PARIS -- You've got to hand it to France's little big man, he has a way of getting what he wants. Whether it be the presidency of his country, a trophy wife, or generally punching above France's weight in international affairs, Nicolas Sarkozy pushes, inveigles, argues and seduces until others let him have his way, if only to be quit of him. This time he wanted to lead a George Bush-style coalition of the willing into war with an Arab dictator. On Saturday he got that too.
It was the first good week Sarkozy has had on the world scene in a long time. For months he watched as the Arab Spring spread across North Africa and the Middle East with tacit American encouragement but no French involvement. When it began in Tunisia, right in France's ex-colonial backyard, Sarkozy wasn't paying attention and his administration was caught wrong-footed: his foreign minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, embarrassingly offered France's know-how in riot control to Tunisia's corrupt President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Then he was silent as the U.S. deftly pressured Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down and allow social and political reform. As the democratic virus infected countries like Bahrain and Yemen, France's diplomacy was absent.
At home, too, Sarkozy was faltering. With the next presidential election just a year away, his numbers in the 20s made him the most unpopular president in the history of the Fifth Republic. Poll after poll showed him losing to Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the socialist leader whom he had exiled to Washington as head of the International Monetary Fund in 2007, thinking to get him off the French political scene. Worse, surprising surveys had him beaten next year by Marine Le Pen, the articulate, charismatic new leader of the right-wing National Front.
Then Libya caught his eye. Here were romantic bands of ragtag rebels rising up against one of the world's more obnoxious dictators. Just across the Mediterranean. With the U.S. bogged down in Afghanistan and unlikely to make a big move into what would be its third conflict with a Muslim country in less than a decade. Who wouldn't want to side with him in a humanitarian crusade against the despot?
Perhaps on the advice of Carla Bruni, his conduit to the intellectual and art world, Sarkozy sought counsel from Bernard-Henri Lévy. A dashing penseur-poseur-showman who likes to be photographed with his shirt largely unbuttoned, Lévy advised him to officially recognize the rebels' National Transition Council as a first step. This he did on March 10, receiving its members with full honors at the Elysée Palace. The Libyan "revolution" could only be carried out by Libyans themselves, he said then. He added, significantly, that in any case there should be no NATO-led operation against Muammar Gaddafi.
Next he maneuvered the United Nations Security Council to a vote on the loaded question of whether to protect Libyan widows and orphans. With his energetic new foreign minister Alain Juppé doing behind-the-scenes arm-twisting and special pleading, the Council voted the deliberately vague Resolution 1973 "to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack." No mention of regime change. Or of the fact that the "civilians" were armed rebels attempting to overthrow the Libyan government. Of the European members on the Council, only Germany refused to go along with Sarkozy's war, abstaining in the vote. (Chancellor Angela Merkel is the only European Union leader who habitually stands up to him and resists his pushy ways.)
However distasteful Gaddafi might be (Ronald Reagan memorably called him the "mad dog of the Middle East"), however much we would like to see him gone, the Supreme Guide of the Libyan Revolution has been recognized for some 40 years as the legitimate power in the country. Western leaders also tended to view him as an ally against Al Qaeda.
Just three years ago, Sarkozy grandly welcomed him and his 400-person entourage -- including 30 gaudily uniformed female bodyguards -- to Paris for a full-pomp, five-day, red-carpet state visit. "Gaddafi is not perceived as a dictator in the Arab world," Sarkozy explained at the time, adding as further justification, "He is the longest-serving head of state in the region." To the considerable discomfiture of many Parisians, he allowed Gaddafi to pitch his Bedouin tent in the elegant gardens of an official guest residence near the Elysée Palace. The visit concluded with contracts with Gaddafi for some $4.25 billion worth of Airbus airliners, fighter jets, air defense systems, and nuclear technology to power a desalination plant.
That was then. Last week Sarkozy organized his next ploy, an international summit in Paris on Saturday to implement the UN resolution. The meeting was nothing but window dressing. Its main event was the lining up of world leaders around Sarkozy on the steps of the Elysée for a group photo. "France has decided to play its part in history," he summed up with all false modesty. "The Libyan people need our aid and support. It's our duty." British Prime Minister David Cameron mumbled something about having to enforce "the will of the United Nations." Hillary Clinton backed away as far as she decently could, insisting, "We did not lead this. We did not engage in unilateral actions in any way."
Hours after the photo op, French fighter jets were heading for Libya, getting the jump on the U.S. and other coalition members. Much of France went into a paroxysm of national pride as television screens showed French fighter pilots gearing up, donning helmets, fingering their service pistols, and heading out to the hangars where their planes were waiting. As one commentator put it, buttons fairly popping off his shirt front, "The Americans were ahead of us in dealing with the revolution in Egypt, but this time we're taking the initiative. We're clearly the leaders against Libya." Much was made of French planes striking first, while British and Americans merely brought up the rear.
Notably absent was any mention of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Usually the official subcontractor to the UN for military and peacekeeping operations, NATO was deliberately bypassed by Sarkozy. "NATO can act as an enabler and coordinator if and when member states take action," Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen offered. But Sarkozy calculated that letting NATO take charge would put him in the shade.
Instead, this operation is, in his mind, a triumvirate composed of France, Britain and the U.S. -- in that order. As the Quai d'Orsay put it, for once eschewing diplomatic doubletalk, "We do not want NATO involved. We do not think it would be the right signal to send that NATO as such intervenes in an Arab nation." Neither the U.S. nor any other Western nation publicly objected. The Alliance, in search of a new mission ever since the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact disappeared two decades ago, thus became just that much more irrelevant.
As for Nicolas Sarkozy, he is playing a high-stakes game in the hope of restoring some luster to his fading presidency and getting his sputtering election campaign off the ground. "If it works out well, it will be a triumph for him," says a hopeful aide. "He was on the ropes, and suddenly he has the whole world following his lead."