It’s been a little unreal following the developments in Libya and the very ad hoc Western response to it. The whole thing is a bit of a ramshackle affair: an ever-evolving mission cobbled together by a slightly erratic French president and poor British PM, the UN mandate abused from the outset, the objectives murky. It may take historians some time to pick apart the mix of motives – fear of instability and immigration, an embattled politician’s desire for an hour of glory – that came together to create this little war
There has been if anything more focus as on who should participate in and lead the operation as to the effect it is having in Libya itself. The “coalition of the willing” proved unsustainable: skittish post-GWOT Americans and power-averse Europeans (e.g., not British or French) preferred a transfer to collective responsibility under an international organization.
The differences between Europeans on this is interesting insofar as they all, presumably, have the same fears of immigration and instability, the same interest (or lack of) in oil and human rights. Jean Quatremer says Germany “sunk” the EU’s military ambitions in Libya. Some other French and German journalists have been similarly disappointed. Italy has been extremely hostile to any suggestion of a “war”, Berlusconi having uniquely close and affectionate ties with Gaddafi.
For Quatremer and many French foreign policy bigwigs, the use of NATO hats as against EU hats in bombing somewhere is a serious defeat for an Europe puissance. He fears Europe will remain little more than a “big Switzerland” or a “humanitarian NGO”.
Yet, is Europe’s impotence necessarily so bad? The record of “humanitarian interventions” since the 1990s is not a particularly good one. National defense is as assured as it seems it can be, there being no conventional threats to speak of, and military force being if anything counterproductive against terrorism.
Should the late United States be a model? Are Americans the better for the ability of their leaders – following a two or three decade cycle – to send their youth packing off to Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq (to cite only the big interventions)? What of the earlier “isolationist”, civilian America?
I think of a line of a letter during the Civil War from US ambassador Charles Adam to Karl Marx’s first international which states that “Nations do not exist for themselves alone, but to promote the welfare and happiness of mankind by benevolent intercourse and example.” For the longest time Americans had little other world ambition than being an example, a “City on a Hill”, with soldier-presidents Washington and Eisenhower making famous warnings about being seduced into being a “great power”. America, incidentally, resisted such temptation until long after it had the ability to be one.
I think the real trouble is that there’s little romance or glory to be imagined in being a “big Switzerland” or a “humanitarian NGO” (even though the Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid Kristalina Georgieva has reportedly been doing quite well as far as the latter is concerned). Not enough to satisfy armchair geostrategists and politicians in pursuit of their finest hour.
PS: Incidentally, one can be a pacific Republic and still be a little evil. Switzerland has its critics, mostly to do with amorally keeping treasure on behalf of Nazis and corrupt Third World despots. Presumably the EU’s analogue is the CAP’s effect on developing countries’ agriculture.