Libyan attack: Who's in charge?


Italian Eurofighter jets prepare to land on March 23, 2011 at Trapani-Birgi airbase in Sicily.


Alberto Pizzoli

BRUSSELS, Belgium — Nations conducting air raids over Libya have turned into a coalition of the unwilling when it comes to taking command of the military operation. Now diplomatic efforts are intensifying to overcome divisions that have kept the United States from turning the mission over to NATO.

The United States has been in charge of the mission by default and has been coordinating the air and missile attacks on Muammar Gaddafi’s forces since they began on Saturday. But Washington is increasing anxious for somebody else to take over not least to deflect criticism in the Arab world that the campaign is another U.S. military engagement against a Muslim nation, in the wake of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

U.S. President Barack Obama has been working the phones to persuade European allies that NATO should assume command, but the alliance is deeply split, with Germany, Turkey and France all uncomfortable with the prospect of NATO taking over.

Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sought to build ties with Arab nations and has criticized the air campaign for putting civilian lives at risk.

“Turkey will never be on the side that points weapons at the Libyan people,” he said in a speech Tuesday. “In the past we’ve seen this kind of operation did not bring benefits.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is wary of a public backlash ahead of upcoming state elections and has opposed air strikes to avoid upsetting Germany’s deep-rooted post-World War II pacifism. On Tuesday she ordered German planes and warships in the Mediterranean to pull out of NATO patrols after the alliance agreed to enforce the arms embargo on Libya.

In contrast, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been bullish in demanding action against Gaddafi and was quick to send French warplanes into action over Libya. However, he has stated publicly that putting a NATO flag on the operation risks alienating Muslim opinion given that the Western alliance is already deeply engaged in Afghanistan.

Behind that reticence is France’s traditional aversion to operating under the command of an alliance perceived in Paris as dominated by the United States. NATO-skepticism dating back to the days of Gen. Charles De Gaulle remains widespread among the French political class, despite Sarkozy’s recent efforts to draw closer to the alliance.

Paris would prefer that the European Union take charge of the military operation against Libya, but the EU’s defense structures are dwarfed by NATO’s command and control networks and the EU lacks experience in dealing with such large-scale military operations involving aircraft from the United States, Canada and other non-EU nations.

Britain, the other key European military power alongside France, also opposes EU control. Senior members of the Conservative-led government in London, including the foreign and defense ministers, view the development of any kind of EU defense arm as a French-led plot to undermine NATO unity.

“The problem for the EU is that it doesn’t have the command structures that NATO has,” said Daniel Keohane, analyst at the European Institute for Security Studies in Paris. “The Brits have obviously emphasized that they would like to do it through NATO, I don’t think they would be very comfortable doing it through the EU.”

The British are not alone. Italy has warned that it will reconsider its decision to allow coalition forces to use its strategic southern airbases for the raids on Libya unless NATO takes control of the mission.

After Obama spoke to Sarkozy and Erdogan on Tuesday there were signs of movement. Obama said he had “absolutely no doubt” that control could be handed to other allies.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said the coalition could use NATO “planning and intervention capabilities” while still insisting the campaign would not become a NATO operation. Juppe said a political steering committee involving ministries from participating nations would be set up to oversee the military operations. 

Diplomats in Brussels said that could allow for a phased NATO takeover of the no-fly zone after the more difficult and controversial phase of taking out Gaddafi’s air defenses and command structure is completed by forces under the U.S. lead.