With the Fate of Libya in the Balance, Coalition Leaders Start to Squabble

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Just days ago, the U.N. Security Council passed a landmark resolution mandating intervention in Libya, backed by what seemed like tacit international consensus on the intolerable behavior of the Gaddafi regime. U.S., French and British aircraft commenced strikes on Libyan military positions, reversing the advance of pro-government forces on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. But as the initial excitement of the intervention recedes into fears of a bloody stalemate between the regime and the rebels, clear splits are emerging among this hastily cobbled together Coalition of the Willing over the direction of the international mission.

Washington, despite being responsible for roughly half of the aerial sorties over Libya, is so far taking the political backseat to administrations in London and Paris who don’t at all see eye to eye on how the campaign in Libya should be run. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron earlier insisted on NATO overseeing the war effort, but that move has been rebuffed by France — who, according to an article in the Financial Times, launched “the first attack without fully informing its allies” — as well as countries like Turkey, a NATO member with understandably deep reservations about Western intervention in the Middle East.

On Monday, NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, criticized both France for stymieing NATO’s role in the process as well as Germany for its meager involvement in the Libyan campaign. As a result, both the French and German delegates present left the meeting. In a bid to paper over the cracks, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe proposed on Tuesday “to create a political-steering operation that would unite the foreign ministers of the states involved as well as the Arab League.” But how such tenuous summitry can lead to a successful resolution of the Libyan crisis, one whose outcome still hangs on a knife edge (or a tank turret), remains utterly unclear.

The most interesting wrinkle in the current scenario seems to be the willfulness of the Sarkozy administration — the first European government to recognize the rebels as Libya’s rightful government. The FT reports:

“There are major tensions between the US-UK and the French,” said a western official, who added that Nato countries had been working for weeks to have the alliance assume effective command of the mission. “As we got closer and closer to closing the deal at Nato, France suddenly blocked everything, which confused us at first … But then it became clear – [French president Nicolas] Sarkozy wanted to announce strikes just as he was walking out of his meeting in Paris where he was leading the show.”

How to explain this need to “lead the show”? On one level, argues French political commentator Dominique Moisi, the challenge posed by Gaddafi’s counterrevolution has offered Sarkozy a perfect platform to assert a reinvigorated French foreign policy, sloughing off the years of encrusted skepticism about U.S. adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan in support of a truly legitimate Arab freedom struggle. Gaddafi, says Moisi is

a caricature of a despot, he personifies the type of odious adversary whom all democrats want to see defeated. His behavior has been abominable for decades – and not only towards his people. The terrorist attacks on Western targets that he ordered include not only the Pan Am tragedy in Lockerbie, Scotland, but also a French UTA plane blown up over Africa. And not only is [Gaddafi] truly bad, but Libya is comparatively small, and his forces appear relatively weak (this remains to be proven on the ground).

Aside from these personality factors, there is the regional context. Preventing Qaddafi from rebuilding the wall of fear that fell in Tunisia and Egypt is essential if the “Arab spring” is not to be succeeded by a new winter of discontent. What is now done in the sky over Libya – sanctioned by international law and, unlike in Iraq in 2003, with the ambivalent political support of the Arab League – is fundamental if the Arab revolutionaries are to take a positive view of the West.

Moreover, let it not be forgotten that France has history in North Africa — not necessarily the greatest history, what with its brutal and unsuccessful effort to cling on to Algeria, once considered an integral part of France, and its leaders’ patronizing insistence upon spreading la mission civilisatrice across North Africa well into the 20th century. But it could be argued that Sarkozy is eager to gin up the support of France’s significant population of people born in or ethnically from the Maghreb. It could also be argued — as Pierre Haski does in the Guardian — that Sarkozy is simply trying to boost his own hopelessly poor ratings at home with a swaggering performance overseas.

But the mission now seems already in a rut and, with a growing chorus of condemnation coming from rising world powers like Russia, China and South Africa, risks being seen as an endeavor less like that in Kosovo and more like the current struggles in Afghanistan and Iraq. These are quagmires no one wants — and one which even the most ineffectual steering committees must hope, for the time being, to avoid.