The “liberation of Libya” seems to have brought benefits for most of the participants – the Libyan people as a whole, NATO, President Barack Obama, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron and, very particularly, French President Nicholas Sarkozy.Missing from this list of winners is the European Union, which conspicuously failed to achieve unity on a common stance vis-à-vis Libya and even vis-à-vis NATO. Even without this official EU dimension on an agreed security policy to enforce a UN Security Council resolution, individual European allies showed their fighting mettle. Led by the EU’s defense locomotive of France and Britain, smaller EU countries “punched above their weight” in the air-to-ground war. Italy, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and even Sweden flew missions, Bulgaria and Romanian contributed naval assets. France and Britain added combat helicopters to the fight at a crucial point late in the air campaign. Politically, this common European front, even though it was informal and lacked an “EU” label, was significant in helping persuade Russia not to veto the Security Council resolution authorizing the Libyan war.
This shared approach has been vindicated by the military success of the campaign – an outcome that for the time being has stifled debate about the strategic wisdom of intervening in Libya. As often noted, success has many fathers but failure is an orphan. The only orphan from this campaign is the surviving supporters of ousted leader Moammar Qaddafi in Libya – and in Europe, Germany. German neutrality in the crisis has not triggered debate or even finger-pointing on the scale that might have been expected, especially because this time, in contrast to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Berlin had few friends – notably not France – joining it on the sidelines. Even if they are tempted to reproach Germany for failing to live up to its apparent obligations as an EU leader and member of NATO, Americans, French and other Europeans bite their tongues, at least in public: at this juncture, Europeans and Americans alike are desperately hoping that Chancellor Angela Merkel can persuade the German parliament and public opinion to shoulder bail-out funding for the euro.
In suspending judgment on Berlin’s behavior, the diplomatic talking points in Paris, Washington and other capitals have usually revolved around the theme that Germany will play its part in Libya when it comes time to stump up reconstruction funds: in reality, as French officials often note, Libyan reconstruction is expected to pay for itself thanks to the oil revenues accruing to this small Arab country, perhaps with some Western loans to kick-start the process. In other words, Libya on its small scale will actually work out financially the way that Washington so misguidedly expected to see Iraq become self-funding.
Given all these circumstances, it is no wonder that President Sarkozy has seized every opportunity to bask in the glory of the position he assumes regularly as the architect and prime mover in the war that ousted Gaddafi. It is a situation that offers Sarkozy much to savor. It positions him as a “winner” on the world stage for France – a title that is bound to bolster his domestic political fortunes as he heads into a difficult presidential re-election campaign next year. In contrast to President Obama’s desire to tell his American voters that he is trying to keep his country and soldiers out of conflict, France’s leader can count on French national pride at the sight of Paris playing a pivotal role in an international crisis involving high-intensity war. As an incidental benefit, Sarkozy personally can hope that his leadership over Libya will help eclipse his embarrassing old ties to Gaddafi (whose flamboyant state visit to Paris in 2009 included pitching his Bedouin tent in the guest house adjacent to the Elysee palace) and also offset French embarrassment about mishandling developments during the revolutions in Tunisia and then Egypt.
The narrative is now well known of how Sarkozy and his advisers took the quick decisions that drew the West into Libya. What may be more important for the future, however, is less this particular chain of events – which may or may not be a template for future cooperation – than the way in which Sarkozy succeeded in making his innate pragmatism into an effective approach to turning challenges into opportunities. With his flexibility, other major players – notably the U.S., NATO and key EU military partners – found a formula that worked for success in the Libyan campaign and transcended the perennial frictions between NATO and the EU that used to bedevil French geo-political ambitions. Smoothing this change, Sarkozy, in taking office, brought France back into NATO’s integrated military command and pledged that France would work more closely with the U.S. – a fresh start on broader military cooperation that served Paris well in this conflict. .
So how and what brought Sarkozy to play this role? Partly, of course, is that it is his temperament. Impetuous and ready to lunge for the limelight – as he did in his second year in office, when he rushed to Georgia as an international intermediary and peacemaker after the Russian incursion in 2007. Nowadays, while still not fully enshrined as a statesman on the scale he craves, Sarkozy has sought to burnish his credentials this year as the head of the G-20 and G-7 and as the leading European interlocutor with Merkel over the eurozone’s fate. (As formulated by a presidential aide, Paris partners with Berlin on the EU’s economic challenges, and Paris partners with London on defense and security matters.)
Even with his penchant for action, Sarkozy recognized that the Libyan venture was a high-risk decision for France and, even more so, for his personal political fortunes. He had been prepared for the gamble by conversations with advisers – including not only his own experienced foreign minister, Alain Juppe, but also from other veteran diplomats such as Hubert Vedrine – on the theme that France had fallen behind events during “the Arab spring” by failing to seize the opportunity of publicly breaking with a worn-out French diplomatic tradition of coddling Arab dictators such as Hosni Mubarak or Ben Ali in the name of an “Arab policy” that had lost any substance. Sarkozy, as a person, has instincts that made him eager to find a different footing for France in North Africa.
He knew there was a latent consensus in Paris in favor of intervention in the name of protecting civilian populations. France has the nightmarish memories of Bosnia and Rwanda. And France – in the person of Sakozy’s first foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner – has a claim to have invented the “responsibility to protect” people from their own dictators. As the threat of a Libyan massacre loomed, influential French opinion leaders who have in the past opposed liberal military interventionism abroad – Hubert Vedrine, the foreign minister of former Socialist President Francois Mitterrand or former Socialist Defense Minister Paul Quilès – were coming out in favor of action this time. As Foreign Minister Alain Juppe recalls, his generation was in government at the time of Rwanda and Srebrenica – events that he now says traumatized them at the time.
And, of course, one should not neglect the influence on him of Bernard Henri-Levy, the French intellectual who has often succeeded in making himself the political conscience of French leaders. Just as Henry-Levy managed to draw Mitterrand into the cockpit of Bosnia, he proved very persuasive in convincing Sarkozy that France could be the catalyst for successful intervention to topple Gaddafi – or at least head off a massacre in Libya and get credit for a major humanitarian action against barbarity. To his credit, Sarkozy had become convinced that the Arab spring was a historic watershed and that this transformative wave was not going to stop soon – that a generation of young Arabs was ready to sacrifice their lives for change. He understood that the old French (and Western) mantra -- “if we drop the dictators we are going to have the Islamists” had become irrelevant. And he concluded that the Libyan intervention offered a way to get back on the right side of history. In that, he was probably right.
He was definitely wrong in another respect – thinking that it would be a relatively easy operation from a military viewpoint. By the end of the conflict, French and British forces had been stretched to the edge of their capacities in fulfilling their limited roles as the spearhead in a campaign where the U.S. performed the strategic tasks beyond Europeans’ technology. To his credit, Sarkozy quickly realized that the operation was too big for Europe to handle alone and that the EU leaders would need help from the U.S., help that would only come in a NATO framework. Diplomatically, the politics of Washington meant that the Obama administration did not insist on the letter of existing arrangements (known as the “Berlin plus” agreement that would have made the European allies ask for U.S. logistical and intelligence help via NATO instead of getting the Obama administration to authorize quiet but full U.S. military support.
As has been widely reported, the campaign then unfolded with the French and British air forces flying most of the bombing sorties that destroyed Libyan targets. But they would not have been able to do so without the U.S. air action that destroyed Libyan air defenses. At every stage of the campaign, the U.S. delivered capabilities that barely exist in the E.U.: in-flight refueling; electronic warfare; satellite intelligence and battle management; attacks by armed Predator drones that were decisive at the end of the campaign. As the campaign wore on, the Europeans ran short of precision-guided missiles and even the “targeteers” needed in an operational headquarters to select prime enemy targets and then guide alliance fighter-bombers and drones onto them.
Even if the EU had the political will to carry out bigger military operations than the anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden, European nations – even nations such as France and Britain that were able to project military power across the Mediterranean from NATO bases in Italy – to not have military budgets to acquire and maintain such capabilities. In contingencies where the theater of operations was not conveniently close to a NATO nation’s home soil (as Libya was to Italy), the European allies would need more than the two aircraft carriers – one French and one Italian – that were operational in the Libyan campaign.
So what does Libya show about Western military cooperation in trying to control future conflicts even against minor rogue states? It shows that NATO without the U.S. cannot handle an expeditionary war even on the scale of Libya, which is conveniently located just across the Mediterranean from NATO airbases in Libya, enabling European fighter-bombers to reach their targets without having too rely too heavily on aircraft carriers. (This campaign had only a French and an Italian carrier.) Europe also faces shortages in precision-guided missiles that would make it hard to sustain a similar operation for a similar length of time. On the U.S. side, Barack Obama’s decision to “lead from behind” amounts to a warning about restrictions on readiness in Washington to take on military action in situations that do not involve American interests directly. With the Pentagon facing cuts (perhaps deep ones) in its budget, the words of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates have more meaning than the old refrain about the Europeans needing to do more to shoulder their fair share of the burden of collective defense. In a farewell speech earlier this year, Gates said that the U.S. has a “dwindling appetite” to serve as the heavyweight partner in the military order that has underpinned the transatlantic relationship since World War II and condemned planned European defense cuts, saying that Americans are tired of engaging in combat missions for those who “don’t want to share the risks and the costs.” U.S. officials have subsequently insisted that Gates was not announcing the demise of NATO but merely seeking to goad the Europeans into “smarter” use of their defense resources and better “pooling and sharing’ in their military planning.
Even when slightly recalibrated by U.S. officials to be a positive call to arms, Gates’ stinging speech rings as a real warning that the U.S. may no longer be prepared to take military action mainly to “save the alliance” from crises that centrally involve Europe and not the U.S. -- as it did in 1999 in Kosovo and now again in Libya.
Warnings about tightening constraints on U.S. support for NATO operations were reiterated by Gates’ successor, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Speaking ahead of an alliance ministerial meeting on Oct. 5 in Brussels, he exhorted the European allies to work together or lose the ability to undertake operations such as the recent successful one in Libya: “there are legitimate questions”, he said, “whether, if present trends continue, NATO will again be able to sustain the kind of operations that we have seen in Libya and Afghanistan without the United States taking on even more of the burden.”
Taken together, the situations on both sides of the Atlantic after this strange North African campaign seem to indicate that the longstanding terms of the old military relationship within the West between America and Europe have ended, buried in the Libyan sands. At the same time, the new pragmatism that prevails in Paris – and in Washington and London – seems to leave open as many doors as leaders can imagine. Whether or not anyone uses these openings, of course, is another question.
Alain Frachon, Senior Editor at Le Monde newspaper