The U.S. military has spent about $1 billion so far and played a far larger role in Libya than it has acknowledged, quietly implementing an emerging “covert intervention” strategy that the Obama administration hopes will let America fight small wars with a barely detectable footprint.
Officially, President Obama handed the lead role of ousting Muammar Gaddafi to the European members of NATO. For this he was criticised by Washington war hawks who suggested that Europeans working with a ragtag team of Libyan rebels was a recipe for stalemate, not victory.
But behind the scenes, the U.S. military played an indispensable role in the Libya campaign, deploying far more forces than the administration chose to advertise. And at NATO headquarters outside Brussels, the U.S. was intimately involved in all decisions about how the Libyan rebels should be supported as they rolled up control of cities and oil refineries and marched toward the capital, Tripoli.
The Libya campaign was a unique international effort: 15 European nations working with the U.S. and three Arab nations. The air offensive was launched from 29 airbases in six European countries. But only six European nations joined with the U.S. and Canada to fly strikes against Gaddafi’s forces. The scale of the unpublicized U.S. role affirms hawks’ arguments: a divided NATO simply couldn’t have waged the war it did without extensive American help. What the hawks underestimated was the U.S. ability to operate without publicity—in military lingo, beneath the radar.