Does the Libyan affair remind anyone of Kosovo? It’s taking place on Europe’s borders, yet—as always when Europe’s hour strikes—no one from the EU is home. NATO has taken over, but most of its members are unenthusiastic. British leadership is a constant, while France has replaced Germany—even more riven by pacifism today than it was in the 1990s—as Britain’s comrade in arms. The U.S., militarily essential as always, gives the appearance of indecision when compared to Britain, although the sentiments of the British people are less clear.
The UN has been summoned to action, but thanks to its inevitable divisions, it is incapable of taking a clear line. In both cases, the ability of those in the region to defend themselves had already been blighted by a UN arms embargo that the U.S. backed and then almost immediately repented: we now pronounce “lift and strike” as “Qatar.” Unfortunately, aid from the Middle East—as it was in Kosovo—is frequently accompanied by support for radical Islamism.
In Kosovo, the result of the UN’s divisions was a war fought without its approval; in Libya, it’s a war that dare not speak the name of regime change.
Both the Europeans and the U.S. had years—if not generations—of evidence that Milosevic and Qaddafi were profoundly untrustworthy and extremely bad actors. Yet that evidence did not prevent them from regarding the dictators as open to negotiation and reform, a stance that helped to foster the dictators’ belief that the West was all talk. If he follows Milosevic’s playbook, Qaddafi will now step up his ambiguous, time-wasting offers to negotiate. And if NATO decides the war has bogged down, it will become much more interested, as the West did in Bosnia, in the idea of a political settlement.
If it had not been for Tony Blair’s leadership, a change of heart in Moscow, and the tenacity of the hardly-pure Kosovo Liberation Army, NATO might well have been fought to a standstill in Kosovo. As it was, NATO stumbled to a victory that it deserved morally, but had done little to earn.
This time around, unless the Libyan rebels suddenly become competent, there is no Kosovo Liberation Army. Neither the U.S. nor Britain appears eager to deploy ground troops. Any proposal to deploy them would split NATO and end the tenuous support for the war in Britain, the U.S., and the UN. And as long as ground troops remain out of the question, David Cameron is going to find it very hard to play the role of Tony Blair. Qaddafi has no Moscow on whom he relies for support. The war in Kosovo was won as much by Western forces’ decade-long occupation as by NATO’s bombing campaign. There is no chance at all that the NATO countries will agree to occupy Libya, even if the UN’s resolutions did not prohibit it.
Perhaps NATO will stumble to victory in Libya. Like Milosevic’s regime, Qaddafi’s is capable of beating up on the unarmed, but not accustomed to serious Western opposition. Even if it wins the war, however, NATO is ill-placed to achieve the still-fragile post-war success it enjoyed in Kosovo. With all of the political constraints that hobbled NATO in Kosovo still in place, and none of the conditions for success obviously present, President Obama is going to have to hope he gets very lucky. If you’re not willing to lead, hope is all you have.