World powers sometimes have to fight wars not for some material interest, but for bolstering a nation’s prestige in order to deter more dangerous aggressors. As Margaret Thatcher said after England’s defeat of Argentina in the 1982 Falklands War, the conflict showed that “now once again Britain is not prepared to be pushed around” and that Britain has “ceased to be a nation in retreat.” So too with Reagan’s 1983 invasion of Grenada, which was as much about showing the Soviet Union that Carter-era retreat and appeasement were over, as it was about rescuing 800 American students and forestalling a Soviet-Cuban military airbase in our geopolitical backyard.
The European-instigated NATO involvement in the Libyan civil war was no doubt seen as just such a prestige-building exercise. The EU nations were in need of some action that could show they were, as Jacques Chirac said in 1995, an “essential pole” in the “multipolar world” created by the end of the Cold War. In the 1990s that boast had been exposed as hollow after the horrors in the Balkans––ethnic cleansing, massacres of civilians, torture and mutilation of prisoners in concentration camps––were stopped not by the Europeans and the UN, but by an American bombing campaign conducted under the patina of NATO authority. The subsequent wars against jihadist terror likewise have been American affairs, undertaken against the advice, wishes, and obstructions of major powers like France and Germany. The whole edifice of EU “postmodern” foreign policy, predicated on the “soft power” of diplomacy and international law, is nothing but an exercise in bad faith if American soldiers and cruise-missiles have to be called on to punish aggressors.
The civil war in nearby Libya, with its mostly flat terrain and Mediterranean coastline, seemed like a lovely little prestige-building intervention for the Europeans. The patent sadistic lunacy of Gaddafi, evident in his bluster about exterminating the “rats” in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, added a moral imperative to the logistical conveniences. And an American president eager to “lead from behind” and allow the Europeans to do most of the bombing on America’s nickel, all in the name of “multilateralism,” thrust into the shadows the perennial unpleasant fact that NATO is institutional camouflage for American military power, an organization necessary for those military-scrimping nations that NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson once called “military pygmies.”
Yet despite the downfall of Gaddafi’s regime, the Libyan adventure is unlikely to fool anybody into respecting Europe’s geopolitical clout. Too many unpleasant contradictions and unanswered questions still hang around the campaign. Everyone knows that American cruise missiles and intelligence were critical to the campaign. Rules of engagement designed for political rather than military efficacy, an unwillingness to risk ground troops, Obama’s disappearance, and squabbling between NATO states unnecessarily prolonged the conflict to the detriment of those nations’ prestige. It is unlikely that any aggressor is going to be deterred by a coalition which, enjoying superiority in the air and armed with high-tech weaponry, took several months and 20,000 sorties to defeat a glorified gangster like Gaddafi. As Stanley Kurtz points out, “If this is what it takes for America and its allies to dislodge an unpopular dictator in open terrain, our more dangerous potential adversaries cannot be feeling much fear right now.”
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