Ultimately, the Europeans are sleeping in the beds they made. They’ve been talking about an independent defense force for a couple decades; the French have been doing so since the mid-1960s, when, under President Charles de Gaulle, they dropped out of NATO’s military command and built their own nuclear deterrent, rejecting America’s protection. (One of de Gaulle’s top generals, Pierre Gallois, famously trained his dog to bark fiercely whenever anyone mentioned “les États-Unis.”) Yet they haven’t invested the money needed to support their strategic ambitions, knowing they can always fall back on the Americans in a pinch. I don’t think this is why Obama is limiting the U.S. mission in Libya, but one effect is that it sends a message: No, you can’t, not anymore, not for everything.
Will the European air forces (and the Arabs’ too) take up the slack? That may be decided this week at the ministers’ meetings in Qatar.
A bigger question is the one we started out with: What is NATO for, anyway? Why does it still exist? Is it a mere symbol, a fig leaf of multinational legitimacy that members can don when they take military action for their own interests? (Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that.) Or is it—might it, at some point, actually become—a genuine alliance of near-equals? That answer will be much longer in coming—though the current twists and turns may hasten its maturation or its rupture.