Leading article: A victory that lays bare Nato's weakness


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Hailing the end of Colonel Gaddafi's rule, the Secretary General of Nato, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, praised the success of the military operation that was conducted under allied command.

He is entitled to a sense of satisfaction, as are the armed forces concerned. This was a complex mission; tens of thousands of sorties were flown; very few mistakes were made. The UN mandate, the protection of civilians, was by and large fulfilled.

The success of this operation is one thing, however, the state of the alliance is another, and it would be quite wrong to conclude that it is in excellent health. The truth is that Libya can be defined as a Nato mission only by skating over some highly inconvenient facts. Two key members of the alliance, Germany and Poland, declined to take part. The United States, whose outgoing Defence Secretary used his valedictory speech to upbraid European members for not pulling their weight, was described as "leading from the back". And while Washington's low profile may have had more to do with domestic war fatigue and the advancing election season than with any doubt about the objectives, it hardly suggested great esprit de corps.

The considerable technical and logistical support that the US did supply appeared to be given grudgingly and at a price. That it was needed at all, though, highlighted the gulf in spending and capability between the US and its European allies. What is more, crucial diplomatic cover was provided by the support, sometimes shaky, of the Arab League, with several Gulf states contributing planes. This could be described, positively, as an enhanced "coalition of the willing", but was it a genuine alliance enterprise at all?

If Nato members cannot agree to such a mission, all for one and one for all; if they have to hide the extent of their involvement from their public (the US), or rely disproportionately on Washington (Britain and France), then it is disingenuous to conclude that all is well. The Libya campaign, far from demonstrating Nato's abiding strength, rather exposed its manifold, and growing, weaknesses.

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