European Dis-Union in Libya

After more than a week of shameless haggling by its squabbling members, the NATO alliance reluctantly agreed to take over the least risky part of the military operations in Libya: the enforcement of a no-fly zone to protect civilians from attacks by a Libyan Air Force that no longer exists.

But in classic transatlantic political fudge, European and American leaders say NATO will not assume command of riskier ground attacks in Libya. For the time being, such heavy hitting will continue to be done by a coalition of countries led by the United States, even though the American president insists that his country is not in charge of the military intervention in Libya.

More perplexing still is that after seven days of dropping bombs and missiles on forces loyal to Libyan strongman Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the United States and its European allies still cannot agree on the ultimate strategic goal -- much less the exit strategy -- of the military campaign. While the Americans insist that Gaddafi must go, most Europeans say the dictator should stay.

Germany, Europe’s pacifist great power, will have none of it. After NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced that the alliance would monitor ship traffic in the Mediterranean Sea and intercept vessels suspected of carrying illegal arms or mercenaries to Libya, German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière immediately withdrew four German navy ships with a total of 550 sailors from NATO’s command. He said Germany did not want to be dragged into a military role in the region.

After a senior French diplomat threatened Germany with “incalculable political costs” for refusing to participate in the Libya intervention, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that she would send up to 300 more troops to Afghanistan. Never mind that in years past, Merkel has stubbornly rejected American requests to deploy more German troops to the country; and has refused to allow the 4,700 German troops already in Afghanistan from actually doing any fighting.

“We want to relieve the strain on NATO by putting our German troops back into planes over there [in Afghanistan]. This would be a genuine relief for NATO and a political sign of our solidarity with our allies, particularly against the backdrop of recent events in Libya,” de Maizière said, without even a hint of irony.

Enter Joschka Fischer, a leading member of Germany’s left-wing Green Party, who was Germany’s foreign minister from 1998 to 2005. On March 22, Fischer penned a bitter diatribe titled “German Foreign Policy: A Farce.” Published by the center-left newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, Fischer roundly condemned Merkel and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle for their refusal to make war against Libya.

Fischer accused Westerwelle of “climbing down” when it came to the vote in the Security Council. “For me,” Fischer complained, “what remains is the shame for the failure of our government and, alas, those red and green opposition leaders who initially applauded this scandalous mistake.” Foreign policy, he wrote, means “taking tough strategic decisions, even when they are anything but popular in domestic politics.”

Fischer continued: “The mission in Libya is risky and the new players on the ground are unclear as regards strategy and the future of the country.” But such concerns “are not an alternative to action,” he declared, because “in this region, we are speaking about immediate European and German security interests.” It is “naive to think that the most populous and economically powerful country of the European Union could or should stay out of things there.”

This Joschka Fischer the ardent warrior is the same Joschka Fischer who only a few years ago was one of Europe’s most passionate pacifists. It was Fischer who in 2003 zealously defended the right of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to remain in power, and who directly challenged the United States over the justifications for possible military action against Iraq, insisting that U.S. President George W Bush should give peace a chance.

Over in the United Kingdom, Armed Forces Minister Nick Harvey was asked how long Britain would be involved in the military operation in Libya. He replied: “How long is a piece of string? We don’t know how long this is going to go on for.” His comments came after a defiant Gaddafi made a speech on Libyan state television promising “a long, drawn-out war with no limits” and warning: “In the short term, we’ll beat them, in the long term, we’ll beat them.”

In an interview with the BBC, Harvey admitted that the Western intervention could result in a “stalemate” between Gaddafi and the rebels, which could lead to a partition of Libya, with each side holding on to different parts of the country. Harvey also refused to rule out the deployment of British ground troops to the country.

Harvey’s admission came as the British government faced mounting pressure to set out the limits of Britain’s involvement and explain its eventual exit strategy. The uncertainty over the purpose and the length of the war comes after mixed messages from the government over whether Gaddafi himself is a legitimate target.

On March 21, Downing Street publicly contradicted claims by the Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir David Richards that Gaddafi could not be legally killed in a military strike. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne chimed in by saying that the cost of the war would not spiral out of control, adding that it would be “in the tens of millions not the hundreds of millions of pounds.”

The debate in Britain may soon become a moot one. Defense insiders say the British Navy will run out of Tomahawk missiles after a fifth of the Navy stockpile has already been used against Libya. The British Navy has fired up to 20 percent of its 64 Tomahawks in the opening salvos of the war, leading to concerns that it is “burning through” its armoury and soon will be left unable to finish its mission.

In France, President Nicolas "Napoleon" Sarkozy was quick to take credit for the intervention against Libya even before it began, saying France had “decided to assume its role, its role before history” in stopping Gaddafi’s “killing spree” against people whose only crime was to seek to “liberate themselves from servitude.”