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NATO's Beau Geste misadventure: What the Libyan intervention means for NATO's strategic discourse?A copy of this presentation can be found on my blog: presented at the Annual PSAI Conference, Saturday October 22nd, 2011.Dr. Brendan Flynn, School of Political Science & Sociology, National University of Ireland, Galway.T: +353 (0)91 493160E:

what this paper is and is not about
What this paper is and is not about.....

NOT explaining why or how NATO got involved at the end of March 2011 (answer seems to be French domestic politics plus longer term ‘stored’ preferences)

NOT evaluating conduct of military operations in detail (some comment)

NOT speculating on Libya’s future (except insofar as Maghreb regional security relationships may have changed)

NOT arguing non-intervention would have been ‘better’ or ‘possible’.....reflecting on the lessons to be learned for NATO....(some brief discussion on ‘alternatives’ to what happened....)

NOT arguing we shouldn’t celebrate a liberated Libya (but beyond this what has been achieved for European security?)

The paper IS about NATO rather than Libya

The paper IS an attempt to assess the significance of the Libyan intervention for NATO’s wider politics..its relevance...its endurance...its ‘strategic drift’......

In particular how does the Libyan intervention match NATO’s strategic discourses/culture...which was revamped in 2010?

Was the Libya intervention strategic...or merely opportunistic...a distraction...?

Core Arguments

Libya seems more opportunistic and a distraction...rather than a strategic mission of importance for NATO...

Does not match well the strategic culture articulated in the new Strategic Concept (2010)...

“The argument advanced here is that firstly, the Libyan intervention by NATO does

not credibly match strategic priorities identified in NATO’s new strategic concept. In

other words, NATO, as regards operations such as the Libyan mission, is not actually

following its own strategic roadmap but rather reacting to events and behaving as an

ad hoc alliance of the willing responding fire-brigade like to security crises rather than strategic threats.

Secondly, it is argued that the NATO Libyan operation cannot be considered a strategic

form of humanitarian intervention, but instead is revealed as an opportunistic exercise in crisis

management. Military force was deployed by the French and British, and later NATO,

mostly because it could be deployed against a weak regime, and because the

perceived short term costs to a limited intervention were estimated apparently as

relatively low. In many ways parallels can be drawn between the NATO operation in

Libya and Kosovo, both being essentially reactive interventions that can be

characterized as “strategic drift”. Moreover, both revealed the limits of military force,

especially air-power doctrines, or even limited use of force concepts such as “no-fly


Theoretical background

Need to reclaim concept of ‘strategy’ from traditional/neo-realist/game theoretic IR accounts (Gray, 2011, 2005)

Need to link discourses of strategy with literature on ‘strategic cultures’

(Synder, 1977, Biava, et al., 2011)

“Strategicculture is an integrated "system of symbols (e.g., argumentation structures, languages, analogies, metaphors) which acts to establish pervasive and long- lasting strategic preferences by formulating concepts of the role and efficacy of military force in interstate political affairs, and by clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the strategic preferences seem uniquely realistic and efficacious” (Johnston, 1995, Page 46)

Understanding Strategy as discourses of strategy within a broad constructionist tradition.

The Libyan intervention and the Strategic Concept-a bad fit?

A good copy of the strategic concept can be found in pp.205-218 in Kashmeri (2011)

Article 2 of the Concept affirms values of human rights, Charter of the UN, etc. Libyan mission was UN authorized HOWEVER it went beyond authorization. Also NATO have done nothing to affirm human rights in Syria or Bahrain in not unlike cases.

Article 3 reaffirms the Transatlantic link. HOWEVER the crucial initial intervention was a Franco-British initiative (with some US/Canadian participation) which later ‘migrated’ to NATO. US played a less significant (but still crucial) military role later on.

Article 4b/20 speaks of NATO deploying a mix of “political and military tools to help manage developing crises that have the potential to affect Alliance security, before they escalate into conflicts.” However, a victory by Qaddafi would not have threatened the NATO alliance, even if it would have been a moral and human rights travesty. Moreover, NATO only become involved at the end of March, and could not even agree on the initiation of the use of force: that was done by the French on the afternoon of 19th March (Operation Harmattan) and later followed up by British and American cruise missile strikes.....and a RAF strike later in the night. Note it took a month to get a UN Resolution...the conflict was open and intense by the end of February 17th, and given events in Tunisia and in Egypt during January 2011, it was not unpredictable (1) that internal strife in Libya would erupt. On the 17-18th of March there were reports of NATO contingency plans which suggested action within a week of the Resolution-in fact the French and British had to move much faster to save Benghazi (2), and the French it seems had to initially rely on land based aircraft rather than their sole carrier which was not ready for action (3).

Article 19; one can argue that NATO showed a successful capacity to conduct multiple operations at the same time, but note the Afghan mission is failing/winding down, and the Libya intervention was not cost free: one estimate is that by mid summer 2011 France has spent €160m, the US perhaps over $700m and the UK £260m-perhaps about $12m a day (4) Another estimate was for the US alone a cost of $40m a month at least (5) As of October 2011 NATO had completed about 26,156 sorties (of which over 9,634 were strike sorties) (6).

Such costs in the short term were manageable(7) and may today seem like a bargain-NATO got a shortish “successful” war for maybe around €1-2bn. The long-term cost and benefits are less clear. Moreover, some of the semi-official estimates of costs may be optimistic as true costs may be higher-as much as £1.25bn (8) in the case of the UK and all at a time of severe demands on British public finances and significant defence cutbacks.

(1) See for example

(2) See:



(5)(Allin and Jones, 2011,)p.209)

(6) See: NATO (2011) ‘Operational Media Update for 20 October 2011’ available at:

(7) See the assessment of costs by Prof. Malcolm Chalmers (RUSI) in March 2011 :

(8) See the estimates by Tusa reported in the Guardian of September 26th:

Other lessons to be drawn?

NATO has no clear concept/doctrine of humanitarian intervention/R2P

The arming/training of rebels on the ground was perhaps strategically consistent with the values of Article 25 of the Concept, which stresses the role of ‘indigenous’ forces over NATO forces. However, it was not arguably that consistent with Resolutions 1973 and 1970 which notably reaffirmed the arms embargo to Libya, which seemingly precluded the arming of rebels, and article 4 of Resolution 1973 which specifically mentioned: “excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory”. It is contestable whether special forces, observers or FACs(1) on the ground could be described as a foreign occupation force as such, however ,the expression ‘any form’ seems very wide.

In June of 2011 the French unilaterally air-dropped extensive arms to Berber rebels in the western Nafusa mountains (2). This was criticized by the African Union. The legal argument in favour of the French action was that Resolution 1973’s article 4, especially the key phrase “to take all necessary measures, notwithstanding paragraph 9 of resolution 1970 (2011), to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack”, should be permissively read together with Resolution 1970 as over-riding the earlier prohibition on arms supply.

One can leave such arguments for the lawyers, but politically, this permissive and cavalier use of Resolution 1973 unquestionably damages the chances of Russia and China abstain from further UN resolutions which might authorize an unambiguous use of force. It is worth point out how rare these already are -about 5-6 cases since the founding of the UN (Jones, 2011). This was immediately evident in Russian diplomatic moves to dilute UN actions against Syria. In this way one can question whether anew politics of protection (Bellamy and Williams, 2011) is really likely to emerge where UN approval is a key legitimacy device.

What of NATO-AU partnership after Libya?

Article 28-30 of the Concept mentions partnerships. The AU could have been a possible player in the Libyan process, but was never given a chance and indeed one wonders whether AU-NATO relations will now be weakened, at least short-term. It is in NATO’s long term strategic concept to have the AU play a major role-in fact they were sidelined.

(1) Forward Air Controllers, who are military personnel who provide targeting advice for aircraft/drones.

(2) See:

NATO is internally divided

Turkey and Germany refused to participate, and delayed the reason why NATO only took control after March 31st was because of Turkey (and others) challenging command structures...NATO is now more than ever a coalition of the willing?

Conversely much depended on Franco-British co-operation

US a much more passive ‘sotto voce’ role

Sweden participated (although short of actual use of force it seems)-a definite post neutral moment.

NATO’s intervention may have created perverse incentives for oppressive regimes to form firm and formal alliances (with Iran, Russia, China) and to invest in unconventional and asymmetric military capabilities.

“One can say that Qaddafi could well be in power today if he had been more firmly allied with Iran, China or Russia (or any combination of these), or moreover, if he possessed some type of unconventional or asymmetric military capabilities which western military forces cannot easily counter without severe costs. In fact Qaddafi did have a nuclear weapons project, which could have yielded some type of ‘dirty bomb’ technology had he kept it, and the Libyan regime had extensive chemical weapons stocks. One lesson of the Libyan case is that Qaddafi was not ultimately rewarded for giving up his unconventional weapons programs, and states such as Syria who now feel threatened with intervention may conclude possession of such assets represents a surer bet than voluntarily giving them up. If they give them up, they may well ultimately be the subject of a humanitarian intervention like in Libya. If they keep such weapons the odds of such an intervention may be longer. Such a logic might encourage another wave of proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, greater attempts at formal alliance building, and even some restructuring of state coercive means in an unconventional guise: greater use of militias, mercenaries, state sponsored guerrilla and proxy forces, or a militarization of policing forces to avoid triggering foreign intervention in the first place. All of these responses are perverse but rational lessons to be drawn from NATO’s intervention, and few of them are benign trends.”

Counter arguments

It was really strategic- a clever grab of high quality oil?

Well NO...not seems

“Since Libyan oil was already heavily under the sway of western oil companies, and since they were already exporting almost all of their oil to Europe and the US at market prices, in USD, there was no motive to attack them for access to their their oil per se (as in Iraq). The contribution to the price of oil made by financial speculators (approximately 30%) is far, far higher than the contribution to the price of oil made by Libyan supply (appx. 2.12% of only the supply component of the price).Regulating hedge funds more strictly would be a far less costly and far less controversial way to bring down crude prices, if that were the goal.One might try to make the case that the intervention is designed to protect the capital investments of western companies in Libya from destruction in a civil war, though this would be hard to establish since Western oil companies capital infrastructure (wells, pipelines, etc) would likely be destroyed anyway even with a full-scale NATO intervention.”

Also a deeper profoundly strategic response to ‘peak oil’ lies in structural energy technology transformations...switch to novel fuels, nuclear, renewables, electrics, etc. This is an environmental and energy policy issue rather than what NATO is good at or really for.....

Other counter arguments

(a)it warns some regimes that NATO can and will fight wars-NATO has the resolve to use force (but in fact it almost failed, and NATO is losing in Afghanistan)

(b)Moreover the success of a low footprint, short duration operation, which demanded only small numbers of special forces and air force assets, shows that NATO can fight and win short wars for relatively low costs. Thus Libya counters some of the fall-out from an impending strategic defeat that is NATO’s mission in Afghanistan where NATO has been effectively defeated by a long and complex guerrilla (civil) war of attrition. (But this suggests as much relative military weakness as strength, in that NATO can only cherry pick short wars it can win, not perhaps the long wars it may have to fight?)

(c)NATO has created a new client state and de facto military ally in the region-giving possible bases and geographic scope for future access to the entire Maghreb. This could be vital if Egypt turns Islamist and anti-western, or if some combination of Algerian and/or Egypt plunge into large scale civil wars. Libya would then presumably be of some help to NATO in containing such developments (Highly speculative, and note NATO’s client Libya may have a regional rival in the guise of a less co-operative Algeria)

(d)At the level of ideology, one can make the argument that NATO earned considerable good-will in the Islamic and Arab world by intervening to protect an Arab civilian population that was threatened by its own despotic government. In fact NATO ending up arming, training and fighting with some insurgents who were Islamic militants of a certain type (Gains here seem superficial, and ideologically this reveals incoherence over brilliance).

(e)One can argue that NATO’s intervention in Libya was progress since Kosovo as regards establishing a threshold for humanitarian interventions/R2P operations. In this regard the fact that the operation was mandated by the UN is a key marker for the future, and this restrained NATO’s actions. Moreover, the reason why NATO did not intervene in Syria is simply because the sixth criteria as regards the threshold of the R2P principle was unclear-there was a reasonable prospect of success in the case of Libya but not as regards Syria (but in fact future interventions may find it harder to get UN approval seeing as this was elastically applied by NATO).

(f)One can argue that holding the Libya operation up against the standard of the strategic concept documents is a mistaken approach which forgets that the strategic concept is on purpose designed to be a vague ambiguous document for public relations; it is not a serious statement of NATO strategic posture, which evolves and has to be judged by actions rather than words (at one level this is true, but one can probe the internal contradictions, moreover this reveals NATO does not have a clear strategy. It has a strategic concept which is anything but strategic).


Allin, Dana H. and Erik Jones (2011) ‘As Good as it Gets?’, Survival, Vol. 53, No.3, pp.205-215.

Bellamy, Alex J, and Paul D. Williams (2011) ‘The new politics of protection? Cote d’Ivoire, Libya and the responsibility to

protect’, International Affairs, Vol.87, No.4, pp. 825-850.

Biava, Alessia, Margriet Drent, Graeme p. Herd. (2011) ‘Characterizing the European Union's Strategic

Culture: An Analytical Framework’, Journal of Common Market Studies, Vol. 49, No.6, pp.1227-1248.

Gray, Colin S. (2011) ‘Some Thoughts on Moral Choice and War’, Comparative Strategy, Vol.30, No.1, pp. 94-97.

Gray, Colin S. (2005 ) Another Bloody Century: Future Warfare. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson.

Jones, Bruce D. (2011) ‘Libya and the Responsibilities of Power’, Survival, Vol. 53, No.3, pp.51-60.

Johnston, (1995) ‘Thinking about Strategic Culture’, International Security, Vol. 19, No.4, pp.32-64. 

Kashmeri, Sarwar A. (2011) NATO 2.0: Reboot or Delete? Washington: Pontomac.

Menon, Anand (2011) ‘European Defence Policy from Lisbon to Libya’, Survival, Vol. 53, No.3, pp.75-90.

Synder, Jack L. (1977) The Soviet Strategic Culture: Implications for nuclear options. Santa Monica: RAND.

Thies, Wallace J. (2009) Why NATO Endures. Cambridge: CUP