Britain and France Want to Act on Libya, Will the US Lead?

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WASHINGTON– Paddy Ashdown , former British Liberal-Democratic leader and former High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina between 2002 and 2006 offered his opinion on what to do next in Libya. (It is Time for Europe to back a no- fly zone. The Financial Times, March 14, 2011). Ashdown writes with the credibility of someone who has been there, who has already seen the bad consequences of European indecisiveness and delay followed by more delay during the brewing Balkan crisis in the 1990s.

We have seen it before in Bosnia

In the case of the Bosnian tragedy, European inaction allowed the continuation of a slaughter: “about a quarter million people were killed–writes Ashdown–2 million driven from their homes, the United Nations was humiliated and and international rhetoric was shown to be sham“. Well, today’s Libya crisis has not reached Bosnia levels; but it is already pretty bad. And we can see that, without any restraint imposed from outside and no apparent fear of retribution, Gaddafi’s forces are now advancing against the poorly organised and lightly armed rebels.

Gaddafi’s clan counts on Europe’s timidity

And the Gaddafi family, judging from their pronouncements in interviews with western media, talk with arrogance, threatening punishment for false friends like Italy who have now turned their backs against Libya. This arrogance can be explained in part as detachment from reality but in larger part because the Gaddafi clan hold a deep belief that a weak West in the end will sit back and do nothing. In the meantime, as the West holds meetings and issues statements, (another one in Paris just now in the context of the G-8), Gaddafi’s forces crush the Benghazi rebels, conveniently described by Libyan media as “al-Qaeda terrorists”.

We can do this

Well, Paddy Ashdown has seen all this before and in his piece invites Europe and the West to take action. Besides, he observes, there is backing already. The Benghazi Libyans have asked for help. The Arab League has also endorsed a no-fly zone. We still do not have a UN Security Council green light; and it would be nice to get it. But this may not be easy, given standard Russian and Chinese opposition. Still, Ashdown concludes,”given what is at stake for us, the right response of European leaders should not be to suck their teeth in indecision as they did last week, [at the EU summit]; but to back this [Security Council] Resolution and say they stand ready to enact it immediately if agreed“.

And so this is the even handed voice, hardly a blood thirsty war cry, of a former professional soldier who has been in the middle of a major crisis once before and who has witnessed the tragic consequences of timidity and political paralysis in front of a mounting humanitarian crisis. In the same The Financial Times , an Editorial invites “America to get off the fence and back a no fly zone”.

Cameron, no- fly zone “perfectly practical and deliverable”

And so we see some signs of British resolve. And , if we add to these opinions the more relevant forceful words favoring action uttered by British Prime Minister David Cameron, we may hope that someone is actually awake in Europe. Cameron said that a no-fly zone over Libya is “perfectly practical and deliverable“. Mixing national interest concerns and the will to help the embattled Libyans , he also added that:

To those who say it is nothing to do with us, I would simply respond: Do we want a situation where a failed pariah state festers on Europe’s southern border, potentially threatening our security, pushing people across the Mediterranean and creating a more dangerous and uncertain world for Britain and for all our allies as well as for the people of Libya?”

Britain and France want to take action

So, Britain seems to be poised to do something. France has already recognised the Benghazi Libyans as the legitimate Government and French President Nicolas Sarkozy is also in favor of a no-fly zone. But, while all this is positive and comforting, within Europe the UK and France are a small minority. No chance of a EU wide forceful consensus on military action in Libya.

As for Sarkozy and Cameron’s attempts to craft a Security Council Resolution that could overcome Russia and China, well, good luck. If this type of desirable UN legal endorsement is considered essential, then the chances for action are slim.

In the end, America must lead

In the end, while these two European leaders do matter, America is, as always, the key player. As of now, there is no clear sign as to what president Obama wants and may be able to do, given the difficult politics of a deeply divided Congress now in the midst of extremely adversarial budget negotiations. In theory could America lead a NATO operation in Libya even without a UN Security Council legitimising vote? Of course it could. But it is not clear that it will. To say ominously that “we have not taken anything off the table” and that” we retain all the options” sounds like strong language. But there is a point in which, lacking action, threats become empty threats.

Washington declared that Gaddafi has got to go

As I wrote before, it is not good for America to have publicly declared that “Gaddafi has got to go” and then appear hesitant when it comes to do something to actually make him go –right at the time when this outcome matters a great deal, as unhindered Gaddafi’s forces are killing more Libyans every day. Whatever its current economic and fiscal predicament, America still has by far the largest array of the most expensive, most advanced weapons in the world manned by well trained, professional armed forces. The US is certainly not afraid of the Libyan Air Force. So, it is settled that Washington does not lack the tools to deal with a minor opponent like Libya. As for the will, who knows. But this is not just a small detail. This is critical; and, at some point, showing or not showing resolve becomes a litmus test of US credibility.

Will Obama take action?

President Obama, by declaring that Gaddafi’s time has expired, has in effect made America a party to this conflict in Libya. If Obama had said at the beginning that the US has no issue in Libya and would stay out of this conflict, no matter what, it would have been different. But he took a clear position, by default at least, in favor of the rebels. Now it is time to back it up with deeds.

As Prime Minister Cameron said, we can do this: “it is practical and deliverable“. Is once upon a time Imperial Britain overconfident, or is America the Superpower confused as to its purpose and international role? This is no small issue.