Victory was slow; eight months to topple a ruthless but rickety regime led by an unpredictable megalomaniac. Yet the Libyan conflict represents an air war that worked; a Western intervention in an Arab nation that didn’t alienate its people or enrage Muslims worldwide and the first successful outing for the Obama “behind-the-scenes” doctrine.
The air war – craftily billed as a no-fly zone for civilian protection so as to avoid Russian and Chinese vetoes at the UN Security Council – was, in reality, a British-French-Canadian-Italian bombing campaign where NATO warplanes became the de facto air force for Libyan rebels.
Libyan boots in the ground backed by NATO bombs and with America playing a vital – but low-profile – role defeated a brutal dictator and destroyed a repressive regime, all without a single Western casualty and only a single lost warplane.
And with three-star Canadian air force General Charles Bouchard already in charge of the NATO command tasked with carrying out the Libya mission, it avoided British-French bickering over leadership and made the Pentagon comfortable, as he was already highly respected in Washington for his tour as deputy NORAD commander.
Ottawa sent seven CF-18 fighter-bombers, a warship, several air-refuelling tankers and a couple of surveillance aircraft to the fray; the biggest Canadian Air Force commitment in decades.
The Libyan air war succeeded largely because the thousands of air strikes that obliterated Col. Gadhafi heavy weapons and air defences were mostly out-of-sight. It was the rag-tag, ill-trained but slowly-improving rebel “boots on the ground” that defined the conflict and kept it legitimate for Libyans and the wider Arab World.
Crucially, the U.S. role was almost discreet. Drones and tankers, barrages of cruises missiles and satellite surveillance; all made a vital war-fighting difference. But so did the absence of American soldiers patrolling among fearful locals or images of American warplanes catapulting from U.S. aircraft carriers.
Imagery matters as much as firepower. In Libya, it was Libyans who captured Col. Gadhafi, unlike the bitterly resented Americans who pulled Saddam Hussein from his hidey-hole in Iraq.
Despite the Western warplanes in the skies, the Libyan war remained essentially Libyan, not a foreign invasion.
No two wars are the same and the lessons learned from Libya will have only limited application. But for the sole remaining superpower – America – and the world’s biggest military alliance – NATO – there are important lessons.
More than a century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt made famous the West African proverb: ``Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Updated, to add, “but use it without fanfare,” and it could be the mantra the Obama doctrine.
There were evident strains within NATO. Most of the 28 nations wanted no part of a shooting war, and Germany broke ranks, pulling its personnel out of joint NATO command and control aircraft. Still, the alliance showed it has some post-Cold War value. That some nations ran out of bombs and needed refills from Washington reflects long-standing imbalance within the alliance, but success may rejuvenate NATO, just as stalemate and failure in Afghanistan weakened it.
Libya’s future remains in doubt. In the heady euphoria of toppled dictators, wars often look better than in the harsher light of hard reflection several years down the road. But if Libyans manage to create a civil state out of the wreckage of four decades of ruthless tyranny and a rich land raped by Col. Gadhafi and his acolytes, then the months that ticked off so slowly will seem a lightning strike of measured violence.
General Bouchard, the Canadian in charge of the NATO operation, said last June that he personally signed-off on every target. The near-complete absence of civilian “collateral” casualties – even as the regime sought to sully NATO’s war with unproven claims – stands as a testament to the care possible with modern, precision-guided air strikes and the general’s caution.