France Recognizes Libyan Opposition Government

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Props to French President Nicolas Sarkozy for becoming the first international leader to recognize the opposition battling Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi as the rightful representatives of their country. But should it have taken this long for someone to make such a no-brainer decision? And what’s taking Sarkozy’s peers so long in replicating the diplomatic effort to initiate a post-Gaddafi era? Do strategists think the Libyan despot may rally yet, then be really cranky with Western capitals that bet on his demise only to decide they’ll have to deal with him when he prevails?

Not likely. Let’s embrace the new Libya already.

Sarkozy formally recognized Libya’s Interim Governing Council as the country’s legitimate government following a meeting in Paris with leaders of the anti-Gaddafi National Libyan Council on Thursday. As part of that, the Elysée said it will be exchanging ambassadors with the new Benghazi-based regime, and urged European Union members to do the same—an echo of earlier calls by the European Parliament for members to recognize Libya’s opposition. The move by Paris comes as European states and NATO are discussing the possibility of creating a no-fly zone over Libya to hamper Gaddafi’s violent efforts to put down the rebellion. Earlier Thursday, Germany said it had frozen billions of dollars of Libyan assets to prevent them from being used by Gaddafi to buy arms for use in battling the popular uprising against his regime.

But those and other Western action clearly hostile to Gaddafi’s attempts to stay in power beg the question: why aren’t other leaders taking the same logical step further that Sarkozy has by recognizing a successor government to a Gaddafi regime they’re all conniving to undermine?

Apologists of fecklessness will yammer about European Union policy recognizing states, rather than governments—a technicality that still wouldn’t prevent individual members from following Sarkozy’s lead on their own. Despite that, some member states were actually exploiting the EU position as a nice fig leaf for their own calculating. Italy and Spain, for example, say they won’t alter their diplomatic ties to Libya until all EU countries agree upon a collective position. Not surprisingly, Spain and Italy have also previously aired alarm about being the most exposed to the waves of immigrants who’ve already sought to cross the Mediterranean to escape unrest in North Africa. That exodus could surge further if Gaddafi makes good on his blackmail to actually encourage flight by his citizens if governments in Europe turn on him.

For all intents and purposes, however, they already have. Virtually every capital in Europe has called on Gaddafi to relinquish power, flee into exile, go on vacation, or simply vanish. They’ve all also loudly decried the bloodshed and loss of life his counter-offensive against rebel advance has inflicted. Last month the UN Security Council passed sanctions targeting Gaddafi, including an embargo on arms to Libya and an asset freeze—moves today the EU said it was extending further. Given the clear international consensus and collective efforts to convince Gaddafi to give up power peacefully—or make it increasingly difficult for him to keep fighting—it’s astonishing no other leaders are stepping up to recognize the opposition leadership made up of Libyan ambassadors and government officials who defected from Gaddafi, and work with them as partners to restore order, security, and democracy.

While commendable, Sarkozy’s decision to take that step first does contain some ulterior motives. Given its colonial past in North Africa—and wide diplomatic and business influence in Arab nations generally—France’s inaction in the face of popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and beyond has left Paris looking particularly lame among the general fumbling by Western nations in responding to events. Being the first to officially recognize Gaddafi’s successors as other leaders waffle restores a bit of allure to the reputations of France and Sarkozy as take-charge players in international diplomacy.

Meanwhile, the move also helps Sarkozy toss out some seriously embarrassing Gaddafi skeletons rattling around in his closet. One of Sarkozy’s first moves after his 2007 election was to secure the release of five Bulgarian health workers who’d been jailed in Libya for almost eight years on trumped up charges of infecting over 400 children with HIV virus. It later came out that huge energy, infrastructure, and military contracts were signed between France and Libya in the margins of negotiations to free the Bulgarians. Still later in 2007–and also part of the prisoner release deal–Sarkozy played a central role in seeking to end Gaddafi’s status as an international pariah that involved him hosting the Libyan leader to a lavish—and soon notorious—five day state visit to Paris. That seemingly endless stay not only astounded pundits at how far the Elysée went to satisfy the Libyan’s wildly exotic desires, but also featured members of Sarkozy’s own cabinet chirping angrily about the indecency of France bowing down before a notorious butcher of his own people.

To a very large degree, then, Sarkozy’s embrace the Libyan opposition was the right and logical diplomatic reaction to events in Libya that doubled as the end of his own albatross-like status as Gaddafi’s best friend forever. Even without that cynical motivation, though, it’s difficult to see why it is Sarkozy’s international peers aren’t following the logic and justice of his decision to dump the Guide of the Revolution, and embrace the leaders of the revolt.