France and the UK obtained most of the support from the US they were looking for in the intervention in Libya, but Europeans were divided and dependent on their ally.
Having been caught by surprise by the fall of the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes they had long supported, Europeans and Americans failed to agree on the proper course of action to adopt when Muammar Gaddafi suppressed the uprising in Libya. The situation became urgent in mid-March, when his forces threatened the insurgents in their stronghold in Benghazi. France and the UK advocated rapid military intervention to impose a “no-fly zone” and prevent a bloodbath of civilians, while Germany, Poland and other countries pushed back against it. Washington was reluctant at first, but British and French diplomacy was successful in persuading the administration, which was also reassured by the Arab League’s support for military intervention. On 17 March, the UNSC passed Resolution 1973, which authorised the use of all necessary means to protect civilians, with Germany abstaining alongside Brazil, China, India and Russia. This paved the way for military intervention, organised first around an ad hoc American command and then through NATO. France had pleaded with Washington to retain the ad hoc command, but most European countries, especially Italy, advocated putting the operation under NATO command.
In early April, Washington withdrew some of its forces from the operation and discontinued its ground strikes, as it had announced previously, in line with what a White House advisor was anonymously quoted as calling “leading from behind”. This led France and the UK to ask Washington in vain for greater military engagement as the intervention appeared to stall in May and June. In reality, however, the US kept providing critical support to Europeans throughout the operation in terms of targeting capacity, intelligence, jamming and air-to-air refuelling. Indeed, while the operation was largely initiated and led by Europeans, it highlighted their dependence on US support to conduct modern military operations. Given current defence budget cuts in most (but not all) EU member states, this dependence is unlikely to decrease and may even increase.