Libyans will determine whether Moammar Gadhafi’s reported death today ultimately marks a new, more hopeful beginning for their nation, or simply another milepost on the brutal road they’ve been traveling for four decades. Gadhafi’s demise is undoubtedly a gain for them and for the world. But will it be augmented by strides toward democracy and peace, or negated by the rise of a new strong man in his place?
Revolutions keep their own time, whether aided by outsiders or not. Iraq’s future is brighter today than before the American overthrow of Saddam, but there were many, many dark moments along the way. Just next door, and two and a half decades earlier, Iranians’ U.S.-aided rebellion against the shah led to a militant theocracy that puts them in increasing peril. In Egypt, many of us who were encouraged by the uprising in Tahrir Square this spring have been discouraged by events since then. Heck, even the greatest, most enlightened collection of founding fathers the world has seen needed four years after winning independence to create the Constitution that guides us today.
It will take time in Tripoli. Time, and the assistance of those Western nations that abetted the rebels’ ambitions.
The other great question today concerns those Western nations: America and our European allies. After NATO’s most — arguably, the first — successful, European-led military mission, where does the alliance go from here?
Unlike NATO’s previous foray outside the Continent, in Afghanistan, the Libyan operation was not a matter of acting in a member’s defense. It was an intervention of choice, like the ones in Bosnia and Kosovo before it. And, like those Balkan interventions, we learned that NATO requires American resolve. American hesitance in the early going likely prolonged the war by allowing Gadhafi to regroup and kill the rebels’ momentum. America’s eventual commitment, even while “leading from behind,” enabled the rebels to regain the initiative and win in the end.
The “from behind” bit, however, may have lasting impact. Our European allies opted to intervene, despite their economic uncertainty and relative government austerity, and they did most of the heavy-lifting (albeit with critical U.S. logistical support they could not have provided themselves). Clearly, they can bear more of the burden of their own defense.
That doesn’t mean the demise of NATO — although I do think it’s worth thinking through the implications of having a military alliance that defers to the U.N. Security Council and carries out only its wishes, even after NATO members apparently already had concluded it was in their interest to intervene in Libya.
What it does mean is a greater opportunity than ever for the United States to make clear that European members of the alliance have to hold up their end of the bargain. Not all of it: America will continue to play a crucial role in Europe’s defense for some time, if only due to the legacy of our larger military spending during the past 60 years. But much more of it.
This is something U.S. administrations, both Democratic and Republican, have been pushing in Brussels for years on end. It’s time.
– By Kyle Wingfield