EU Summit On Libya Produces Tough Talk, But No Walk Against Gaddafi

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Reminiscent of Thursday’s meeting of NATO defense ministers, today’s summit of European Union leaders produced a largely symbolic collective statement demanding Muammar Gaddafi give up power and end the violence raging in Libya—but refrained from proposing anything to back that urging up with. But given the important advances of pro-Gaddafi forces in fighting since Thursday, it’s starting to look like Western states had either start finding ways fast to help turn back that tide back in the rebels’ favor—or (as Tony’s post yesterday warns) prepare themselves for a long, unhappy reunion with Gaddafi as the predominant force of an even more bloody and brutal Libya.

Friday’s Brussels gathering was never a good bet to produce drastic action. It opened in an atmosphere of division and vexation to begin with—making brave, bold initiatives remote. Several EU members—notably Germany, Italy, and Spain—were still clearly unhappy with French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s recognition of the Benghazi-based Libyan opposition leadership as the country’s legitimate government on Thursday—the first Western leader to do so. In doing that, Sarkozy called on his EU cohorts to join him in that embrace. But in addition to probably sharing many of the valid strategic objections about intervention, Sarkozy’s EU peers also appeared to resent his unilateral recognition of Gaddafi’s opposition as either a pre-summit maneuver aimed at forcing the entire bloc into to following his lead; or another sign from the head-strong Frenchman that—in a pinch—he’ll play solo if the rest of the team is lagging behind. That made for an unhappy squad in Brussels Friday.

“Europeans would do well if they talk about the measures they want to decide on in the meeting, and not the day before,” growled Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was described as having been “surprised” by Sarkozy’s solo diplomacy, while Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte bluntly characterized the initiative as a “crazy move”.

Given those atmospherics, the minimal agreement on how to further respond to events in Libya was the best anyone could have hoped for from this summit. And minimal is just what the world got. EU leaders were no more eager to tie themselves to the warring in Libya than NATO members were Thursday, when discussions about establishing a no-fly zone over the country basically kicked that can down the road. France and Britain are tabling a UN resolution to create such an aerial exclusion area over Libya to hamper Gaddafi’s ability to fight rebels, but that’s probably not likely to get any more of a standing ovation from China or Russia than it is from the U.S. and other EU members.

But in addition to the significant security concerns they harbor—a no-fly zone would require significant and dangerous commitment for an open-ended amount of time, and with uncertain efficiency in how much it could undermine Gaddafi’s fighting power to boot—NATO ministers also made it clear post-9/11 politics (and memories of the furies the Iraq war unleashed) were also chilling their enthusiasm for wading into the Libyan conflict. At the end of its Thursday summit, NATO said it would need to have clear and legal approval by he UN, Libya’s fellow Arab nations, and opposition officials in Libya before it could get directly involved. That’s a lot of very tricky conditions to fill in what has been a rapidly evolving crisis.

EU leaders were equally wary. There was virtually no appetite in Brussels for the Franco-British proposal to conduct limited strategic air strikes on Libyan ground targets Gaddafi may be relying on (ie. attacks that would presumably hit radar, communications, and military installations his forces need to battle rebels). And that hesitation goes beyond the circle of politicians and diplomats huddled in Brussels. When the air strike suggestion was initially revealed in Paris Thursday evening, pundits were quick to warn how supposedly surgical air strike have in the past have also claimed collateral human damage—victims who have not only sparked indignation and outcry around the world, but indeed created popular support for the very foes such intervention was intended to weaken.

There is, obviously, no easy choice in the current situation—though with Gaddafi now seriously digging in and pushing back, it may well be that deciding to do nothing effectively means deciding to stand by and see him to prevail. The final declaration in Brussels was essentially a rephrasing of the statement EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso gave reporters going in: “Regarding Libya, the problem has a name—Gaddafi—and he must go”. That’s evidently easier said than done.