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Libyans perform the Friday noon prayer outdoors in Tripoli's Martyrs Square on October 21, 2011, one day after the killing of Moammar Gadhafi with Libya's leaders facing huge pressure to proclaim the country's liberation and move toward democracy.MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images

Quite a fig leaf to cover a seven-month air war involving hundreds of cruise missiles, thousands of air strikes and warplanes from Canada, Britain, France, Denmark, Norway, Italy and the United States.

UN Security Council Resolution 1973, approved last March, mandated only a "no-fly" zone and a mission to protect civilians.

Even at the bloody denouement, when rebel forces were dragging the wounded Moammar Gadhafi out of a drainage ditch after French warplanes unleashed a withering hail of cannon fire on the convoy of 75 vehicles fleeing Sirte, NATO was still trying to keep its fig leaf intact.

"These armed vehicles were leaving Sirte at high speed … they were carrying a substantial amount of weapons and ammunition, posing a significant threat to the local civilian population," NATO claimed, adding it had no clue that Colonel Gadhafi was involved.

NATO didn't speculate on just who else might have marshalled dozens of armoured SUVs to flee the dictator's birthplace and last stronghold.

Despite the contortionist effort to portray the bombing campaign as neutral, the reality is that without it the rebels would have been crushed. Without it, the bizarre and ruthless Col. Gadhafi would still be ruling Libya.

That Western warplanes (and a handful from the United Arab Emirates) tipped the military balance is beyond question.

More significantly, air power, coupled with Libyan boots on the ground, delivered a victory that didn't alienate the Libyan people or enrage Muslims worldwide. It amounted to the first successful outing for the Obama "behind-the-scenes" doctrine.

NATO's second air war – the first was in Kosovo in 1999, but then it had an explicit aim to force a Serb capitulation – demonstrated a powerful, albeit carefully calibrated, use of precision bombing.

Still there was an overriding need to maintain the political fiction: that NATO's warplanes – including Canada's CF-18 fighter-bombers – didn't spend seven months dropping thousands of bombs destroying Col. Gadhafi's military might or serving as the de facto air force for the ragtag rebels seeking to oust him.

Mr. Obama claimed a new sort of mission accomplished. "Without putting a single U.S. service member on the ground, we achieved our objectives," the President said. "We did exactly what we said we were going to do in Libya." And, he might have added; spent barely $1-billion.

Mr. Obama's deliberately low-profile strategy kept America's major military contribution out of the limelight while letting other NATO nations – including Canada – fly the majority of the strike missions. That kept the air war supporting the Libyan rebels from taking on the appearance of yet another American invasion of an oil-rich Muslim nation.

NATO is still struggling to find a post-Cold-War role. The alliance is riven by bitter splits over everything from defence spending to the Libyan war (Germany broke ranks and pulled its personnel even from jointly manned airborne command aircraft), and it remains uncertain whether it will emerge stronger from the conflict.

Fortunately for the alliance, a command brouhaha was averted. "Charlie" Bouchard, a Canadian air force three-star general highly respected in Washington for his tour as deputy NORAD commander, was already at NATO's southern command in Naples. Picking a Canadian combat commander avoided British-French bickering and made the Pentagon comfortable.

Ottawa sent six 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 strikes that obliterated Col. Gadhafi's heavy weapons and air defences were mostly out of sight. It was the 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 cruise missiles and satellite surveillance – all made a vital difference. But so did the absence of American soldiers patrolling among fearful locals or images of American warplanes catapulting from U.S. carriers.

In war, appearances matter 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.

More than a century ago, U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt made famous the saying: "Speak softly and carry a big stick." Updated, to add "but use it without fanfare," it could be the mantra of Mr. Obama's doctrine.