Originally published in The Mark News
June 1, 2011
Whatever one’s opinion of the war in Libya, one thing is beyond debate: French president Nicolas Sarkozy is leading it. Every step of the way, from the decision to go into Libya in hopes of preventing a Bosnia-style bloodbath in Benghazi, to the escalating airstrikes on Tripoli, to the recent decision to deploy attack helicopters to strike Moammar Qaddafi’s entrenched forces, Sarkozy has been out in front. His American counterpart, on the other hand, has been “leading from behind,” in the oxymoronic phrase of an unnamed White House advisor.
This role reversal at the top of Western alliance is not particularly sitting well on either side of the Atlantic. When U.S. forces are involved, Americans want to be in the lead. (Perhaps that explains why an ABC News/Washington Post poll reveals that Americans disapprove of President Barack Obama’s handling of the Libya crisis 49-42 percent.) And when NATO is involved, Europeans want Washington to lead, albeit grudgingly sometimes. The examples abound. As the Cold War thawed and the West contemplated a response to Moscow’s new openness, Manfred Woerner, the late NATO secretary general, reminded President George H.W. Bush, “the United States should not expect others to deliver much. They are waiting for the Americans.” With Washington averting its gaze from the Balkan wars of the 1990s, Jacques Chirac (Sarkozy’s predecessor) mixed contempt with delight by concluding, “the position of leader of the free world is vacant”—a backhanded admission that the U.S. does indeed play a special leadership role in Europe and in the world.
When asked about Washington’s refusal to join France in deploying attack helicopters in Libya, French foreign minister Alain Juppe’s response was loaded with disappointment. “We regret that…We would be more efficient if they joined us.”
Likewise, when his British counterpart, William Hague, urged nations participating in the Libya intervention to “expand our efforts in NATO,” he was directing his message at Washington. “The United Kingdom in the last weeks supplied additional aircraft capable of striking ground targets that threaten the civilian population,” he said. “Of course, it would be welcome if other countries did the same.”
Only one country in NATO can supply the quality and quantity of assets—attack helos, gunships that can loiter and hit dug-in forces, precision-strike aircraft—needed to bring the Libya mission to a rapid conclusion. That is the United States.
Even so, Obama’s insistence on waging what the White House calls a “time-limited, scope-limited action” hasn’t deterred the French and British from pursuing their objectives in Libya. To be sure, that may be part of Obama’s calculus: “leading from behind” may be intended at forcing more balanced burden-sharing within NATO. Of course, U.S. reticence could also lead France and others to conclude that NATO and the U.S. need not be bothered with international problems like Libya—and that the EU is better suited for the job. Whether that development would be helpful, counterproductive or neither is a subject for another essay.
In any event, with or without Washington’s full-hearted commitment or full complement of military assets, Sarkozy and his “coalition of the willing” appear intent on pushing Qaddafi out of power—no matter how long it takes.
That phrase is used intentionally. It’s almost as if the United States and France have switched roles since the days when President George W. Bush built his “coalition of the willing.”
As Chirac, the Eurocentrist wary of both American power and America’s destabilizing freedom agenda in the Middle East, gave way to Sarkozy, the Atlanticist convinced that continuing to preserve the status quo would only worsen the disease, the French presidency suddenly adopted major elements of Bush’s post-9/11 doctrine. But then Bush—the president eager to use hard power to topple dictators and plant democracies, the with-us-or-against-us architect of a war waged without the blessing of France or the UN—gave way to Obama. And now, America’s professor-president committed to multilateral solutions and dubious of the West’s capacity to change the Middle East seems more comfortable with the soft-power sentiments of Chirac’s European Union than with his predecessor’s—or Sarkozy’s—hard-power solutions.
Libya is just one example of the strange switch.
In the Middle East, it pays to recall that Sarkozy is far more hawkish than Obama when it comes to Iran, warning that if peace-loving countries don’t close ranks, the consequence will be “an Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran.”
When evidence of a secret Iranian nuclear-fuel manufacturing plant came to light in September 2009, Sarkozy challenged Obama to get serious. Obliquely dismissing the young president’s “dream of a world without nuclear weapons,” Sarkozy reminded Obama that “we live in a real world, not a virtual world” He then detailed the growing dangers in the real world: “Since 2005, Iran has violated five Security Council resolutions…An offer of dialogue was made in 2005, an offer of dialogue was made in 2006, an offer of dialogue was made in 2007, an offer of dialogue was made in 2008, and another one was made in 2009…What did the international community gain from these offers of dialogue? Nothing. More enriched uranium, more centrifuges.”
Sarkozy finally concluded, “There comes a time when facts are stubborn and decisions must be made.”
As if to underline Sarkozy’s seriousness, France has opened air force and naval installations in Abu Dhabi, across from Iran. Sarkozy says the base “is a sign to all that France is participating in the stability of this region of the world.”
Indeed it is. Earlier this year, French forces were simultaneously engaged in three shooting wars—in Ivory Coast, Libya and Afghanistan.
France may no longer have the capacity to project power the way it once did—witness the laboured effort in Libya—but Sarkozy is trying to do his part. The United States should welcome and encourage this by contributing more to something that would have been unthinkable just five or 10 years ago: a French-led NATO mission.