Friday, October 21, 2011

NATO's Record: Better Than Expected

There has been an emerging discussion on twitter about whether Qaddafi's death and the overthrow of his government counts as a NATO success.   Academics then have to ponder what success looks like--output, effects or outcomes (thanks, Stephanie C.).  Output would be things like air strikes.  Effects would be things broken.  Outcomes is where the game is at--and are related to the goals of the effort.
To cut to the chase, let's focus solely on immediate outcomes, with the long term up for grabs.  That is, we cannot say whether Libya will be a happy and stable place in one, five or ten years.  Besides, we need to be fair to the goals of the operation: protect civilians/regime change.

In that narrow formulation, NATO, by aiding the rebels, achieved its goal of changing the government of Libya and protecting many (not all of the citizens) from Qaddafi's threats.  And this would be NATO's fourth big win of the post-Cold War era:
  • NATO bombing (not UN) and IFOR/SFOR ended the Bosnian wars and kept the peace until NATO left (well, the US and Canada left), letting the EU take over.
  • NATO bombing (not UN blessed) and KFOR stopped the massacres of Kosovar Albanians and kept the peace since, with a few bumps along the way.  Now, we can ponder whether this was a good or bad thing, as the KLA and its successors did not have clean hands.  But the goal was to impose an agreement on Serbia.  Three months later: voila.
  • NATO intercedes quickly in a brewing conflict in Macedonia between Albanians and Macedonians, providing the military cover for a EU monitoring mission and some incentives for respecting the Ohrid accords.
  • NATO bombs Libyan targets in support of rebels, leading to regime change.
Two other NATO ops are not yet code-able: Afghanistan and piracy.  NATO may or may not fail in Afghanistan, depending on whether Afghanistan is at all ready in 2014 (not betting on it).  Of course, the four successes can be outweighed by a big failure in Afghanistan, but comparisons might suggest that NATO, although dysfunctional in a variety of ways, can still function enough to make a difference.  Indeed, NATO did make a big difference where other multilateral organizations have failed (UN, EC to be quite specific).  Piracy is going to be on of those "war on drugs" kind of things--hard to be successful at eliminating a form of behavior.

So, we can think about the similarities and differences among these apples and oranges.  Two were preventative--Macedonia and Libya.  In four of the five, NATO pretty clearly took sides--just not in Macedonia so much.  One involved serious counter-insurgency (Afghanistan), two involved supporting an insurgency (Kosovo, Libya), and two involved enforcing a peace agreement (Bosnia, Macedonia). The one with the most significant commitment in terms of $$, casualties and general willingness to engage in a ground campaign--Afghanistan--is, counter to our notions about resolve and commitment, least successful thus far.

Anyhow, NATO is 4 and 0 in its post-cold war missions with two missions yet to be decided, but even a 4-2 record will still be better than my media record of this week where both interviews paid little attention to the NATO-related script and asked questions about Libyan politics, of which I know bumpkus.


FelixTheCat said...

I'm just wondering whether this high success rate might stem from a selection bias on easy cases. Now, everyone who knows the history of your examples will be quick to point out that these were damn complicated operations which were (are) far from easy. That is probably true. But I'm just saying that NATO did not intervene in a random selection of all conflicts worldwide (which would include both "easy" and "hard" cases with the same probability) but rather intervened in very specific conflicts which could be - compared to other conflicts - defined as rather "easy" cases.

I can't come up with concrete criteria for "easy" and "hard" cases, but it seems to me that the two incomplete cases NATO is still involved in (Afghanistan and piracy) are also the hardest operations whereas the other ones were not soooo terribly difficult. They involved to a large part air campaigns and when they didn't the territory wasn't as vast as Afghanistan for example, also they were mostly UN blessed (except Kosovo). Compare that for example with PKOs in the DRC or Darfur, which are, I would argue, a lot more difficult conflicts.

I don't really know if that makes any sense, it's just a quick shot. It just seemed to me that when evaluating "success" one must always take into account the difficulty of the task.

Steve Saideman said...

Oh, there is absolutely selection at work: no Somalia, no Congo, no Darfur, no Syria. Still, with heaps of people criticizing NATO (including me), we need to remember that the organization does not entirely suck.

And the Kosovo/Libya model is a realistic one for the future--NATO provides the high tech and someone else serves as the grunts. I think that will be an enduring lesson of Afghanistan.