Should President Obama get credit for the overthrow of Libyan Dictator Muammar Gaddafi?
The victory over Gaddafi clearly belongs foremost to the Libyans themselves. The rebels were able to organize a ramshackle but effective military machine that fought and defeated the regime's regular army, as well as its special "regime protection" troops. So far the rebel victory is incomplete; the future of Libya is going to be messy, and probably will not result in anything Americans would recognize as democracy. But despite all the future dangers, the fall of Gaddafi's regime is something to be celebrated.
Much of the credit should also go to the world leader who, early on, decided to bet on the rebels: France's President Nicolas Sarkozy. After some prodding from the celebrity intellectual, Bernard Henri Levy, Sarkozy began to lobby the rest of the West, especially US President Barack Obama and a few Arab governments,against Gaddafi.
While there were some political reasons for Sarkozy's actions, including the need to make everyone, in Libya and elsewhere forget about the ill-considered 2008 arms sales to Libya, the French government's motives were less cynical than one might have come to expect, based on past performance from past regimes. This is to Sarkozy's credit, and may presage an enduring shift in France's overall foreign policy towards a less automatic anti-US and anti-NATO posture.
It was Sarkozy's decision in June to airdrop a massive supply of weapons, including especially the Milan wire-guided anti-tank missiles, for the Arab and Berber rebels in the Jebel Nefousa mountains south of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, that future military historians will probably see as the decisive move that broke the back of Gaddafi's military forces. France's traditionally intimate knowledge of Berber tribal politics may have been one of the reasons behind this move; also, the fact that French intelligence believed, correctly as it turned out, that, if well armed, the Berbers would prove formidable fighting men.
The decision to supply the Berber tribes and their Arab allies was made by France unilaterally, and probably against the advice of the US and the UK. Sarkozy's decision was a masterstroke. Forming a new and relatively effective fighting front south of the capital forced Gaddafi to split his already weakened forces, and created the preconditions for the successful August offensive that captured Tripoli and brought down the regime.
Bernard Henri Levy's pronouncement, "He [Sarkozy] did in Libya what Mitterrand failed to do in Bosnia," is one small sign of just how much things have changed in French foreign policy since Sarkozy was elected in 2007. The late French President Francois Mitterrand may have been a Socialist, but his foreign policy was almost pure De Gaulle in its insistence on trying to keep France positioned as the center of Europe. Most notably, Americans remember Mitterrand's 1986 attempt to protect Gaddafi by keeping American planes out of French airspace on their way to attack Tripoli in reprisal for Gaddafi's terror attack on US troops in West Berlin.
Diplomacy, "For over a century, France has been finding it difficult to accept the fact that the objective conditions for the pre-eminence Richelieu had brought it disappeared once national consolidation had been achieved in Europe. Much of the prickly style of its diplomacy has been due to attempts by its leaders to perpetuate its role as the center of European policy in an environment increasingly uncongenial to such aspirations." The effort to recover France's position as the most important country in Europe was at the core of Charles De Gaulle's foreign policy, and stayed at the heart of French geopolitical strategy from 1969 when De Gaulle stepped down until Sarkozy was elected in 2007.
This Gaullist policy was perfectly symbolized by France's 1970 decision to sell 101 Mirage V fighter bombers to Gaddafi's Libya. Some of these were transferred to Egypt during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and were the only non-Soviet aircraft that fought against Israel during that conflict. Similarly, France's supply of weapons to both Hafez al Assad's Syria and Saddam Hussein's Iraq was an important part of this political strategy.
Today the success of Sarkozy's and France's policy in Libya might be a sign that France could be ready to abandon its Gaullist "prickly style." By joining with the US and with Britain, France not only toppled a tyrant, but also got rid of someone responsible for the deaths of almost 200 mostly-French civilians when Libyan terrorists blew up a UTA DC-10 over Niger in 1989. This attack, similar to the one carried out against Pan Am 103 over Scotland in 1988, gave France a perfect motive to help the Libyan rebels against Gaddafi and his regime.
Success against Gaddafi may not be enough to secure Sarkozy's reelection. His poll numbers are far worse than those of any other Western leader. In one recent survey roughly 50% of Frenchmen said they would not vote for him under any circumstances. His job approval rating hovers consistently around 25%.
Sarkozy's style is erratic, manipulative and often consists of saying one thing while doing another. His economic policies are almost as Socialistic as those of his predecessors, but this has not earned him any gratitude from his left wing political opponents. In some ways, he is a French reincarnation of Franklin Roosevelt, who once said that he "Never let his right hand know what his left hand was doing." Sarkozy, though, unfortunately, lacks FDR's "First Class Personality," as his poll numbers appear to indicate.
Many of Sarkozy's political woes are certainly due to the effects of the worldwide recession rather than to his moves to reconcile France with America and to align France's foreign policy with both its limited capabilities and its broad Western geopolitical interests. For most of the French political elite, this change is profoundly disappointing. An article by Bastien Nivet in Le Monde on Augu st 22 bemoaned Europe's lack of ambition and general weakness, described as "Ashtonization" after Baroness Catherine Ashton, who supposedly embodies the EU's foreign and defense policy,the goal of which is to set the EU up as a new kind of transnational superpower. Nivet does not blame Baroness Ashton, but instead lays most of the blame for the EU's failure to bestride the world, as a new "Soft Power" colossus on Sarkozy's decision to fully reintegrate France into NATO.
Abandoning the goal of turning the French-led EU into a military superpower able stand up to America and act alone alone on the world stage was a cherished ambition of France's political class. Setting up the EU as a new global power, a so-called "Europe Puissance," or Europe Power, may never have been a realistic proposition, but it was well suited to France's self-image and the old Gaullist foreign policy consensus base on anti-Americanism and a network of pro-French African dictators.
If Sarkozy's France is n ow truly going to support democracy and reform in the Arab world and beyond, Sarkozy's represents a major shift in French policy away from the cynicism of Richelieu, De Gaulle and Mitterrand, that ruthlessly prolonged the bloody conflicts from the Thirty Years War in 17th century Germany, when Richelieu, as Kissinger pointed out in Diplomacy, "was determined to prolong the war until Central Europe was bled white." .
During the Biafra war in 1970s in Nigeria, De Gaulle and his government supported the rebels and kept thewar going in an attempt to cripple Central Africa's biggest English speaking nation, as described by De Gaulle's "Mr. Africa," Jacques Foccart, in an interview for the book Foccart Parle, published in 1997.
During the Post-Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, Mitterrand, who the Serbs as France's traditional allies, did his best to prevent NATO from interfering with the Serbian drive for regional supremacy.
Now France may be moving towards something more compatible with the ideals and interests of the rest of the West, which include worldwide democracy based on the rule of law, trade, economic progress, and most important of all, mutual defense.
This profound change may not survive Sarkozy's presidency, but for the moment it is a welcome development.