By Wilder Bullard and Harris Mylonas
The ripples from the debates in the capitals of European powers concerning military intervention in an oil-producing Middle Eastern country run by an enigmatic dictator once thought to have a WMD program spread far. Accusations of military adventurism under the cloak of humanitarian intervention strain alliances. This could be a description of the relationship between the Bush administration and the United Kingdom on one side, and France and Germany in the 2002-03 buildup to the Iraq War.
But now the roles have changed. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates urged caution and limited goals and methods. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Foreign Minister Alain Juppe recognized the Libyan rebels as the legitimate government and flew the first sorties against targets in Libya before the allies could agree on a proper course of action. Only Germany has remained constant by effectively withdrawing from not only the campaign in Libya, but from its Mediterranean NATO presence. What has changed?
The drama of the Surge, followed by the new administration in Washington, made uncertain the possibility of another military intervention in the Middle East or elsewhere. In the US and in France, Obama and the new French President Sarkozy opposed the war in Iraq and sought to rebuild their alliance. Although Sarkozy changed the direction of France’s foreign policy during the Chirac years, Rumsfeld’s label of Old Europe remained.
Sarkozy pushed and received parliamentary support for France’s military mission in Afghanistan and, while holding the EU rotating presidency, spearheaded the effort to begin negotiations and a ceasefire for the Russia-Georgia War in 2008. France, from the opposition, began turning into a member of the “coalition,” leading up to a more aggressive role patrolling the Horn of Africa, conducting military operations in West Africa, and most recently in the Libyan and Ivory Coast interventions.
So what caused this change? New leadership in France, the United Kingdom and the United States? A spirit of multilateralism over unilateralism? Another period of UN activism, similar to the early 1990s — at least before the Somalia failure?
The legal explanation would be to assert that unlike the current campaign in Libya, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 had no direct and public support from the United Nations, the European Union, NATO, or the Arab League. However, while UN Security Council Resolution 1973 authorized a no-fly zone over Libya, France acted unilaterally, conducting offensive operations before the allies, both Atlantic and Middle Eastern, agreed to a course of action and the scope of operations. The public support of Arab states, absent in 2003, might have also added to the legitimacy of the French unilaterally beginning kinetic operations and recognizing the rebel leadership. The Tricolor can be seen waving in the streets of Benghazi.
But skeptics remain. Following a slow start getting in sync with the «Arab Spring,» Sarkozy’s charge in Libya comes from a desire to recover prestige lost in Egypt and Tunisia and hopes for his countrymen to rally around the flag during election season. A show of successful military intervention in the cause of humanitarian intervention can help in the polls. Still material determinists look to the oil refineries at Ras Lanuf or Brega and see an explanation there, but Ivory Coast is less of a clear-cut case.
While the true motivators for France’s “return” may remain unclear in perpetuity, a more assertive France has large implications for business-as-usual across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. When many European powers have contributed men and firepower to the mission in Libya, the European Union has been remarkably absent. When discussions of the Common Security and Defense Policy of the EU begin, the question «Where were you in Libya?» might be a difficult one to overcome.
Ironically, European states seem to take more action when the EU is not involved. Cathy Ashton, the bloc’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, was hardly central in the decision to intervene or the coordination of the multinational force. The unintended consequence of Sarkozy’s policy may be the erosion of the EU as a security policy-making institution. Until the crowds in places like Benghazi or Yamoussoukro cheer a flag with golden stars on a blue background, the Tricolor, the Union Jack, and the Stars and Stripes will continue to be the key players in international security.
Wilder Bullard is a research assistant at the Program on New Approaches to Research and Security in Eurasia and Harris Mylonas is an assistant professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University.