadening of horizons, from the territorial security of Western Europe to a more nebulous notion of security that extends from the Balkans to the Middle East, Afghanistan and beyond has forced NATO members to contend with new and increasingly complicated challenges in areas that are plagued by instability, conflict and war.

Certainly, NATO was not initially tailored for this. It was formed in the wake of World War II with the express purpose of countering what was then referred to in the West as the "communist peril". When that peril subsided with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist order, NATO's very raison d'être ceased. But NATO, itself, did not. On the contrary, it nearly doubled in size as it brought onboard new members from the former Soviet Union. Whereas NATO had 16 members on the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall, today it has 29. The most salient indicator of the new role that NATO has been carving out for itself is its intervention in the war in Afghanistan, where it has assumed the command of its first military venture outside of the European continent.

In the process of restructuring itself for the post-Cold War world, NATO's member countries formed the North Atlantic Cooperation Council in 1991. In 1997, this council was transformed into the European-Atlantic Partnership Council, which was charged with organising and distributing responsibilities and duties between Europe and the transatlantic region, with the purpose of averting or containing conflicts within the NATO region through the institution of cooperative mechanisms at diverse security, political, military and economic levels. At the political level, NATO introduced the Partnership for Peace Programme, the Permanent Joint Council for NATO and Russia and the NATO-Ukraine Charter. The organisation also made some modifications to its military establishment structure, such as abolishing the central command for the English Channel region and incorporating it into the Northwest Europe command, which is subsidiary to the European central command.

The process of formalising the post-Cold War transformation of NATO began in the 1991 summit in Rome, in which the organisation's strategic concept was redefined. Its primary purpose was now to "preserve the strategic balance in Europe". In this context, as the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina dragged on, the notion of giving NATO the power to intervene militarily took hold. With the Dayton Agreement of 1995, NATO became an arm of UN intervention.

This year, the UN allowed this arm to exercise itself in Libya. From the outset, it was apparent that there was a certain inconsistency between the aims of NATO members, which were essentially to engineer regime change, and the ostensible principle of intervention indicated in the Security Council resolution, which was to safeguard civilian lives. In spite of this, NATO can now boast of its success, point to this mission as proof of its crisis management abilities, and proceed to strengthen its newly acquired role in international conflicts, and international relations.

HE LIBYAN MODEL: However, it is doubtful that NATO plans will proceed as smoothly as it might wish. In the search for possibilities to exercise the new role it has ascribed to itself it is likely to encounter some resistance. Taking the Libyan case alone, if it prolongs its intervention there and broadens it to encompass various political functions in particular, it will almost certainly trigger various forms of opposition, especially among those segments of the population who feel jeopardised by the new situation. In addition, many non-NATO countries disapproved of the NATO intervention in Libya and will undoubtedly oppose its attempts to repeat this experience elsewhere.

NATO is not a philanthropic society. It consists of some very powerful countries that have vital and strategic interests in this region. So there will be a bill to be paid for the undeniable part it played in support of the Libyan revolution and in protecting civilian lives from the vengefulness of the Gaddafi regime. A good chunk of the costs will be borne by Libya and, indeed, have already been borne in terms of lives sacrificed. But NATO countries have more material considerations, which primarily centre on Libya's oil and gas resources, as well as a number of geostrategic advantages that Libya offers.

At the same time, it is important to bear in mind that the US and other NATO nations only approved the intervention in Libya after certain conditions were in place. Firstly, they wanted to be assured that the Libyan revolutionaries were prepared to make the necessary sacrifices in the fight to overthrow the Gaddafi regime. In addition, they needed a cover of Arab legitimacy and international legitimacy. The former was forthcoming in the form of the Arab League resolution appealing for international intervention to protect civilian lives in Libya; the latter in Security Council Resolution 1973. Equally, if not more importantly, there had to be a division of costs and labour between the Libyans and NATO countries. It was in this latter respect, in particular, that the Libyan model differed markedly from the case of Iraq, which was essentially a US-venture and an invasion that ended in foreign occupation and the destruction of a state.

While the Arabs approved the foreign intervention in Libya, this was hardly a blank cheque to repeat the experience in other countries where popular uprisings and revolutions are threatening Arab regimes. If NATO intends to expand its interventionist role in such areas, it will only be able to act under certain conditions, the most important being the existence of a ruthless dictatorial regime demonstrably bent on a war of genocide against its own people. As for Libya, it has enormous tasks ahead of it. One hopes that it will succeed in producing a new and inspiring model of government radically different from the Gaddafi tyranny, one capable of guaranteeing freedom, equality and a dignified life for all segments of the population.

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