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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.”

Sarkozy’s newfound concern for democracy in Libya contrasts sharply from only three years ago, when Sarkozy hosted Gaddafi for an extravagant five-day state visit to France. On that December 2007 occasion, Gaddafi breezed into Paris accompanied by an entourage of 400 servants, five airplanes, a camel, and 30 female virgin bodyguards, and then pitched his Bedouin tent just across the street from the Elysée Palace.

To be sure, Sarkozy’s main rival is not Gaddafi, but rather Marine Le Pen, the charismatic new leader of the far-right National Front party in France. A new opinion poll published by Le Parisien newspaper on March 8 has Le Pen winning the first round of next year’s presidential election.

Le Pen is riding high on voter dissatisfaction with the failure of the mainstream parties to address the problem of Muslim immigration. Since taking her post three months ago, Le Pen has single-handedly catapulted the twin issues of Muslim immigration and French national identity to the top of the French political agenda. In recent weeks, Le Pen has been a permanent fixture on prime-time television to discuss the threat to France of a wave of immigrants from Libya.

This comes after a March 6 interview with the French newspaper Journal du Dimanche, in which Gaddafi pledged that Europe will be “invaded” by an army of African immigrants. “You will have immigration. Thousands of people from Libya will invade Europe. There will be no-one to stop them any more,” Gaddafi promised.

Threatened by Le Pen’s rising popularity, and in urgent need of a political boost, Sarkozy is now using the Libya intervention both to play the role of the respected statesman on the international stage and to address French concerns over mass immigration from North Africa.

With the French economy stalled, and unemployment stuck at 9.6%, Sarkozy has been eager to keep the spotlight focused squarely on him, which is why he has been opposed to handing political control of the operation in Libya over to the U.S.-led NATO.

Italy, in particular, has reacted bitterly to France’s aggressive posture vis-à-vis Libya. Prior to the war, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had built close personal and economic ties with Libya and was reluctant to break with Gaddafi. Italy depends on Libya for much of its oil and gas supplies and Libya has invested billions in Italian companies.

The head of the Italian Senate’s defense affairs committee, Gianpiero Cantoni, told the Corriere della Sera newspaper that France was motivated by a desire to secure oil contracts with a future Libyan government, while Italy would have to face a potential flood of refugees.

Once Italy began enforcing the no-fly zone with its own aircraft, and made seven Italian airbases available to Britain, France, and the United States for the ongoing operations, Berlusconi began looking for political cover by insisting that NATO assume command of the operations in Libya. At one point, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini warned that Italy would take back control of its airbases unless a NATO coordination structure was agreed.

In Turkey, the Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan initially came out against approving a command role for NATO in the intervention, not because Libya is a fellow Muslim country, but because Erdogan felt snubbed after Sarkozy failed to invite him to a March 19 summit in Paris on the military action. Erdogan later relented after NATO allies stroked his ego.

In Cyprus, President Demetris Christofias said he is opposed to the intervention in Libya, and his government initially refused permission for three military jets from Qatar to land on the island. But Christofias changed tack and allowed the aircraft to touch down at an airport in Larnaca after they came close to ditching in the Mediterranean Sea. The Qatari pilots had been blown off course and nearly ran out of fuel. After refuelling, the jets flew on to the Greek island of Crete to join coalition air forces patrolling the no-fly zone.

In Norway, Defence Minister Grete Faremo warned that Norway may ground its six F-16 fighter jets taking part in the sorties over Libya if it deems their missions too dangerous. “If Norway cannot take part in the operational plans that emerge — if the risk of civilian lives being lost is too great, for example — Norway can take out the ‘red card’ and keep its fighters from participating,” she warned. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre said his country would put a time limit on its military involvement in Libya. “We have made our planes available for three months,” he said.

In Switzerland, Defense Minister Ueli Maurer criticised the air raids on Libya. In an interview with the Zürich-based Tages Anzeiger, Maurer called the move “a fire drill” and warned that coalition forces would not achieve their objectives in Libya. He also urged that Switzerland remain neutral.

In 2010, Gaddafi called for jihad against Switzerland after Swiss voters approved a constitutional ban on the building of minarets. “Any Muslim in any part of the world who works with Switzerland is an apostate, is against Muhammad, God and the Koran,” Gaddafi said.

In both Belgium and Spain, hitherto pacifist countries have done a complete about-face on Libya. In Belgium, which was vociferously opposed to removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, Defense Minister Pieter de Crem said: “The goal is the departure of the Gaddafi regime and the establishment of a dignified society for the Libyan people. This requires a Western presence even after the military strikes end.” Those are tough words from a country that has had no workable government for almost one year.

As an angry Gaddafi threatens to turn the “entire Mediterranean into a battlefield,” it remains to be seen whether Europe’s gamble in Libya will pay off. The first week of this conflict has not been encouraging, and any political bounce European leaders may achieve is likely to ebb the longer the military campaign against Gaddafi lasts.