Section five of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization says an armed attack against one member state shall be interpreted as an attack against all members. The only time that provision has been invoked was after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington when NATO members joined in invading Afghanistan, the source of the terrorist conspiracy.
NATO’s current air campaign against the Libyan government headed by Moammar Gadhafi is something quite different. Far from being a defensive action against an aggressor, it is an effort to prevent the Libyan government from further killing of rebellious Libyan citizens in what started as a peaceful protest against tyranny.
Now Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, in his final policy speech before retiring, has delivered a blunt warning to NATO members that they must contribute more weapons, money and manpower to the Libyan campaign or the alliance will face a “dim if not dismal future” and “irrelevance.” He said that the U.S. Congress and the American people were growing reluctant “to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.”
Even though the Libyan bombing is not defensive, Mr. Gates had a point. While the United States has pulled back from leadership of the Libyan venture, it continues to supply much of the ammunition as well as the refueling planes and the AWACS control aircraft that manage the no-fly zone. Only seven of NATO’s present 28-member nations were contributing ground-strike aircraft, and one of those, Norway, has now pulled out of the operation. The United States, France and Britain are bearing the brunt of the campaign. Incremental cost to the United States is already close to $1 billion.
The reluctant European NATO members also have a point. Some of them have less interest in Libya and its oil than the few bigger or wealthier nations that have been active in the campaign.
NATO members and many Americans are wondering how long the Libya campaign must go on, with its generally unspoken objective of driving Mr. Gadhafi from power. President Barack Obama said he expected that the U.S. active involvement in any military action against Libya would be “days, not weeks.” The United States is still deeply involved, and it has been going on more than three months. Ground troops could probably capture or kill Mr. Gadhafi quicker than air power, which rarely is enough to finish a job.
More fundamentally, the Libya venture may raise the question of whether NATO has outlived its purpose. After all, it was founded in 1949 to protect against any aggression by the old Soviet Union, now long gone.