By Justyna Pawlak
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO allies may have succeeded in giving a military edge to a rebellion against Libya's Muammar Gaddafi but the operation exposed cracks in the Western alliance that will complicate its involvement in future conflicts.
There are few doubts the Western bombing campaign was instrumental in allowing Libyan rebels to defeat government forces and effectively seize power after more than four decades of Gaddafi's authoritarian rule.
But how it was put together through European and U.S. diplomacy shows Western powers may opt for going their separate ways in the future when it comes to "discretionary" military intervention that is conducted to protect civilians and not in self-defense.
Such a trend would put new strains on their already dwindling defense budgets at a time of deepening financial difficulties in Europe and may threaten NATO's ability to remain effective in the near future, some analysts say.
The operation in Libya, they argue, underscored a push by the United States to hand over the leadership of Western military interventions to their European partners when conflict flares up in Europe's immediate neighborhood.
It also highlighted, yet again, Europe's dependence on U.S. military capabilities -- even if they play only a supportive role to European efforts, as was the case in Libya.
"This is the first time that the United States said, essentially, 'over to you, Europe'," said Tomas Valasek, a defense analyst at the Center for European Reform.
"The Americans have made it clear for a long time that they want the Europeans to lead in operations when they take place near Europe. In Libya, for the first time, they acted upon it."
Britain and France -- Europe's two main military powers -- were carrying out most air strikes in Libya since U.S. President Barack Obama ordered U.S. forces to take a back seat early in the campaign.
The Americans, eager to extract themselves from wars in Muslim countries, still provided intelligence, logistical support and air-to-air refueling but not bombing.
"We should not count on this model changing any time soon," Valasek said. "I don't see on what grounds can Europe be expecting the Americans to be leading wars of discretion on Europe's territory."
PAYING FOR WAR
But for any division of labor between Europe and the United States to work, observers say, European allies may need to rethink defense budget cuts and start discussing how to match U.S. military capabilities, which now vastly outstrip Europe's.
They also run the risk of duplicating spending to match U.S. assets which they do not have and cannot access.
"Europe will have to develop close air-support aircraft and that will be at the expense of something else," said Francois Heisbourg, a French strategic analyst. "We will have more duplication of effort."
During the Libyan campaign, tempers flared frequently over the allies' willingness to pay. Disputes also emerged between European powers, highlighting the discord in Europe as it grapples with a debt crisis.
In June, French President Nicolas Sarkozy insisted Europe was "doing all the work" in Libya, after outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the conflict had exposed Europe's limitations and complained that Washington had to make up for shortages of munitions.
Britain also lashed out at European NATO allies for refusing to participate in the Libyan campaign.
From the start of the rebellion against Gaddafi, which quickly sparked a government offensive against civilians, France and Britain had pushed hard for intervention in Libya, persuading an initially skeptical Washington to back a U.N. resolution that paved the way for military intervention.
For Sarkozy, who faces a tough re-election battle next year, Libya was an opportunity to assert France's standing on the international stage.
Britain was eager to clean up its image, which had been tarnished by accusations of having worked too closely with Gaddafi's Libya for the benefit of its energy industry.
OTHER BUDGET WORRIES
But many European governments such as Germany, which is heavily involved in NATO operations in Afghanistan, stayed out of the Libya campaign or participated only in support -- but not bombing -- missions.
"A majority of NATO countries pointedly refused to be involved in Libya," said Heisbourg.
With armed combat in Libya likely in its final stage, experts say, the focus of European budget masters will quickly revert to policymaking aimed at improving the fiscal situation, making a serious review of military spending unlikely anytime soon.
"There's a risk that we make a conclusion here that, 'gee, it worked out, so NATO must be fine'," Kurt Volker, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, told BBC television on Wednesday.
"And I think that would be a dangerous conclusion to reach. I think that at several layers there are issues that we ought to be concerned about within the alliance. The issue of leadership, the issue of solidarity, the issue of capacities."
(Reporting by Justyna Pawlak; Editing by Matthew Jones)