Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Europe leads on Libya, but divisions persist

We are only in day four of the Libya War, but it doesn't seem to have taken long for confusion to settle in over where we go next and who is in charge. As the aerial bombardment tapers off and the skies clear into a no-fly zone over the Libyan desert, questions are now being asked that are not only causing disunity within the European Union but also between Europe and the United States.

"In most of the foreign policy issues we've talked about for decades, the US has been the lead player," conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks noted on PBS Newshour a few days ago. "Here we're clearly not the lead player, it's the UK and France and we're following along on the caboose. Now we feel like the UK often feels, as the secondary player. So the question is how much is the president really supporting this and how much is he being dragged along?"

So far the Obama administration has seemed disinterested in the Libya situation, and this wasn't helped by the fact that at the time military action was launched the US president was on a trip to South America and had to give comments on the war's launch from a shared podium in Brazil. Over the past few days US politicians haven't even made an effort to try to convince the American public that this war is in America's strategic interest.

On Sunday politicians from both parties openly acknowledged on the morning policy shows that Libya has little strategic importance for the United States, saying that the more worrying developments for the United States strategically are happening in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. But both parties said it was a moral imperative for the United States to participate in the UN-endorsed mission to prevent Colonel Gaddafi from committing atrocities against his own people. Such a massacre seemed immanent as his troops approached the rebel stronghold of Benghazi on Friday. Saturday's bombings put a stop to that.

But many are asking if this is too little too late. After all, the rebels seem to have lost momentum after a week of gains by Gaddafi's forces. If Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron had had their way the aerial attacks would have come a week ago, right at the height of the dizzying progress of the rebel forces. The Obama administration, on the other hand, was publicly against the idea of enforcing a no-fly zone, acknowledging that it was effectively a declaration of war. They seem to have changed their minds over the past week, but they are still being very cautious, emphasising that this is only a humanitarian mission to prevent massacres by Gaddafi's forces, but that the colonel himself is not being targeted. But meanwhile British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the BBC yesterday that Gaddafi might be targeted depending on the circumstances.

It is plain to see that it is the UK and France that are leading this exercise and the US that is following along, even though the US is providing the greatest amount of military might. Perhaps this is natural considering Libya is hugely strategically important to Europe but not very important to the US. 90% of Libyan oil and gas goes to Europe, and the country lies just 356 kilometres from the EU's coast. But at the same time it can't be said that it is 'Europe' or the EU that is leading the intervention in Libya, because there is serious disagreement between the member states over what course of action to take. Even the UK and France are divided over the role of NATO in the conflict.

Italy, the former colonial master of Libya in the early 20th century, has been deeply reluctant to support the no-fly zone. Because of its geographic proximity the use of its air bases is paramount to the effort. But Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's close political and economic ties to Gaddafi and fears of a mass exodus of refugees out of Libya have kept the country very cautious. Although Italy agreed on Saturday to allow Britain, France and the US to use its air bases, according to media reports they may now be changing their minds. No Italian planes have participated in the mission.

Germany has strongly opposed the war. They refused to vote in favour of the UN resolution authorising it. At a meeting of EU foreign ministers yesterday in Brussels German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said the country had "calculated the risks, and when we see that three days after this intervention began, the Arab League has already criticised this intervention, I think we see we had good reasons.” On Sunday Arab League Secretary General Amr Mussa seemed to suggest that the air strikes went beyond what was authorised by the UN resolution. This opened up all kinds of confusion because the Arab League's call for a no-fly zone a week ago was the deciding factor in getting UN authorisation for the war. Bulgaria has also vocally opposed the intervention, with Prime Minister Boyko Borisov calling it a misguided adventure driven by oil interests.

The EU states supporting the UK and France in the military effort are Belgium, Denmark, Greece and Spain. Sweden and Luxembourg have said they would contribute forces if the intervention becomes a NATO mission (which seems rather odd considering Sweden is not a member of NATO).

At their meeting in Brussels yesterday the EU foreign ministers could not agree on any common position on Libya except to increase sanctions against the country and extend a travel ban to 11 more people in Gadaffi's entourage. During the meeting a split reportedly emerged between Britain and France, with David Cameron wanting command over the allied forces to be transferred to NATO while Nicolas Sarkozy wants the mission to remain independent of the US-dominated military alliance. Sarkozy is concerned that involving NATO would alienate the Arab world because they are not members. Of course France has historically never liked NATO and withdrew its forces from the alliance in 1958. French forces only rejoined in 2009 under an initiative by Sarkozy, but it was with the aim of making NATO more EU-focused and less American-led. The French still see NATO as a US-controlled military force projecting American hegemony over Europe, so they think that involving it in this mission sends the wrong signal to the Arab world.

All of this of course reflects the huge sensitivities, both historical and modern, to a Western invasion of an Arab country. Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin referred to these historical sensitivities over the weekend when he said the UN resolution, from which Russia abstained, resembled a "medieval call to crusade, when someone would appeal to someone to go to a certain place and free someone else." Interestingly, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, often accused of being a Putin puppet, sharply criticised the remarks shortly afterward. But the distant memory of European crusades in the Middle East, as well as the century-old memory of European colonialism in North Africa, make this intervention awkward for Europeans.

America has more recent demons to deal with in this area. The Obama administration has likely been keeping this conflict at an arm's length because they don't want it to seem like a US-led military effort. With memories of the Iraq War still fresh in people's minds, they face a sceptical audience for a new Middle East adventure both in the arab world and at home. They have been keen to stress that this is a "humanitarian mission to enforce a UN resolution" at every available opportunity.

But with the US not wanting to have its name on this project, and the UK and France sharply divided about how to organise the command structure, the operation appears directionless and unclear. With the EU divided on foreign policy per usual and the US not wanting to get deeply involved, who's going to take charge here? Once again there will be many left asking, isn't this exactly the kind of situation that having the new EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was supposed to avoid? With Europe yet again sharply divided over a war in its backyard, it would appear very little has changed in this regard.


Anonymous said...

It seems like France wants the this to be led by an Anglo-French alliance, but the UK is having none of it. As usual, the Brits want to be led by the United States.

John Norris said...

No, "Anonymous". I think the difference is in the countries' different experiences. This actually goes back as far as the French defeat in World War 2 and Charles de Gaulle.

The UK has participated too often in modern US-led coalitions, and knows from bitter experience that when push comes to shove the US with the big guns will do what the US wishes.

Whatever verbiage there may be about our 'special relationship', there are no guarantees the US will take our advice, even when it has been obviously good. Just look at Bush and the mess his lot managed to create in Iraq. (In fairness, the 'Bliar' experience doesn't exactly inspire confidence among our European allies!)

France, on the other hand, has never been enthusiastic about such US-led coalitions and is only a reluctant member of NATO.

One consequence is that France is not a leading choice as an ally, but more important here is that the French actually lack real experience of how such an alliance works, for good or ill. Remember that in the 'cold war' the French actually bought short range nuclear systems that could not reach Eastern Europe, but only devastate Germany.

It is not a question of "As usual, the Brits _want_ to be led by the US" (my emphasis).

It is more a case of recognising that only the US has the full range of forces needed, because only they have been prepared to spend the vast amounts of money needed to buy all of them! In practice, if they have bought the toys, _they_ will want to decide whether and how to use them, however many stars someone else's general may have on his uniform.

Welcome to the real world, however depressing it may be!

Kallisti said...

"Sweden and Luxembourg have said they would contribute forces if the intervention becomes a NATO mission (which seems rather odd considering Sweden is not a member of NATO)."

I understand that the reasoning is that the government of Sweden doesn't want to get involved unless there is a clear command structure in which to a) discuss and define political parameters of the intervention, and b) implement the military operations.

Sweden is not a NATO-member, but a Partnership for peace-member, and performs international military exercises almost exclusively with NATO countries. In an actual combat scenario it is important to remember that Swedish military hardware is all NATO-configured, from missiles to fueling to radio links.