Signs of Fatigue and Unease as Europe Struggles with Libyan and Syrian Crises

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Despite intensified NATO bombings and important gains made by the rebels who are fighting loyalists of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi on Tuesday, it seems increasingly clear that the clock is ticking on the international community’s involvement in Libya’s civil war — and that doubts about the outcomes of other Arab Spring uprisings are spreading in European capitals. Allies are not only divided over the best way to aid Libya’s opposition fighters; they’re wondering how long they can provide assistance to a ragtag ground offensive that is largely bogged down. Perhaps more troubling still, the difficulty of North African societies to quickly replace toppled authoritarian regimes is starting to weaken Western enthusiasm in what once seemed an irrepressible populist rejection of the Arab world’s dictatorships. Now doubts grow about whether all the blood, sweat and tears will ever amount to lasting, positive change.

Though political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic say their resolve to support the Libyan rebels with NATO-led air strikes has not waned, wider signals suggest that a significant degree of careful and contrasting rethinking is afoot among the partners. On the one hand, the kind of heavy bombing on Tuesday that targeted Gaddafi’s military assets in Tripoli and elsewhere in Libya — and which coincided with major gains by opposition fighters in western cities like Misratah — supports contentions by allied officials that progress is being made. But while those advances — coupled with evidence that Gaddafi’s reserves of money, arms and supplies may finally be running low — offer reasons for hope, some observers acknowledge that demonstrative gains will be needed soon to prove to concerned European publics that the current deadlock has been broken.

“The absence of body bags and daily death counts of Western soldiers reduces the risk that public-opinion support of the Libyan operation will suddenly give way to demands it be ended, but it’s also true that if significant progress isn’t made in the coming weeks, we could face a problem,” says one French diplomat who is following the situation closely. “We think Gaddafi’s forces are weakening, and rebel advances will enable a negotiated truce or force Gaddafi to flee before too long. And we hope that’s how it goes. We really don’t want to see the summer coming to an end and this thing still grinding on as 2012 looms on the horizon.”

Meanwhile, questions of how to aid the Libyan opposition is also splitting its international supporters. Although a summit in Rome last week of so-called contact group nations backing the Libyan opposition agreed in principle to free up funds to assist the struggle, getting finances flowing is proving more difficult and divisive than some had expected. Calls by rebels for Western nations to just hand over money from Gaddafi’s frozen accounts “simply isn’t legal,” the French diplomat says. Meanwhile, not all capitals recognize the Benghazi regime as Gaddafi’s legitimate successor, creating even more legal questions about handing Libyan government money abroad to rebels.

Elsewhere, partners are still at odds over whether to supply arms to the rebels — or how to ensure that providing funds won’t amount to the same thing. There’s also disagreement as to whether the U.N. mandate that the NATO operation is working under allows for regime change or not. Clashing positions like these — paired with the likelihood of the Libyan conflict becoming an open-ended slog — is also starting to color thinking about how to respond to other clashes in the Arab world. On Monday, for example, European Union members steered clear of adopting any truly muscular measures in response to the Bashar Assad regime’s bloody repression of pro-reform demonstrations in Syria. Instead, the E.U. agreed to impose an arms embargo and slap a travel ban and assets freeze on 13 Syrian officials.

“How can you intervene to stop the murderous efforts of one Arab regime to crush popular movements yet respond to another one with warnings: ‘Don’t you dare come here and try to spend your money’?” the French diplomat asks incredulously. “And the worst thing is, we’re not just seeing Europeans getting lazy and cynical in starting to change their earlier bets against authoritarian regimes in the face of popular revolt. Now we’re seeing them look at places like Tunisia and Egypt — where dictators have already been toppled by the people — and figuring we’ll probably wind up dealing with new authoritarian regimes once democracy fails to pan out. Just look at the difference with the way political leaders, commentators, the media and European publics reacted to the popular revolt in Tunisia and the current uprising in Syria. It’s night and day!”

That attitude, and the apparently waning commitment to Arab democratic movements, is evident elsewhere, the diplomat says. In contrast to its support of the European-American call for intervention in Libya, the “Arab League has been utterly silent in response to these other uprisings — apart from warning us not to interfere,” the French diplomat says. That’s yet another sign that doubts seem to be surging all around about just how willing Western countries that have long lectured emerging societies about embracing democracy are when the efforts to nurture that pluralism appears messier and more time consuming than expected. “In January, people were starting to wonder whether they may not watch a democratic domino effect across the entire Arab world,” the French diplomat says. “Now the question seems to be whether Western nations that struggled to react to those uprisings will prove more responsive in protecting and promoting the democratic ambitions that drove them.”