Could The UN Resolution On Libya Signal Sarkozy’s Political Rebound?

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Though it took painfully long for the international community to mount its 11th hour intervention into what looked like a looming massacre in the Libya, it’s clear Thursday’s vote by the UN Security Council approving military action to halt fighting and protect civilians won’t signal the beginning to a swift end of the conflict (for all the reason Tony notes in his excellent post). And though French officials said Friday the first air strikes to halt the troops loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi could come “within hours”, it’s likely that—like the military outcome in Libya itself–the political fallout from the decision to intervene will be long in materializing in Western nations, too. And perhaps no leader has stakes riding as high in how that shapes up than French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has led the difficult effort of rallying other leaders to back his calls for action on Libya.

As noted last week when Sarkozy became the first (and still only) leader to acknowledge the Libyan opposition as the nation’s legitimate government, the Frenchman has reasons beyond humanitarian concerns and hopes of seeing a dictator give way to democracy for his activist stand. His long and oft-decried relationship with Gaddafi has repeatedly returned to haunt and embarrass him. And with Sarkozy’s popularity at historic lows at home—and his efforts to seduce extreme-right voters serving only to dramatically lift the electoral fortunes of National Front leader Marine Le Pen, and provoking howls even within his conservative majority—the Elysée has long looked to use the President’s effervescent and often productive action on the international stage to help lift his sagging domestic fortunes.

But there appears to be at very least as much genuine worry about the wider consequences for the world, North Africa, and in Libya of not intervening to stop Gaddafi’s counter-offensive as there are any less altruistic calculations in Sarkozy’s stand. And last night, Security Council members finally agreed with him—or at least decided not to block the collective action he’d long pushed for.

Perhaps it’s indeed because such a move is viewed by so many observers as both urgent and just that reaction to the vote in France is of a kind rarely seen in the past three years: one of general support and praise of the embattled Sarkozy. On Friday, backers and opponents alike saluted Sarkozy’s take-charge resolution on Libya, and hailed the return of a French diplomacy that had seemed asleep at the wheel since the wave of uprising began in the Arab word. Even pundits refusing to overtly congratulate the President for his push wound up indirectly applauding his efforts with their loud sighs of relieve that a looming blood bath appears to have been averted with Thursday’s vote. And, perhaps in recognition of France’s efforts to turn the formerly skeptical international tide on intervention, Paris now looks set to be the site of an EU-Arab League-African Union summit this weekend to discuss the situation in Libya. Unexpectedly, the Libyan crisis has indeed allow Sarkozy an opportunity to shine—and one he’ll doubtless not let slip it by unexploited.

U.S. President Barack Obama seems to have adopted the reverse strategy. While the White House’s lack of movement on Libya tended to provoke exasperation from European politicians and publics, there appears to have been more to the American position of holding back—and eventually falling in behind Sarkozy’s lead once he’d blazed a trail of action—than meets the eye. “The Americans knew they were late and that it was time to join the movement,” the daily le Figaro quotes a French diplomat saying following Thursday’s UN vote. “But they also worried about an Iraq scenario, and wanted to avoid taking a leadership position.”

But if that official appears understanding of the motives behind Obama’s evolution on Libya, there wasn’t the same sort of sympathy reserved for Germany’s continued hostility to intervention, and its decision to register that with an abstention Thursday alongside China, Russia, Brazil, India and others. “It’s an error that will carry an incredible political price,” the diplomat warns. With German Chancellor Angela Merkel experience her own brand of voter disapproval that Sarkozy faces in France, the manner that prediction pans out could have significant consequences for the leadership of the EU’s largest members.

Or not. The very opposite of that warning could come true if the intervention in Libya turns nightmarish–or simply becomes another open-ended slog—and vindicates the German position. However, seeking to predict the eventual domestic voter reaction to even dramatic foreign policy decisions may ultimately be futile anyway, some experts note.

“The Elysée has hoped  for a while now that having a large, active presence on the world stage would lift Sarkozy’s stature in the eyes of French voters—and it’s clear that any foreign policy achievement he can claim can only be positive for him,” notes French political analyst Nicole Bacharan. “But when the presidential elections roll around next year, international affairs will almost entirely fade from view. The re-elections of both Sarkozy and Obama will be decided by the economy and employment outlook.”

Perhaps, but until then, at least Sarkozy can say he stepped up as captain when Team International Community looked like it was going to fumble the Libyan ball away.