By William Pfaff
MUNICH—Events surrounding the military intervention in Libya these last two weeks, and what already has happened in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain, and what continues elsewhere in the region, have produced two unplanned but important results.
The always-implausible notion that the European Union could have a common foreign policy has been exploded. Since early in the Libyan crisis, France and Britain have conducted an effective joint policy, with common goals and a shared main thrust, which has continued through the Barack Obama speech of March 28 and the following day’s London meeting to create an international “contact group” for clarifying, if possible, allied interests and intentions.
Germany has also demonstrated that it has a clear and reasonable foreign policy, which is not to go to war. Under intense American pressure, it assumed a military role in Afghanistan that it did not and does not want, and that it now intends to terminate. Such is the will of the German majority. Chancellor Angela Merkel abstained on the U.N. resolution for Libyan intervention, and Germany takes no part in it.
Anyone (in this age bereft of historical consciousness) who retains a trace of memory of the 20th century prior to 1945 will rejoice that modern Germany as a nation hates war. Germany’s national model of peace and social and economic justice is an edifying example, and if this is accompanied by a certain sanctimoniousness and condescension toward others, and a lack of grace in dealing with nations less diligent than Germany in the arts of money-making, like Greece and Portugal, then this is the price paid.
Other Europeans have shown they are reluctant to make war unless under American command, which is because of their historical memories of being under French, British or German command. This again is reasonable in principle but likely to be invalidated by the confusion and failure of existing (and recent) American foreign policy in the Arab region, and in the developing Palestinian-Israeli crisis.
President Barack Obama’s speech on Monday, together with the congressional and press reactions, provided a demonstration. He implied that the United States led the intervention. It actually was France with British support that led the intervention. On March 19, French airstrikes on the Libyan army attacking Benghazi forced that army to retreat and saved the city’s residents, even as a meeting of allied political leaders and international officials was still going on, debating intervention, and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was still insisting to the press that a no-fly zone would be impossible until American missiles and aircraft had destroyed all of Libya’s air defenses, thereby rendering the country’s airspace safe for allied planes. (Ironically, the only Western plane lost thus far has been American.)
The U.S. joined the military effort, under pressure from the smaller European powers that sought American or NATO command, providing a U.S. naval/air combat control facility in the Mediterranean. This allowed the press to describe the military effort as “American-led” and the president, in his speech Monday evening, to claim personal responsibility for the intervention: “I refused to let [a massacre] happen. ... I ordered warships into the Mediterranean. ... I authorized military action.” Actually NATO will not assume full control of the operation until Wednesday, March 30.
Where these military operations against Col. Moammar Gadhafi will lead remains a question certainly being asked in Washington, where President Obama claims responsibility for the intervention and its leadership and simultaneously searches for a rapid way out of it—particularly should Libya’s leadership not collapse within the next few days, and the hirsute Libyan colonel remain in place. Obama might have better ignored the demands by the American press, and the Republican (and liberal-humanitarian) hawks in Washington, for dramatic American leadership, and instead allowed French President Nicolas Sarkozy (and his companion in arms, the French celebrity “philosopher” Bernard-Henri Levy, who led the demand for intervention), together with Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, to have the glory, if glory there is to be.
The British-French collaboration provided a necessary lesson about Europe and foreign policy. There is no imaginable way by which the 27 members of the EU can agree on a common foreign policy (on anything except defense against some collective mortal threat, and for that they probably will not need Baroness Ashton). There is, on the other hand, every reason why Europe can play a renewed and important world role through coalitions of the concerned and of the willing. I am not a fan of Nicolas Sarkozy, but he has been correct in insisting that getting NATO into this affair has changed the character of what began as another spontaneous uprising of an Arab people to rid themselves of a dictator and re-establish their nation on new and accountable terms. Now the affair risks finishing as just one more imperialist intervention in the Muslim world—for oil, as the left already is saying.
Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy,” at www.williampfaff.com.
© 2011 Tribune Media Services Inc.