Europe, not US, pushed for military force in Libya

England rallies support, France fires the first blow, in big change from past

By Angela Charlton
March 21, 2011 4:30AM (UTC)
main article image
In this photograph made available by the Ministry of Defence, the Royal Air Force VC10 and Tristar air-to-air refuelling aircraft, from RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, England, which supported overnight operations against targets in Libya, Saturday, March 19, 2011. They accompanied RAF Tornado GR4 fast jets from RAF Marham that struck Libyans air defences, in the longest strike mission since the Black Buck operations during the Falklands conflict. British Prime Minister Cameron said that launching a military action against Libya is "necessary, legal and right." Speaking after chairing an emergency meeting with senior government officials in his office in Downing Street, the leader said his thoughts are with British service personnel who are risking their lives to save others. (AP Photo/SAC Neil Chapman, MOD) EDITORIAL USE ONLY (AP)

America unleashed the heavier firepower, but Europe -- to the surprise of some -- was the driving force behind the assault on Libya's Moammar Gadhafi.

France, perhaps hoping to purge memories of a dictator-coddling past, fired the first strikes Saturday. Britain, still stinging from its release of the Libyan agent behind the Lockerbie plane bombing, cajoled other nations into joining.


And all 27 countries in the European Union insisted nine days ago that Gadhafi "must relinquish power immediately" -- unexpected, from a bloc often accused of being too slow and too soft. President Barack Obama, initially reticent, joined in the call and seemed happy to let Europe take the lead publicly.

The contrast with 2003 -- when France led global opposition to the war on Iraq -- shows how much has changed since then, and also how different things can be when the problem is on Europe's doorstep.

Europeans fear a flood of refugees, making them particularly sensitive to the possibility of a humanitarian disaster in North Africa.


But the reasons for Europe's anti-Gadhafi push are more complex than that, and may have as much to do with personalities as politics: The frenetic French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, eager for attention on the world stage and suffering in the polls at home; Britain's youthful prime minister, David Cameron, eager to deflect attention from tough austerity measures and score some foreign policy points.

It doesn't hurt that there is a grand ideological imperative that Europe can embrace: Alongside the oil interests in Libya, the Arab world is undergoing a massive convulsion fed by a desire for freedom -- a value modern Europe has always claimed to uphold.

Speaking Saturday as he announced the wide-reaching international agreement on military action, Sarkozy framed it as a decisive measure to support pro-democracy protesters.


"We have the duty to respond to this anguished appeal," he said. "The Arab people have chosen to liberate themselves from the servitude they have found themselves locked in for too long. These revolutions have made a huge hope grow in the heart of all those who share the values of democracy and human rights."

Sarkozy said the allies want to protect Libyans from "the murderous insanity of a regime that, in assassinating its own people, has lost all legitimacy."


The operation has its critics. The Arab League, which backed calls for a no-fly zone, said the day-old military operation has already gone too far. Russia, China and Venezuela are opposed. Germany supports it but won't join in.

Sarkozy's aggressive stance may be an effort to compensate for past mistakes. France has a history of cozy relations with autocrats in former colonies, and Sarkozy underestimated the power of protests in Tunisia that toppled the ruling regime in January.

This time, he was the first world leader to recognize the Libyan opposition governing council. He pushed hard and repeatedly for a no-fly zone, and helped get other EU and Arab countries to agree.


And in a trademark Sarkozy move, he summoned world leaders on less than 24 hours notice to Paris for a summit Saturday to announce the intervention.

"France has decided to assume its role, its role before history," he proclaimed, as French warplanes staged their first sorties.

France broke a half-century tradition when it fired the first airstrike on Libyan tanks Saturday. Francois Heisbourg, of the International Institute of Security Studies, said it was the first time since the Suez expedition in 1956 that "the initiative has come from the French."


France fired "the opening shot of a war, that's the strategic significance. We now know we have crossed the line," he said.

Britain has its own reasons to take the lead on punishing Gadhafi, whose regime has a history of anti-British hostility.

Gadhafi has accepted Libya's responsibility for the worst act of terrorism to have taken place on British soil: the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people, most of them Americans. And links between Libya and the Irish Republican Army go back to the 1970s, when Gadhafi first praised the group as allies in a struggle against Western imperialism.

Britain came under heavy criticism from American politicans after Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the only man convicted in the Lockerbie bombing, was released in 2009 from a Scottish prison on compassionate grounds. The government has strongly denied claims that al-Megrahi was freed to smooth an oil exploration deal with Libya.


Former Prime Minister Tony Blair, meanwhile, has been criticized for helping to rehabilitate Gadhafi's international status in exchange for lucrative deals.

Cameron, a relatively inexperienced politician, was championing no-fly zones two weeks ago, but he initially looked diplomatically isolated and naive as the U.S. and other allies rejected his muscular talk.

After Gadhafi's attacks on rebels worsened, international opinion turned, and Cameron's stance became a golden opportunity to boost his international profile and domestic popularity. This weekend he was lauded as a driving force in the international operation by the oft-critical British press and many lawmakers, including those in the opposition.

"He's riding on a wave, his image has been enormously enhanced. I'm not suggesting it's a piece of shameless self-promotion, but the cards just happened to haven fallen this way," said Oliver Miles, a former ambassador to Libya.


Public opinion is less hostile to European action here than it was in Iraq, and geography clearly plays a clear role.

Unlike Iraq, Libya is just a short boat ride away, just across the Mediterranean. The fear of refugees fleeing Gadhafi's offensives and landing on European shores is an immediate concern -- at a time when many Europeans are already fretting about growing numbers of Muslim immigrants.

But despite broad agreement among Western nations that military intervention was necessary, the allies -- who don't yet have a coordinated command post -- may differ on the goals of the operation.

U.S. officials have suggested that the goal is not necessarily to dislodge Gadhafi. Perhaps an end to the fighting would be enough, leaving Libya effectively divided between a rebel east and a Gadhafi-ruled west.


But Cameron and Sarkozy have repeatedly said Gadhafi's time is up. And given their rhetoric, his ouster may be the only way the assault's initiators can save face at a time when Europe wants to prove it can still walk tall on the global stage.


Sylvia Hui in London and Greg Keller in Paris contributed to this report.

Angela Charlton

MORE FROM Angela Charlton

Related Topics ------------------------------------------