Sarkozy Played Crucial Role In Catalyzing International Action at UN On Libya (3/18)     Print Email

As a U.S. Senator put it about the U.S. approach to Libya: “One test in foreign policy: at least be as bold as the French; unfortunately, we’re failing that test.” Part of a small Washington cohort of critics crying outrage about U.S. inaction, that jibe from Senator Lindsay Graham, a Republican on the Armed Services Committee, came on Wednesday. By the next day, the Obama administration had joined  France, Britain and some other EU countries,  together with the Arab League and the Organization of African Unity, in pushing for a no-fly zone. The potential resolution, when it finally materialized, included even more aggressive military measures against the Libyan regime, possibly including covert help to Libyan rebels on the ground. That emerging diplomatic front succeeded in obtaining approval from the UN Security Council, of a much stronger resolution on Libya than most diplomats even a few hours earlier believed possible.


In this sudden political surge, the initiative of France, with Britain at its side, seems to have provided diplomatic cover for Washington to international intervention in Libya. “Obama was able to position the U.S. as ‘joining’ an international coalition without having to proclaim that it was ‘leading’ it,’’ according to an adviser  to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The day after the resolution, President Obama pledged U.S. participation in enforcing the no-fly zone, certainly at least to providing battlefield intelligence from U.S. spy satellites and reconnaissance planes equipped for combat management against enemy helicopters and tanks.

The UN move, which resulted from French and British-led diplomacy aimed at forestalling a massacre in Libya, was hailed as a sudden sign of strength of purpose by Western governments that had seemed resigned to hand-wringing at the spectacle of Moammar Gaddafi’s forces, turning his regime’s full arsenal against civilian protesters, and threatening to massacre opponents in Benghazi, a city of one million inhabitants and the stronghold of anti-Gaddafi resistance.

Of course, this show of determination by the leading Western military power remains to be tested by events. Gaddafi immediately announced he was suspending military operations and calling for international fact-finders to inspect the situation in his country. But his move was seen as a delaying tactic aimed at stalling military action by the newly-fledged UN-blessed “coalition of the willing.” Promptly rejecting any “cease-fire” deal, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Friday said that the United States, Britain and France would push forward against Libya until they saw “actions on the ground.”  London said developments would be determined by events on the ground by Libyan government forces.

Questions about the future should not be permitted to obscure the fact that France, with help from Britain, deserves credit for taking the lead in calls for action against Libya, and helping round up the support in Africa and in the Arab world that ultimately led to the UN resolution authorizing countries to take “all necessary measures” to protect the people of Libya.

And President Nicolas Sarkozy has on this occasion followed his impulses and ambitions with enough strength to demonstrate successful global leadership in the name of France. The BBC’s chief European commentator immediately acknowledged the achievement: “There is no doubt that the French leader, with his renowned energy, was the key player in driving through the resolution… He was undeterred by a divided EU and palpably unenthusiastic Group of 8” – the leading industrial nations, including the U.S. Earlier in the week; that group had failed to reach any consensus at a ministerial meeting convened by France, which this year holds the rotating presidency of the G-20 and the G-8. The ultimate success of moves to get a strong UN resolution in New York is a success of the caliber that Sarkozy has clearly hoped to achieve as the G-20 head this year, months before he has to stand for re-election in France.

In this drive, Paris had a strong and useful ally in London, where Prime Minister David Cameron worked with Sarkozy in getting China and Russia to abstain from using their veto power in the Security Council, and in getting support from other Arab countries such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to promise to join any UN-sanctioned action.

The two European leaders also had to overcome opposition within the EU. Germany said it was strongly opposed to a no-fly zone or any other military action – a position that Chancellor Angela Merkel softened into an abstention and not a “no” vote in the Security Council when it became clear that there would be no veto from China.

It was French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé who went to New York to help push through the resolution drafted by three governments – France, Lebanon and Britain. His powers of persuasion echoed through his UN speech, in which he stressed themes along the lines of “we cannot allow these war dogs to continue to rage through Libya unopposed” and “we must not let international law be flouted”, and “the UN’s honor can be saved by action here.” (The dramatic diplomacy offered ironic echoes with another UN showdown in early 2003, when the then-French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, visited UN headquarters and vowed that Paris would veto any resolution backing any invasion of Iraq. That episode provoked a bitter vendetta by the Bush administration against Paris that failed to heal until France elected the pro-American Sarkozy as president.)

Mr. Juppé’s personal role seems to have been exemplary. An experienced former cabinet minister and minister of foreign affairs, he was only recently named to head the Quai d’Orsay foreign ministry – apparently after extracting a promise from President Sarkozy against too much presidential micro-management of French diplomacy. But that pledge seems to have been badly strained two weeks ago, when leaders of the Libyan resistance emerged from a meeting with Mr. Sarkozy with a promise of diplomatic recognition by France. This move, breaking ranks with EU diplomacy, reportedly rendered Mr. Juppé furious at the time. But he soldiered, warning the international community that time was running out for Europe to save itself from disgrace by standing by with its military arms folded, while Gaddafi remained free to subdue the city of Benghazi by a combination of bombs and starvation.

Meanwhile in Washington, some politicians were criticizing the Obama administration for inaction, noting that the White House had largely failed to act after it publicly pronounced Gaddafi as “illegitimate.” Even these U.S. critics, however, often noted that Libya should be “Europe’s problem in its own backyard.” (Here is an example of the mood among much of the American foreign-policy establishment calling on Europe to take care of its own backyard.libyas-neighbors-have-the-air-power-to-impose-no-fly-zone-themselves.  This challenge has apparently been picked up this time by France and Britain.)

In this climate of opinion (with polls showing Americans opposed to sending U.S. forces to Libya), the Obama administration took the position that international leadership on Libya needed to come from Europe and other Arab governments.

France and Britain ultimately delivered results on that initiative, and the Obama administration announced that the conditions were ripe for Washington to join the diplomatic coalition of some European and Arab countries. The timing also helped counter-balance a situation in which the U.S. has had to qualify its pubic support for democracy by shunning any strong reaction to repression of protest movements in Bahrain and Yemen – a restraint dictated by the need to mollify key U.S. regional allies such as Saudi Arabia.

The UN pledge on Libya is partly designed to help restore Western credibility among new political forces in an Arab world after some embarrassments, including revelations of French (and Italian) cronyism with newly-discredited regimes including Libya. France and the rest of the EU have been viewed as being too slow to support change in Tunisia and Egypt. This image was bound to worsen if Libya had been ignored. “There was a vacuum around this crisis until France and Britain took the lead, negotiated the support of the Arab League, brought on board the U.S. and then carried the day at the UN,’’ according to a Washington-based diplomat involved in the process.

-- European Affairs