War Powers

NATO’s Role in Libya was a Joke [UPDATED]

By Jack Goldsmith
Sunday, April 15, 2012, 2:42 PM

An important predicate for the legal and political justification for the U.S. role in the Libya intervention was that the United States, following the initial air attacks in March 2011, would transfer responsibility for operations in Libya to NATO and thereafter play only a secondary, supportive role.  This point was emphasized by President Obama in his March 21, 2012 letter to Congress on Libya and in his March 28 speech; in the April 1, 2011 OLC opinion in support of the legality of the Libya intervention; and in Harold Koh’s June 28, 2011 testimony on the War Powers Resolution.

In this morning’s NYT, Eric Schmitt analyzes a confidential (and apparently still publicly unavailable) NATO report that is critical of NATO’s performance in the Libya campaign.  The thrust of the report is that NATO structures and supplies were hugely inadequate and NATO relied heavily on the “significant support” of the United States for every aspect of its operations.  There will be much to chew on once the report is released (if it is released).  But what interested me most in Schmitt’s story is this sentence: “the United States has emerged ‘by default’ as the NATO specialist in providing precision-guided munitions — which made up virtually all of the 7,700 bombs and missiles dropped or fired on Libya — and a vast majority of specialized aircraft that conduct aerial intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, or I.S.R. in military parlance” (emphasis added).

Virtually all of the bombs dropped on Libya were U.S. munitions?  Who knew?

Previous reports have made clear that (a) the United States provided the vast majority of intelligence and refueling operations in support of the air missions in Libya, (b) U.S. drones and other U.S. warplanes frequently fired on Libyan Air Defenses and Libyan forces even after the formal handover of authority to NATO, and (c) during the Libya intervention, NATO was under the command of  U.S. Navy Admiral James G. Stavridis, who is both the Commander of European Command and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander.  Schmitt’s story adds that even when U.S. forces were not pulling the trigger, NATO planes were dropping U.S. precision bombs over Libya after U.S. forces had destroyed Libyan air defenses.

In light of the new NATO report and everything else we know, the much-vaunted transfer of authority for the Libya operation from the United States to NATO seems more than ever like a shell game.

UPDATE: A reader sends a link to this April 2011 WP story noting that “NATO is running short of precision bombs,” and adding: “European arsenals of laser-guided bombs, the NATO weapon of choice in the Libyan campaign, have been quickly depleted . . . .  Although the United States has significant stockpiles, its munitions do not fit on the British- and French-made planes that have flown the bulk of the missions. “  I do not know how to square the WP’s claim that U.S. precision munitions do not fit on British and French planes with the NYT’s claim that U.S. precision munitions “made up virtually all of the 7,700 bombs and missiles dropped or fired on Libya.”  If anyone can reconcile these claims, please let me know.