French President Nicolas Sarkozy derided the low U.S. profile in the international campaign in Libya, saying Friday that France and Britain are carrying most of the burden and will stay until Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi leaves.
While other European leaders pushed Friday for some kind of political solution in Libya, the French leader strongly defended the NATO-led military operation — and NATO itself. He refuted comments by U.S. Defense Minister Robert Gates that the alliance’s future could be in doubt because of European reluctance to exercise military might.
“I wouldn’t say that the bulk of the work in Libya is being done by our American friends,” Sarkozy told reporters in Brussels at a European Union summit. “The French and English and their allies are doing the work.”
The United States has insisted on a backseat role in Libya. It led the initial coalition airstrikes in March, but in April withdrew U.S. forces from the direct combat role, limiting them to battlefield surveillance, aerial tanking and other support roles.
Seven NATO members are now participating in air strikes: Britain, France, Belgium, Canada, Norway, Denmark and Italy. But, as Gates said, most of NATO’s 28 members, including Germany, have refused to join the strike mission in Libya.
Sarkozy wouldn’t give a timeline for an eventual end to the 3-month-old air campaign, saying that would play into Gadhafi’s hands and “I don’t think that would be constructive.”
“Things are progressing. I would have liked them to progress more quickly, but they are progressing,” he said. “We must continue until Mr. Gadhafi leaves.”
There has been mounting frustration in European capitals over the rising costs of NATO’s military campaign at a time of severe financial austerity, and over the alliance’s failure to deal a knockout blow to Gadhafi’s forces, despite an overwhelming advantage in firepower.
After Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron briefed the other EU leaders on the Libya campaign, other EU leaders were keen to stress political solutions.
“(Our) nations have saved thousands and thousands of people and saved from destruction cities and villages. We expect that it will all end soon and we are pushing for political mediation which will deliver a final solution,” Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said in Brussels.
EU President Herman Van Rompuy said, “We will keep up the military pressure as long as Gadhafi stays. We are also preparing with international partners the post-Gadhafi democratic transition.”
The European Union has repeatedly condemned Gadhafi’s government, saying there can be no impunity for crimes against humanity and urging his followers to distance themselves from such crimes. The bloc has also imposed sanctions on Libyan leaders and frozen the assets of government companies.
The war has sparked accusations that EU nations participating in NATO’s aerial onslaught — Britain, France, Belgium, Italy, and Denmark — have overstepped the U.N. resolution, which authorized only the protection of Libyan civilians, the imposition of an arms embargo and the setting up of a no-fly zone.
The U.S. defense secretary, in his comments earlier this month, said not enough NATO members are pitching in and that the Libya campaign illustrates his concerns about Europe’s lack of appetite for defense.
Sarkozy called Gates’ comments “unfair,” “not very nice,” and the result of “a bit of bitterness.” Gates “is about to retire, and visibly that didn’t make him happy.”