Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

France Seizes Moment in Libya

| March 28, 2011

THE INTRIGUE surrounding President Obama's decision to start enforcing a no-fly zone in Libya — Did he switch sides? Is Hillary Clinton making amends for her husband's failure to act in Rwanda? Is Defense Secretary Robert Gates for or against it? — has become the latest obsession for media and political commentators. But in the end, to understand Libya, turn away from the Oval Office and look to the Palais de l’Elysee.

Start with French celebrity poet and philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, who, as the bombing began, declared: "I am in Libya." Though he spoke these words from Paris, it was a telling declaration. Neither a poet, nor terribly romantic about war, I have no idea what it actually means, but I do know that the evidence suggests Levy had reason to crow. It was he who introduced President Nicolas Sarkozy of France to the rebels in Benghazi, and it was after conversations with them that Sarkozy then formally recognized the Libyan opposition. That gesture in turn unleashed a fast-paced series of moves by both Libya and the international community resulting in this war. Or whatever you want to call it.

Sarkozy's enthusiasm for action rested not only on his interest in protecting Libyan protesters from slaughter at the hands of Moammar Khadafy. It also reflected his desire for complete regime change, and the rest of the world has been catching up ever since.

France has a strategic interest in what happens in Libya. Geography matters, and a Mediterranean crisis, which would impact European access to Libyan oil and gas, poses a tangible security threat to the French. Already coping with immigrants from other Mediterranean nations like Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, France was facing another wave of North African refugees.

For Sarkozy, the action in Libya also represents an opportunity to redeem his government's missteps in the revolution in Tunisia. Sarkozy, after all, recently fired his foreign minister because of allegations she was too close to Tunisia's deposed president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Most importantly, events in Libya represent a perfect moment to redefine France as the center of Europe. For years, France has competed with, and essentially lost to, Germany for attention of the European Union and its newer members. Central Europe, and not southern Europe, was where the real action resided and Sarkozy found it difficult to shift that orientation away from his main competitor.

In response, Sarkozy had essentially turned his back on old Europe and had spent much intellectual energy on a different union, the Mediterranean Union of states bordering the sea: Israel, Turkey, Southern Europe, and all of North Africa. The Mediterranean Union, a major feature of Sarkozy's 2007 presidential campaign, was convened in Paris in June 2008. Embraced by Arab countries and Israel, feared by Turkey who reluctantly agreed to participate despite concerns it was a ruse to keep it out of the European Union, and mocked by the rest of the European Union, Sarkozy's brainchild still serves to link more than 40 countries that have common geography, shared populations, and natural resources.

With France as the unstated leader, the Mediterranean Union is also animated by a hope to stabilize the region, improve it economically and thus slow the flow of illegal Arab immigration, and provide an alternative to extremism and terrorism. A modern and open Libya, brought to the world by France, would be a major step toward a new European center of gravity, mainly France.

France's aggressive interests in Libya are, of course, in tension with the United States' own more limited humanitarian interest, and the ongoing ambiguity about the goals of the military mission, let alone who is controlling it, is not made easier by Sarkozy's rather muscular persona.

Sarkozy, however, ultimately serves Obama's interest well, as the military effort shifts quickly away from America toward NATO and our allies. No one should be surprised that Obama has embraced humanitarian interventionism and the international duty to protect; he has been open about that since his early days as a senator. Obama also clearly knows that a third war in the Arab world is not the change he had hoped for.

Nothing proves this more than Obama's refusal to cancel his trip to South America. As the bombs began to fall on Libya, Sarkozy, on the other hand, boldly proclaimed: "France has decided to assume its role, its role before history."

"I am in Libya." Yes, President Sarkozy, we all are.

Juliette Kayyem, a guest columnist, is former homeland security adviser for Massachusetts and most recently served as assistant secretary at the US Department of Homeland Security.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Kayyem, Juliette.“France Seizes Moment in Libya.” The Boston Globe, March 28, 2011.

The Author

Juliette Kayyem