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Questions Over Control, Future of Libya Mission Split NATO Allies

March 22, 2011 at 5:57 PM EST
President Obama emphasized that the U.S. will not lead the Libya mission beyond its initial phase, but tensions have risen as questions over who will lead the military effort remain unanswered. Margaret Warner talks to the Council on Foreign Relations' Charles Kupchan and Daniel Dombey of the Financial Times about the rift.
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GWEN IFILL: And back to the Libya story: Who’s going to take charge if the U.S., as promised, steps back?

Margaret Warner has that.

MARGARET WARNER: President Obama has said from the outset the U.S. wants to hand over lead of the military operation within days, not weeks.

But figuring out who would assume control has proved contentious among the Europeans. Despite several heated NATO meetings, an agreement has been elusive.

To explain and explore all this, we’re joined by Charles Kupchan, director of European studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was on the National Security Council staff in the Clinton administration. And Daniel Dombey, a diplomatic correspondent for The Financial Times.

And welcome to you both. Let’s jump right into this.

And Daniel I will begin with you.

There were some conflicting signals today, Paris, London, the Obama team traveling, all saying — talking to this, about whether there’s any agreement on who will assume control or command. Where do things stand?

DANIEL DOMBEY, The Financial Times: Where things stand is that we have had a theological debate over the last two or three days. And they finally agreed — or they are almost agreed — that NATO can help command and control the operation, so NATO can help run the operation.

What’s left are just the minor details of who is going to command it, how they’re going to command it, and what the goals are. So, they have spent two or three days having a debate where the British and French seem to have been at loggerheads. The Turks have been angry. Now they finally agreed that to do a deal, just what remains is to actually work out what that deal is.

MARGARET WARNER: So you mean the really big questions haven’t been resolved?

DANIEL DOMBEY: Well, the deal will almost certainly involve NATO providing its command-and-control facilities to help coordinate this. The U.S. and the Brits have said that there isn’t really any alternative to the Americans, who don’t want to do this, and NATO, which can do this and wants to do this, in terms of coordinating the effort.

But what the French have said is that it sends exactly the wrong message for this to be a NATO mission. That might alienate Arab countries. And so, you have this idea that it is going to be NATO command-and-control, but not a NATO mission. That seems to make sense to diplomats.

And, of course, that kind of debate is the sort of thing that just adds to the whole long-running British-French tensions. And just wait until we discover whether it’s a British commander or a French commander. I think both Paris and London may have opinions about that.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, they may.

So, Charles Kupchan, what do you make of all this? And why is this important, this issue?

CHARLES KUPCHAN, former National Security Council official: Well, I think we’re in an unusual situation, which is that the United States got into this mission but doesn’t want to be in the lead.

And I think Obama has been saying, where are our partners? Why do we always hold the bag? Finally, the Europeans have actually stepped up to plate. And he’s saying, good. We want you to assume more of the burden.

But that means that the leadership that the U.S. provides and that the unity of command that comes with a NATO chapeau isn’t there yet and probably won’t be there, because the French are saying, to some extent legitimately, if this is a NATO mission, it’s going to be hard to get Qatar or the United Arab Emirates or the others, because of the image of putting their airplanes under the command of NATO, which doesn’t have the best of reputation in many parts of the Muslim world.

The issue is, are there ultimately going to be too many cooks in the kitchen? I think what Daniel said is right. NATO’s command-and-control assets will be key, in other words, the guys sitting behind the control panels, watching the radar, commanding the planes.

MARGARET WARNER: Which planes going in at what point, all of that.

CHARLES KUPCHAN: Right. That is going to be done by NATO. They know what they’re doing. They have the equipment. They have to do it.

But the question is who will actually be above them? Where will the political guidance come from? Where will the target selection come from? It looks like what will happen is that we’ll get some kind of ad hoc command structure consisting of perhaps as many of a — as a dozen of the countries that are — have skin in the game.

But that then raises the question, what if one says, well, I don’t like this? And we have already seen, in Bosnia, in Kosovo, and in Afghanistan, where those were NATO missions, it’s hard to get a consensus. What’s going to happen when we don’t have the NATO command at the top?

MARGARET WARNER: And, Daniel, back to you, isn’t — is there — if we talk about going forward, this mission, and once, let’s say, Libyan air defenses really are totally destroyed — and it’s clear, apparently, already that Libyans aren’t using their airspace — is there now agreement among the NATO partners about what the new mission would look like, or is there also some disagreement there about how far to go?

DANIEL DOMBEY: I think there are some real deep disagreements.

I mean, the problem is, is that you have got the USA and the U.K. and other countries saying that Gadhafi must go, but that isn’t part of the U.N. mission formally. The U.N. mission is to protect civilians. You might say the best way for the civilians to be protected is for Gadhafi to go, but that’s not what the U.N. resolution says.

And you have the possibility — it’s no more than a possibility, but it’s an important one — that this could go on for a long time, if Gadhafi stays in situ. I was speaking today to Adm. William Fallon, who was a former head of Central — U.S. Central Command. He help set up a no-fly zone in Iraq in 1991. And he said to me, “We had no idea that this would go for a decade, at staggering expense.”

MARGARET WARNER: And would you say that it’s very hard, then, to sustain some kind of loose, what, political committee that would run all of this, if it is sustained, Charles?

CHARLES KUPCHAN: I think a lot depends on what happens in the next few weeks. There’s a benign version, which is that this is largely a use of force against fixed assets. The no-fly zone goes in. The Gadhafi regime starts to crumble. Maybe he goes into exile, and we can sort of step back.

If that doesn’t happen, and the rebels start moving against the regime, and they expect NATO to be their air force, and we then have the choice of going beyond just civilian protection, but actually taking sides, that’s when I think the rubber will meet the road, and you will see some serious splits in the — in this coalition. We’re not there yet.

But I think that’s why it’s very important to make sure that you get the command and the unity of command right. Otherwise, two, three weeks down the road, it could be a mess.

MARGARET WARNER: But, Daniel Dombey, when we talk — it’s one thing to talk about unity of military command, but you’re talking about political control. That’s — that’s really where these differences will come into play, right?

DANIEL DOMBEY: Absolutely. And you also are seeing one of those fantastic multiheaded beasts that international diplomacy scorns and no one much likes.

So, you have got the French, for example, who have been very active in this, talking about setting up a parallel structure of foreign ministers from Arab countries, European countries, the U.S. and elsewhere to talk about the political goals of this, even as NATO is in charge of — or helps run the command-and-control.

And I hate to say it’s a recipe of confusion, but it sounds like a recipe of something of that order.

MARGARET WARNER: And enough to make any military man’s head spin, Charles Kupchan?

CHARLES KUPCHAN: Well, you know, I — the NATO structure, multinational operations are great because they provide legitimacy. They share the burdens.

The problem is they’re hard to run. We don’t have much choice, because this is a multinational operation. But I do think that this is not just showmanship but, then, ultimately, you have got to get the command structure right, because it will determine the outcome of the mission to a large extent.

MARGARET WARNER: Quick final question to you, Daniel. We have very little time. If the U.S. continues to participate in some fashion, who will be in charge of U.S. forces? Whose command will they be under?

DANIEL DOMBEY: Well, I hope that the people who have been involved, who have been Adm. Samuel Locklear, who is in charge in the communication ship in the Mediterranean Sea — he’s been — U.S. forces in Africa run by Gen. Carter Ham — those guys are going to be involved.

I think the U.S. would still want to be very involved in terms of its assets, but it doesn’t want to keep flying ships — sorry — it doesn’t want to keep flying planes. It doesn’t want to keep sailing ships in this way.

MARGARET WARNER: OK.

DANIEL DOMBEY: President Obama just said that he hopes this won’t be the case for much longer.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, and we have to leave it there.

Daniel Dombey and Charles Kupchan, thank you both.

DANIEL DOMBEY: Thank you.