‘Freedom fries,’ served instead of French fries back in 2003, are no longer on the menu in Washington DC. French wine, out of fashion after Jacques Chirac refused to join our ‘coalition of the willing’ in Iraq, is no longer shunned. Au contraire. In one Washington restaurant last Saturday night, someone at my table raised a toast to the new leaders of the free world: ‘Vive la France!’ What else could we do? Our president was on his way to Brazil. Over in Old Europe, the President of France and his new best friend, the British Prime Minister, had just put themselves in charge of a new ‘coalition of the willing’ in Libya.
As I write, the ultimate goals and even the composition of this brand-new, ad hoc international grouping are still unclear. But the circumstances it reflects are perfectly clear. The United States of America is still prepared to join the rest of what we used to call ‘the West’ in policing the world, especially where the aims are entirely ‘humanitarian’ and no one will be sending ground troops. We’ll even lend you our logistics, communications and satellite data which are, quite frankly, a lot better than yours. But we aren’t in charge, at least in public. And we aren’t going to stick around very long either, and I hope you know it.
Contrary to what you may have read elsewhere, this ambivalence does not simply reflect the nature of our current president. For all I know, Barack Obama may very well be indecisive, pathologically pacifist and uncomfortable with American power. He might even subconsciously harbour anti-imperialist and anti-British sentiments, inherited from the Kenyan father he scarcely knew, as some bloggers (who obviously know him better than the rest of us) have declared. But if that is the case, then maybe a lot of Americans have Kenyan fathers they scarcely knew as well.
There are plenty of people in Washington who do want the Obama administration to stop Gaddafi. From the liberal interventionists — Bill Clinton, John Kerry — to the familiar voices on the right — John McCain, Joe Lieberman, Newt Gingrich — a small flock of writers and politicians did indeed urge him to intervene. But since the bombing campaign began, we haven’t heard a unified chorus of support for ‘our troops’, as we did following air strikes in Serbia, Afghanistan, and even Iraq. There have been no bipartisan cheers for the Commander in Chief either.
In fact, both political parties are deeply divided, and not in any predictable or obvious way. Some Democrats who supported the war in Iraq are now against the bombing of Libya and vice versa. The Republicans are all over the map. Richard Lugar, the top-ranking Republican on the Senate foreign relations committee — and the living embodiment of the words ‘moderate’ and ‘centrist’ — is openly sceptical. The Tea Partiers are loudly critical. John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, is sitting on the fence, torn between America’s ‘moral obligation’ to help the oppressed and what he’s called the president’s failure to ‘define for the American people, the Congress and our troops what the mission in Libya is’.
Perhaps because they suspect this ambivalence is shared by both the public and the military, the administration isn’t sounding much more enthusiastic. The president himself has been AWOL all week in South America, which is probably just as well: if he doesn’t say anything, everyone’s expectations will remain low. The Secretary of State has let it be known that she favoured intervention, but has nevertheless stated that the US ‘will not lead’. The defence secretary, who publicly complained about the hazards of no-fly zones just last week, has reassuringly declared that the United States will be handing military control of the mission over to Nato ‘in a matter of days’.
Which brings us to the heart of the problem: this isn’t a Nato mission — and if it becomes one, it will be over the angry protests of Germany, Turkey and a clutch of others. But although some have called this Libyan campaign a return to the Clinton era — a time when Americans enthusiastically led idealistic excursions into Bosnia and Somalia — this isn’t the 1990s either.
In fact, there is an earlier precedent here, one which might be more relevant. Think about it: America is in a grumpy, isolationist mood. France and Britain are waving their sabres. The European Union and Nato are, so far, nowhere to be seen — it’s as if they didn’t exist. In its essence, this is an Anglo-French mission, with a few others trailing along behind and some fluctuating but unreliable international support. The only precedent I can think of is… Suez. Or maybe the Crimean war.
Not many multilateral, European expedition forces have operated in recent decades, and it’s not going to be easy to make this one work. For years now, a large contingent of Europeans has complained about the clumsiness and pushiness of American global leadership. At the same time, an equally large contingent of Europeans have prevented the formation of an alternative. Years of diplomacy, debate and endless national referendums designed to create a European foreign policy mechanism culminated, a couple of years ago, in the selection of two little-known and anyway powerless figureheads as Europe’s ‘president’ and ‘foreign minister’. Attempts to launch even embryonic European defence forces have been stymied by lack of seriousness, lack of money, and a good dose of British scorn. Some people don’t want a European defence organisation inside the EU. Some don’t want one outside the EU. Nobody has seriously contemplated a real overhaul of Nato, or tried to imagine giving it a European arm.
As a result, neither Cameron, Sarkozy or anyone else yet has any plan for how the world — and the West — is going to operate without the clumsy and pushy yet forceful and enthusiastic American leadership which their predecessors have been grudgingly following since 1945. Nobody knows what a European military operation is supposedly to look like any more either, let alone an Anglo-French military operation. But we are about to find out: the opportunity to lead one has just been handed to the leaders of Britain and France, for the first time since 1956.
It is said that Napoleon, when asked what quality he most admired in generals, replied that there was only one: ‘Luck’. Maybe Cameron and Sarkozy (Napoleon’s true heir in so many ways) will get lucky, and Colonel Gaddafi’s forces will crumble as the Taleban’s once did, under the shock of a powerful bombing campaign. But if that doesn’t happen, the French and British leaders are about to be tested in unexpected ways. Can they make rapid military decisions together? Can they co-ordinate their diplomacy?
Most of all, can they keep this up without the active support of the Americans? President Obama has been very clear about his intentions. ‘It is not going to be our planes maintaining the no-fly zone,’ said Obama in El Salvador. ‘It is not going to be our ships that are going to be enforcing the arms embargo.’ If he sticks to that, there had better be some British planes and French ships to replace them. If not, this story, which is starting to sound like Suez, might end up like Suez too.