The fight for Libya

The Los Angeles Times reports:

With his popularity at a record low and facing an election next year, French President Nicolas Sarkozy was in desperate need of a boost to his political stature.

And on Saturday, he got it.

The French leader, once dubbed Super Sarko by the local press for his eagerness to take the reins in global crises, summoned leaders from four continents to an emergency war council at the Elysee presidential palace in Paris to agree on military action against strongman Moammar Kadafi in Libya.

His 20 guests had barely reached an agreement when Sarkozy announced that French planes were already in the air preparing to strike.

With almost theatrical gravitas, Sarkozy said France had “decided to assume its role, its role before history” in stopping Kadafi’s “killing spree” against people whose only crime was to seek to “liberate themselves from servitude.”

Barely more than three years ago, Sarkozy gave Kadafi the red carpet treatment in Paris, welcoming him with open arms and allowing the Libyan leader to pitch a Bedouin tent near the Elysee. Now the French president was announcing that he was sending warplanes in to bomb him.

Beside Sarkozy was British Prime Minister David Cameron, France’s partner in the military offensive, talking tough but overshadowed by his Gallic counterpart.

The Guardian reports:

In Britain, the question Cameron was asked in the Commons after his statement on Friday was an understandable one: is the UK capable of such a military endeavour? The prime minister – speaking coincidentally eight years to the day since Tony Blair asked parliament for its backing for the invasion of Iraq – was in no doubt that the country was in good shape for the campaign, and he reminded MPs that the UK was still the world’s fourth-biggest spender on defence.

Indeed, it is arguable that one of the figures vindicated by events over the past 48 hours was Liam Fox. The defence secretary has overseen a sometimes brutal, relatively successful, campaign to lessen the size of the cuts to trim the Ministry of Defence’s £36bn of debt, arguing that Britain needs to retain its capability to strike quickly and decisively in an increasingly unpredictable world.

Libya, in more ways that one, has bolstered his cause. Only on Thursday – hours before the no-fly zone was approved by the UN – a confident-sounding Fox was promising defence unions that he would still find ways to reduce the fallout of last year’s strategic defence and security review, by promising to save thousands of threatened civilian jobs. Yet, just a fortnight earlier, he had kicked off the month by confirming that more than a 1,000 jobs would be axed from the RAF by September, with almost 1,700 to follow. Speculation clouded the future of the Tornado GR4 strike aircraft with reports that the squadron at RAF Lossiemouth would be axed.

Libya, Fox might believe, would put a stop to such reports, reaffirming the need for a varied and sizeable air force. The Tornado, after all, has excelled in battle and is likely to be the first British assets used against Gaddafi.

Foreign Policy reports:

As the U.N. Security Council voted the evening of March 17 to impose a no-fly zone over Libya, the international media broadcast the joyous reaction from the streets of Benghazi, the de facto capital of the Libyan opposition. Thousands of Libyans celebrated in the streets, waving the old Libyan flag that has become the revolution’s standard and firing guns happily into the air. A spokeswoman for the Libyan opposition said that the revolutionaries were “embracing each other” over the U.N. decision.

But until recently, Benghazi’s attitude toward outside intervention was different. The rebels’ attitude toward the role of the international community evolved as Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s forces advanced aggressively over the past week, threatening to use their superior firepower to quash the poorly armed rebellion.

Only two weeks ago, professionally designed posters were plastered on billboards around Benghazi’s elegant palm tree-lined streets reading: “No foreign intervention. Libyan people can do it alone.” Men and women in the city reacted defiantly to suggestions they needed outside support. Qaddafi had already tried to pin the uprising on al Qaeda — they wanted change to come exclusively from a homegrown movement free from allegations of outside influence.

Views quickly changed as Qaddafi’s military continued to advance across the country’s east. Even as the Security Council met to announce its decision, Qaddafi’s forces were shelling Ajdabiya, the last town on their march toward Benghazi. In a radio address, Qaddafi — perhaps in a show of propaganda — vowed that his forces would reach Benghazi that night, and that they would “show no mercy and no pity” to the rebels.

The New York Times reports:

In a Paris hotel room on Monday night, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton found herself juggling the inconsistencies of American foreign policy in a turbulent Middle East. She criticized the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates for sending troops to quash protests in Bahrain even as she pressed him to send planes to intervene in Libya.

Only the day before, Mrs. Clinton — along with her boss, President Obama — was a skeptic on whether the United States should take military action in Libya. But that night, with Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces turning back the rebellion that threatened his rule, Mrs. Clinton changed course, forming an unlikely alliance with a handful of top administration aides who had been arguing for intervention.

Within hours, Mrs. Clinton and the aides had convinced Mr. Obama that the United States had to act, and the president ordered up military plans, which Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, hand-delivered to the White House the next day. On Thursday, during an hour-and-a -half meeting, Mr. Obama signed off on allowing American pilots to join Europeans and Arabs in military strikes against the Libyan government.

The president had a caveat, though. The American involvement in military action in Libya should be limited — no ground troops — and finite. “Days, not weeks,” a senior White House official recalled him saying.

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