Viewpoint: How Libya Became a French and British War

  • Share
  • Read Later
Benoit Tessier / Reuters

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, right, greets British Prime Minister David Cameron at the Elysée Palace in Paris ahead of talks on Libya, March 19, 2011

As the military action against Libya to give teeth to U.N. Security Council resolution 1973 began, one question kept nagging away: Why, precisely, were the governments of Britain and France in the lead? Why were their armed forces taking part in the military action, and why had their diplomats done the grunt work in the negotiations that led to adoption of the resolution?

It is not an easy question to answer. British Prime Minister David Cameron said that the military action against Muammar Gaddafi was "necessary, it is legal and it is right." Right, "because I don't believe that we should stand aside while this dictator murders his own people." French President Sarkozy said, "If we intervene on the side of the Arab nations it is because of a universal conscience that cannot tolerate such crimes." I'm not one of those cynics who assumes that such statements are devoid of content; in any event, they are grounded in language that was already quite condemnatory of Libya in resolution 1973. But the rhetoric doesn't really answer the question: Why intervene?

Is what happens in Libya of direct national interest to Britain and France? To be sure, Libya is across the Mediterranean Sea from Europe, and its trade is directed mainly there. But Libya is a nation of only 6.5 million people. For comparison, that is a bit more than the population of El Salvador and a bit less than Honduras', and whatever happened in the Cold War, it's been a while since U.S. policymakers have argued that what goes on in Central American nations is of such pressing national interest to the U.S. that it would legitimize armed intervention there.

Libya has oil and gas, yes — but less than 2% of the world's oil reserves, while technology is about to make gas available in such abundance that it hardly matters which country has it. It's hard to make the case that there is some pressing commercial reason for Britain and France to take the lead in the way that they have done, which will not stop those who see oil companies behind every foreign military adventure doing so.

Immigration? Yes, instability in the Maghreb tends to produce flows of migrants north. And in the case of Libya, even if those fleeing the fighting go first to Italy, they can make their way eventually to other nations of the European Union. But it's pretty hard to imagine that there would be some unmanageable refugee crisis in North Africa if Muammar Gaddafi held on to power in Libya. The Mediterranean is a wide sea; it's not a border that you can just walk across.

History? Britain, despite its rapprochement with Gaddafi under the government of Tony Blair, has little reason to love or trust the Libyan leader — Libyan agents were responsible for the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland, and a London policewoman, Yvonne Fletcher, was shot dead from the Libyan embassy in 1984. But horrible though those crimes were, nobody is suggesting that their memory is a reason to go to war.

Getting back in people's good books? Sarkozy started off on the wrong side of the Arab Spring, his government staying cozily entwined with that of Tunisia when the street had turned against it. I've heard it suggested that he's taking the lead on Libya so as to recover France's reputation in the Arab world. If so, this is a mighty risky way of going about it: military intervention in Libya is not guaranteed to be a success, and nor is it uniformly popular among Arabs, even those who have been demonstrating for democracy around the region.

What about delusions of grandeur? There will be those who argue that France and Britain are behaving the way they are simply because they think their history entitles them to, because they want to show that they are still great powers. But assuming that Cameron and Sarkozy are rational decisionmakers (I do) that just doesn't fly. Both Britain and France are democracies. In neither of them is military adventurism popular with voters.

That leaves two factors that might go some way to explain the Franco-British policy. First, I suspect that there is a genuine belief in both governments that while the U.S. is still the world's balance wheel, the indispensable nation, it cannot do everything and should not be asked to — that the world is a more secure place if other democracies help the U.S. carry the diplomatic and military load of ensuring global stability. To be sure, such a policy can go disastrously wrong, as most British observers would say was true of their country's alliance with the U.S. in the Iraq war. But that does not mean that the principle is worthless.

Second, it would not surprise me if both governments — and that of the U.S. — came to a conclusion that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair elaborated on in an article in the Times of London and the Wall Street Journal. When faced with a crisis like that of Libya, Blair argued, "Inaction is a decision, a policy with consequences. The wish to keep out of it all is entirely understandable; but it is every bit as much of a decision as acting."

Britain, France, the U.S. and every nation under the sun could, I suppose, have said nothing at all when Gaddafi started turning on those demonstrating against his rule three weeks ago. But they did not. They condemned him out of hand. To have done nothing now, when it seemed as if Gaddafi was going to win Libya's civil war, would have been a decision in and of itself, and one, moreover, that would have exposed the weakness of those who had so recently called for him to go.

Looked at in that light, the decision to start military action in Libya — however wise or unwise that may turn out to be — starts at least to be comprehensible.