Memo to President Obama: Don't Stand in Sarkozy's Way in Libya

In the annals of Franco-U.S. relations, this is a rare moment indeed when the French can bail America out of an ill-conceived foreign intervention of its own making.
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Memo to President Obama: Before your administration finally untangles itself from the Gordian knot of its contradictory Libya policy, I am rooting for the French Foreign Legion to be on the outskirts of Tripoli laying siege to Gaddafi and Sons, Inc. with France's adventurous President Nicolas Sarkozy earning the credit.

After all, isn't it in America's strategic interest to accommodate French designs in Libya?

Ever since Libyan revolted against Gaddafi's rule, Sarkozy has relentlessly cajoled the Obama administration to deploy massive American military force to take the battle to Tripoli despite Washington's prudent reservations not to go full throttle.

Sarkozy, if anything, has been consistent in his approach, with altruistic goals coupled with political designs. He has relentlessly favored a full-fledged invasion of Libya to overthrow Gaddafi and prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in North Africa. And fawning French commentators have emboldened the embattled Sarkozy to tread boldly for the sake of humanity and French honor. Given France's geographical proximity to Libya and its dependence on Libyan oil, France, not the United States, has a core strategic interest in leading this ad hoc coalition regime change charge. Ongoing military conflict in Libya would further destabilize the rest of North Africa and southern Europe and result in humanitarian suffering and the dislocation of perhaps hundreds of thousands of Libyans and other Arabs working in Libya. We should not stand in Sarkozy's way. Sarkozy wants France to have, as he declared recently, a historic role in Libya. Apres vous, Messr. Le President! If our close French allies wish to enjoy the glory rightfully due to them for landing on the shores of Tripoli... s'il vous plait. And if Paris is actually able to rid Libya of Gaddafi and lay the groundwork for a true democracy and minimize humanitarian suffering, President Obama should be thankful that France stood to the fore of this unwieldy coalition and bailed him out of a faltering policy dilemma.

After all, the White House could declare victory under UN Security Council Resolution 1973 by having prevented a humanitarian disaster in Benghazi and let Britain and France worry about how to fulfill Obama's goal of seeing Gaddafi gone. But Sarkozy hopes the U.S. will do most of the heavy military lifting in the air and ultimately on the ground in Libya. As for Sarkozy, he would prefer reserving to himself "le grandeur" for instigating Gaddafi's overthrow, yet maintaining the French Foreign Legion OFF the shores of Tripoli. It would be very wise for us to be open-eyed about Paris' grand designs.

Despite President Sarkozy's Machiavellian preferences, I prefer French boots (as well as British, Egyptian and Saudi boots) -- not GI boots -- to be the preferred footwear on Libyan sand. If Sarkozy wants the glory, he is going to have to earn it by putting French forces in harms' way all the way. Until a few weeks ago, Paris has never had an obsession with Gaddafi. After all, Italy, rather than France, was the colonial power in Libya. Gaddafi's closest ally in Europe is Italian PM Berlusconi. France has never ruled Libya. There are hardly any Libyan immigrants living in France (most are from neighboring Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia -- all part of France's Mediterranean backyard). Gadadfi has not been on any French enemies list.

Inquiring minds want to know what Sarkozy's motives are for compelling Les Yankees into a full-fledged military involvement in Libya? After all is said and done, despite legitimate humanitarian concerns, major U.S. military involvement in Libya is, on balance, fundamentally at odds with America's core strategic interests in the Middle East.

Actually, a French-orchestrated Libyan coup d'etat has less to do with Gaddafi and more to do with Sarkozy's domestic perils as well as France's incessant jockeying with Germany for European leadership. Messr. Sarkozy is actually using France's aggressive role in Libya to resurrect his long cherished goal of creating a French dominated "Union of the Mediterranean." His newly installed Foreign Minister Alain Juppe views a successful Libyan venture as the catalyst to resurrect Sarkozy's Club Med and French leadership throughout the Mediterranean basin.

When it was initially conceived by Sarkozy during his 2007 presidential campaign, this so-called Mediterranean Union of states bordering the Mediterranean -- including all of North Africa, Israel, Turkey and Southern Europe -- was intended to enhance France's global leadership and stabilize the soft underbelly of Europe from the threat of Islamic extremism and attendant poverty, which was pumping unwanted Arab illegal immigrants into southern Europe. A Gaddafi-free Libya translates into French bragging rights within the European Union and shifts Europe's focus south to the revolutions sweeping across North Africa.

Sarkozy also considered his nouveau Club Med to be a brilliant alternative to Turkey's admission to the European Union -- a goal many of Sarkozy's political allies vociferously oppose.

Moreover, Sarkozy feared that the center of European Union gravity was shifting to central and Eastern Europe as new states gravitated to France's main EU competitor for influence, Germany. Paris was determined to avoid playing second fiddle to Germany in the European Union, and the Union of Mediterranean States would, in Sarkozy's estimation, rebalance the center of European Union gravity.

Other evidence of Sarkozy's thinking is bared in his overt opposition to NATO, rather than France, having overall responsibility for coordinating military action in Libya. Sarkozy views NATO's own Mediterranean Partnership with North African Arab states as an intrusion in his efforts to transform his Club Med into a truly effective social, economic, political and military association.

At home, Sarkozy has been criticized for misjudging the consequences of Tunisia's revolution, and his poll numbers have plummeted. He is in a political free fall with his reelection a little over one year away. His political party has lost several major local elections because of his declining popularity. And in a terrible embarrassment to his own leadership, Sarkozy was recently compelled to fire his foreign minister over revelations that she accepted favors from Tunisia's deposed president Ben Ali. Sarkozy's aggressiveness toward Gaddafi appears to be an effort to obtain absolution from those who claim his government was in Ben Ali's back pocket. Ironically, Gaddafi has become a scapegoat for Sarkozy's own growing domestic travails and French global designs.

So all in all, whatever may be Sarkozy's motives, it obliges us to urge him on as long as he, rather than we, is responsible for carrying the primary military burden in Libya. In the annals of Franco-U.S. relations, this is a rare moment indeed when the French actually can bail America out of an ill-conceived foreign intervention of its own making.

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