U.K. and France Try to Boost Libyan Rebels, But Risk Rupturing NATO

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As troops loyal to Col. Muammar Gaddafi continue to pound the rebel-held city of Misratah — leading to hundreds of civilian casualties — British Foreign Secretary William Hague announced April 19 that the U.K. and France were dispatching a joint squad of military advisers to Benghazi, stronghold of the Libyan rebels in the country’s east. The team is supposedly just a support force, helping the rebel leadership, says Hague, improve its “military organizational structures, communications and logistics.” But while officials in London and Paris are eager to play down the importance of this deployment, the move has set off new fears of “mission creep” setting into NATO’s operations in Libya — with the international community staggering into a drawn out war for regime change, invariably on land, that many in NATO had no desire to join.

Throughout, Western officials have justified their intervention into Libya on the grounds of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, which, while specifically not calling for regime change or boots on the ground, mandated the international community use any means necessary to protect civilians in Libya. A no-fly zone, arms embargos, and coalition sorties sought to stifle Gaddafi’s offensive against rebel positions and towns, and have been moderately successful. But as the body count continues to rise in Misratah — which is “enduring a medieval siege,” according to a joint statement by President Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron — the question remains, what next? For these three Western leaders, the choice is clear: Gaddafi has to go. (Of course, they were far more circumspect about how exactly he’d be ushered out.)

But that’s not the general conclusion of many other capitals, not least those of other prominent NATO members. Only six out of the alliance’s 28 countries are participating militarily in the Libya campaign, and some of those six, such as Italy, have significantly curtailed the scope of their military commitments. Germany, ostensibly Europe’s most capable power, is averse to foreign military missions and abstained during voting in the U.N. Security Council. The U.S. has conspicuously played backseat to the more gung-ho French and British, and recently withdrew its most devastating strike craft from the arena of operations.

Turkey, possibly the actor with the most under-utilized influence on the scene, has repeatedly warned against heavy-handed meddling in what has become a full-out civil war in the North African nation. As a NATO member, it has urged for a ceasefire and negotiations to resolve the conflict. Turkish Prime Minister Reccep Erdogan repeatedly warned against creating a second Afghanistan or Iraq, “where a million have died and a civilization has as good as collapsed.” Earlier this month, Erdogan unveiled a roadmap for peace that many imagine is the only real, practical solution: one which involves a de-escalation of tensions and a process toward democracy that is as inclusive as possible, while not forgetting the many crimes Gaddafi and his cronies may have committed.

But even though this may make sense as the conflict lurches into a stalemate, the bloody-minded stubbornness of the Gaddafi regime — and its refusal to stop imperiling the lives of its own people — is clearly spurring the intervention’s original French and British architects to raise the heat on Tripoli and boost the rebel cause. It may not be long before the current team of “advisers” sent to Benghazi is coordinating the distribution of foreign arms and military equipment to rebel forces, if that is not already underway.

For all the uncertainties ahead, the most gloomy question surrounding NATO’s current predicament is one that many have puzzled over since the fall of the Soviet Union two decades ago. Fred Kaplan, writing in Slate, asks it: “What is NATO for, anyway? Why does it still exist? Is it a mere symbol, a fig leaf of multinational legitimacy that members can don when they take military action for their own interests?” Answering that riddle may not matter to the countless civilians under bombardment in Misratah and elsewhere in Libya, but it will be put to the test in the months of diplomatic handwringing and finger-pointing that are surely to come.

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