A war in the Middle East divides France and America – again
‘Leading from behind’. Originally coined by Obama’s critics to mock his tepid involvement in Libya, the phrase conveys growing frustration among its foreign allies that, in the third conflict it has started in the Middle East, America is not doing enough. Having fired many of the Tomahawk missiles that destroyed Gaddafi’s air defense on the outset of the conflict, the US then hastily transferred the command to NATO and, critic say, is now languishing in the back seat: its official support is now limited to a few drones, tanker aircrafts, and strategic advice.
By contrast, Nicolas Sarkozy, French president, is taking great pain to be the one ‘leading from the front’. France was the first country to recognize the National Transitional Council (the interim government formed by the rebels), the first fleet to fire a missile towards Gaddafi’s forces, and was adamant that the mission should be led by the coalition’s strongest members, not diluted under the banner of the Alliance. It is now the first country to parachute weapons and ammunitions to Libyan rebels.
Such a distribution of roles is ironic. In 2003, a rift over whether to wage war against Saddam Hussein similarly opposed France and the US. Yet George W. Bush, then American president, was the trigger-happy one, supportive of a go-it-alone campaign to dislodge the dictator; Jacques Chirac, French head of state, was the one defending multilateralism and warning that military intervention was not justified. A bitter diplomatic crisis polarized both visions. Not until Sarkozy’s arrival, and the historic reintegration of France to NATO in 2008, was a thaw in Franco-US relations officialized.
It is the same Sarkozy, dubbed in the White House as ‘the American’ when he arrived in office, who’s now scoffing at America’s contribution to the Libyan war. It is also the same Obama administration who awards Angela Merkel, not Nicolas Sarkozy, with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilan award bestowed in the US - a bit of an humiliation to the French as the German Chancellor was the fiercest opponent to war in Libya. Where did this transatlantic chill come from - and how come the two presidents switched sides?
An attractive, immediate explanation is the role played by domestic politics. Next year, in both countries, will be staged presidential elections. In France, Mr Sarkozy is struggling: deeply unpopular, he is criticized on all fronts, from his style of governance to his economic and social record. Crucially his management of the Arab spring, until the Libyan crisis, had proven particularly catastrophic, with his foreign minister forced to resign over alleged cosy relations with the Tunisian elite. Championing for the toughest stance against Gaddafi - and being the first to fight for the liberation of his people - seemed a tempting way out: it allowed to distract public opinion from domestic matters and turn the page on the dismal episode of the Tunisian crisis, while supporting a cause overwhelmingly popular in France.
Obviously war has no such appeal in the US. 10 years in Afghanistan and more than 6000 dead have made another intervention a rather hard sell to the general public, especially if its goals are as ill-defined as they are in Libya. In a context where tough negotiations oppose Democrats and Republicans over the sustainability of America’s debt, there is no appetite either for spending more billions of dollars in a military campaign that threatens to linger. Most importantly, the Americans are mainly concerned about jobs and gas prices at home, not about waging yet another crusade against a dictator in the Middle-East.
Does that mean that cold patch will thaw after the presidential elections? Well, even if the rhetoric and mood are not half as harsh as they were in 2003 - American menu offers no Freedom fries instead of French ones yet - there are reasons to believe the current clash is a symptom of a deepening transatlantic crisis.
First is a long-standing row over the unfair sharing of the security burden between NATO allies. Last month Robert Gates, former Secretary of Defense, spelled out what is a pervasive but seldom-stated rancour in the Pentagon: the view that many Europeans countries are free riders in the NATO contract. They enjoy the benefits of membership, but have no will to pay the price associated with the Alliance commitments. They even start to lack the capacity to carry out NATO’s missions abroad, due to their dwindling defence budgets. The slow progress in Libya serves as a painful of this fact: 3 months of a campaign limited to air strikes over a small, weak army are proving enough to stretch their forces thin. Yet Nicolas Sarkozy, in a furious response to Mr Gates, rejected such allegations as ‘irrelevant’ and ‘completely false’. Europeans, clearly, are not ready to buy in Washington’s demands.
Note that such complaints are not new - 30 years ago Brussels was already reprimanded by the US for its lack of investment in defence. Yet the financial crisis, putting more pressure on Europeans budgets, and the appointment of younger American leaders, who have not been formed by the experience of the Cold War, tend to harden position on both sides, and make the dispute ever more salient.
Second, and most importantly, are increasingly diverging strategic horizons for France and America. For Washington, the regional threats are in Yemen, Bahrein, Gaza; outside the regions the focus is on containing a resurgent Iran, dealing with a lunatic North Korea, and balancing an assertive China. France has its eyes on Europe’s neighbourhood - the Southern Mediterranean - or its African sphere of influence - Ivory Coast, Chad. These priorities are not incompatible, but with their resources under strain and less political apetite for humanitarian intervention cooperation will be less frequent. Both nations will prefer to got it alone (as France did in Ivory Coast) or may compete for NATO or UN mandates when multilateralism is needed. Occasionally they will find common ground, like when imposing sanctions on Syria, although this will often fall short of military intervention.
A rapid and happy end to the Libya campaign would probably heal a few bruises. Yet as the means and ambit for future cooperation slowly fades away, the French president painfully realizes that France might never become the ‘stronger friend and ally’ of Washington (words of Barack Obama)… the end of an American dream?