The speed with which the final decisions were taken about military intervention in Libya reflected an admirable sense of urgency. Essentially, there was a race to Benghazi. If the first air strikes had not taken place when they did, the forces of Muammar Gaddafi would have overrun the city. As the Prime Minister said, opening the Commons debate, the slaughter had already begun.
That necessary speed, however, meant that a number of very important decisions went by the board. They included something as basic as agreement on the command structure for the operation as a whole. And the cost of this omission has been increasingly, and embarrassingly, apparent. Not only has there been conspicuous confusion on the ultimate objective – beyond protecting civilians – but also doubts about who would take charge, once Washington relinquished overall command, as it was keen to do.
An agreement reached yesterday goes some way towards clearing this up. Nato will take over responsibility from the United States for enforcing the no-fly zone and the arms embargo, while Britain, France and the US will take decisions relating to targets on the ground. This division reflects Turkey's refusal to sign up to operations that would entail strikes on ground forces, and intense negotiations to define a mission acceptable to all 28 Nato allies. Germany had notably abstained in the UN Security Council vote on resolution 1973, which authorised military action, and the Arab League had subsequently expressed misgivings about how the no-fly zone had been interpreted.
Speaking in Brussels yesterday, David Cameron said that the handover from the US to Nato would be effected "seamlessly" in the coming days. In another move intended to consign discord to the past, the European Union is also to play a role, supplying humanitarian aid and military support.
All the efforts to forge a much-needed consensus after the fact, however, could not disguise the continuing lack of unanimity or the awkwardness of the new arrangements. Nato, without doubt, possesses the experience, expertise and capacity necessary to enforce the no-fly zone, but the Kosovo precedent suggests that agreement on identifying ground targets even between the US, Britain and France may not always be straightforward.
There are lessons here, beyond the obvious one: the need, ideally, to finalise the command and force arrangements before, rather than during, a military operation. The first is that the world may have to get used to dealing with a United States that does not seek to lead. In this, Barack Obama may be a one-off; his desire for rapprochement with Muslim countries may also be particular to him and to his time and place. If, though, we are looking at the end of an era of US intervention, Europe in particular may have to change, too.
The second concerns the UN. Key international groupings – the EU, Nato, the Arab League – were divided about military intervention in Libya. The UN Security Council resolution effectively overrode those divisions, but they complicated its implementation. If the UN had firepower of its own to call on, rather than just delegated peacekeepers, the passage from word to deed might have been simpler. The question of a UN military capacity deserves to be revived.Reuse content