WASHINGTON – Regarding what Europe is doing about the crisis in Libya, if it were not for the tragic consequences of dithering and convening meetings of councils and special groups, as opposed to taking action, the whole European choreography of confabulation, including –almost unprecedented– a “EU Emergency Summit” on Libya, would look funny, almost a farce.
Consider this. On one side, there is this universally recognized bad guy, (or certifiable guy, if you prefer), Colonel Gaddafi, who is trying to fight back, kill the rebels who seek democracy, (on balance we call them the good guys), and reassert himself as Libya’s boss. And on the other side there is Europe, the EU, a union of 27 countries that met and strongly condemned him and his repressive actions against his people. You would think that after such strong words, European action against Gaddafi would follow. And, given that it is 27 to 1, without knowing much more, you’d think it is easy to know who wins this one. Well, not so easy, in fact. And this is why this a tragedy.
Libya versus the European Union
Indeed, opposing Gaddafi the pariah, beginning on the northern shores of the Mediterranean and stretching all the way to the Iberian Peninsula, up to Scotland, the Baltic Sea and eastward to the Black Sea is the Mighty European Union. A great Union, 27 member strong, that, if it were a real state, would have the biggest GDP in the world and a much bigger population than the United States of America. Indeed, the European Union includes Germany, France, The UK and Italy –some of the largest economies in the world.
Gaddafi against the largest world economy
So, a powerful union of European countries, (going back to 1957), that, taken together, constitute the biggest GDP in the world with a combined population of more than 400 million people have met to condemn Gaddafi and they are now confronting this third rate North African dictator who already lost control of half a country of about 6.5 million to spirited, if poorly organised, insurgents demanding freedom. And the somewhat damaged dictator does not have a powerful military. His armed forces may be effective against poorly armed Libyan civilians who have improvised an insurrection; but they should be no match against the combined resources of Europe.
In another era Gaddafi would have been treated as a painful nuisance to be taken care of swiftly by dispatching an expeditionary force aimed at supporting the Benghazi rebels while dealing a crushing blow to the dictator.
Europe matters on economy and trade issues
But not these days. Europe has real power and indeed it uses it when it comes to trade and anti-trust actions. When EU authorities speak on these matters, Microsoft, Intel and General Electric listen, very carefully –and in some cases they tremble. Huge markets, millions of customers and billions of dollars are at stake. When it comes to economic and trade issues, Europe matters, a great deal.
EU: No real foreign and security policies
But when it comes to foreign and security policies, Europe has no real cohesion, no viable institutions, no mandate, no policies and no dedicated resources. And so –guess what– nobody pays any attention. Sure enough, recently, with the enactment of the Lisbon Treaty, Europe upgraded its executive structures. Now it has a President of the European Council, Mr. Herman van Rompuy is the incumbent; and a High Representative in charge of EU foreign policy, Lady Catherine Ashton.
Except that these are virtually unknown office holders who command no political allegiance, as they are nominated, rather than elected. Indeed, while the creation of these new positions may indicate tentative progress towards future political integration, at present they matter very little.
The President of the Council has no independent executive powers. Lady Ashton has some staff; but she is not in charge of anything much. She coordinates something; but she does not make policy and she does not lead Europe.
A Supercharged Chamber of Commerce
The point is that Europe is not a country and is not even close to getting there. Europe is a supercharged Chamber of Commerce, with very important attributions and significant jurisdiction when it comes to the internal market and international negotiations on trade and a lot more. But when it comes to military action, nobody cares about a bunch of rich and semi rich countries that cannot field, let alone send into combat, any armed forces, as the EU does not have any.
Would Gaddafi care about EU resolutions?
With that in mind, I doubt that Colonel Gaddafi, ensconced in his Tripoli palace, once told that the EU just held an “Emergency Summit” on Libya, said: “Oh My God, they did it. This is the end. Now that the fierce Europeans met, they are really going to come after me“. In fact, Europe, even after having gutted its military after the end of the Cold War, is not militarily insignificant. In theory, individual EU members, starting with the UK and France, would have assets that could be brought to bear against a minor adversary like Gaddafi. But institutionally the EU has no real powers in security and defense and certainly not much will to create them. A EU-led campaign aimed at getting rid of Gaddafi is unthinkable.
Nicolas Sarkozy stands out
In this rather disappointing picture that shows some of the world richest but weak states powerless when confronted with an otherwise totally manageable crisis, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France looks like a hero. He talked about possible military strikes, if Gaddafi attacks civilians. (Well, what has been doing all this time?). But at least, Sarkozy, with some British backing, is talking about “action”. And, on a political level, he was gutsy enough to recognise the Benghazi Libyans as the real government. All very good. Except that no one else, aside from David Cameron within this august group of 27 agrees with him, at least not to date.
Rationalizing inaction as superior wisdom
And you get a flavor of EU resolve on Libya in these statements by a EU diplomat reported by The Guardian, (Nicolas Sarkozy calls for air strikes on Libya, if Gaddafi attacks civilians, March 11, 2011):
“The risks are high for potential civilian casualties and potential collateral damage. The efficiency of a no-fly zone is very questionable. Apart from anything else, European command and control facilities would not be able to get a no-fly zone up and running in less than five or six weeks, and Nato is suggesting it would take at least three to four weeks. The question is whether, in political terms, a no-fly zone can achieve what you want it to achieve.”
Now this is not exactly the language of feisty warriors. “It is too difficult”. “It is going to take time”. “There will be collateral damage”. “In the end it will not work”. But, with all its caveats and recommendations for inaction, this language is unfortunately indicative of the true European spirit: long on solemn declarations, political statements, exhortations and other theatrical stuff and short on almost anything else that might require “action” when the going gets really tough.
And so, dictators of the world –even little ones– do take heart. The Europeans have no stomach to seriously confront you. They are certainly ready to come and do business with you, in the name of international understanding, of course. (And the parade of leaders in pilgrimage to Tripoli after Gaddafi was rehabilitated after he gave up his weapons of mass destruction program is a testament to this). But if you misbehave, expect strong statements, and not much else. They will not come and get you.
No heroes, except for the Libyans
In this story, unfortunately there are no heroes, except for the gutsy Libyans who have started a “come as you are” revolution with no plans, no high command, no real organised forces. With whatever they have got, they try their best against the residual army still loyal to Gaddafi.
No great inspiration from Washington either
Unfortunately, if Europe’s predilection for long meetings followed by toothless condemnations is depressing, nothing very inspiring coming from Washington either. I have already said in another piece that I find Washington’s slow motion, if any, towards any action on Libya quite disturbing, as America, unlike Europe, is a recognised world power. Still, compared to EU gestures and talk, Obama’s words on Libya during his March 11 press conference have a bit more bite:
“So the bottom line is, is that I have not taken any options off the table at this point. I think it is important to understand that we have moved about as swiftly as an international coalition has ever moved to impose sanctions on Qaddafi. I am absolutely clear that it is in the interest of the United States, and more importantly, in the interest of the Libyan people for Mr. Qaddafi to leave. And I have not foreclosed these options.
Now, I do take very seriously making sure that any decisions I make that involve U.S. military power are well thought through and are done in close consultation with Secretary Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen, and all relevant personnel. Any time I send the United States forces into a potentially hostile situation, there are risks involved and there are consequences. And it is my job as President to make sure that we have considered all those risks”.
He talked about “military action”
So, Obama said again that Gadadfi has got to go. He also announced the appointment of State Department liaison with the Benghazi Libyans. Not a legal recognition of the rebels as the true government of Libya, but a big step closer to it.
And this time, may be inadvertently, the US president let it slip that he is carefully reviewing pitfalls related to sending US forces into a potentially hostile situation. He named the principals: the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the Secretary of Defense, he uttered the words, “United States forces”, hostile situation”. And those words, conjuring up possible action against Libya, have a certain ring coming from America. Unlike Mr. van Rompuy and the European Council, president Obama does have muscle at his command, and real muscle at that.
The West does not shine here
And yet, even though I find some comfort in seeing that the US president is finally considering practical ways to make Gaddafi go, with force if necessary, if we take this altogether, the spectacle offered by “The West” in confronting this bizarre dictator is not that inspiring.
I certainly do not advocate “sending the marines” at the drop of a hat. But in this case, as in the case of Bosnia in the 1990s, the West talks a lot before mustering the resolve to do anything that is even remotely risky. And, in the case of Bosnia and later on Kosovo, it took America’s belated push to have a semi-decent coalition action, via the NATO Alliance. In the meantime, the slaughter went on.
And here we are, a few years later, once again confronting another otherwise insignificant neighborhood bully, Gaddafi, who decided to go to war against his own people, hoping to get away with it. And Europe on its own will do nothing, notwithstanding its close proximity to Libya and geopolitical interests. Farther away, public relations challenged America, fearful of Muslim reactions to its use of force, while a bit more sanguine, is moving so slowly that it makes one wonder whether it intends to do anything at all.
So little resolve with such a minor opponent indicates weakness
As I said, this is puny Libya we are dealing with, not the old Warsaw Pact with 30 Red Army armored divisions in East Germany. We are not talking about starting World War III, with a nuclear holocaust and the end of the world. This is why this is such a worrisome picture. On one side is embattled Gaddafi, and on the other side we have Europe and America whose combined GDPs amount to more than US 30 trillion, by far the largest mass of wealth on earth. And these economic giants do not have the resolve to come together and take swift action against a really minor gangster in a case in which there is really no doubt as to who is the villain and whose side should we be on.
The real strength and vitality of a civilization is measured also on the chances it is willing to take to uphold the principles it declares to value. If Libya is a test case, not much strength in the West, I’m afraid.