It’s an old story: France wants to be recognized as a major factor in international affairs. French diplomats carry themselves as principal players in world politics even when no one really cares what new declaration comes out of Paris. French intellectuals argue late into the night that French savoir faire is necessary to add depth to virtually all issues of global import.
The bantam rooster of the French establishment is its president, Nicolas Sarkozy, feverishly seeking an issue on which he can hang his beret for the 2012 presidential election. Libya was just the right size of junior military exercise for which Sarkozy could lead the charge — just so the elite paras (paratroopers) of the French Rapid Reaction Corps weren’t thrown into the conflict. Real fighting with real fighters — and the French paras are definitely real fighters — would be counter-productive in the minds of French politicians in general and Sarkozy in particular.
Hardly anyone in France wants their warriors in battle. Even the French contingent in Afghanistan for the most part has been held out of combat. It’s insulting to the French soldiers, but that’s what the politicians want — and get: A rapid reaction force that really doesn’t have to rapidly react anywhere particularly dangerous. And when it does even in relatively small numbers, as in the Côte d’Ivoire, there’s a former colonial and commercial justification.
French presidents like Sarkozy like to strut about as if they are Napoleon or de Gaulle. (The disparity in height, though, makes Le Grand Charles a less appropriate model for Le Petit Nicky.) It was easier than it seemed for Sarkozy to open the door to improved American relations post–George W. Bush. Obama’s ambition to be “president of the world” fit in well with the Sarkozy plan to return France to a pivotal role in European and thus world affairs. Though annoying in European unified defense terms, the refusal of Angela Merkel’s Germany to create another Afrika Korps worked out perfectly for French prestige. Sarko took advantage of a third chance in North Africa after his Elysée Palace team had fumbled their non-responses to the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings.
Hillary Clinton was completely charmed by the French president’s rhetoric. She was equally accepting of the willingness of the French to “head the military operation,” as the Belgian prime minister, Yves Leterme, made a point of extolling at the Paris summit in mid-March. She easily sold the concept to her boss. It was a relief to Obama who was petrified of having to assume responsibility for a war he couldn’t blame on Bush.
Britain, in the form of its former defense secretary, Lord John Hutton, also carried the Obama government’s water when he said, “The U.S. has been saying for 10 or 15 years that it wants the Europeans to share more of the security burden and we have heard the lesson. We should be doing much more in Europe. We cannot go on expecting the U.S. to take the leading role.” This suited all concerned. It was, after all, quite true. Washington and Paris were delighted with the Brits entering the fray: the French because they clearly couldn’t do the air cover job themselves, and the White House because it wanted to do as little as possible.
The French led things off with air strikes in defense of Benghazi. The Americans followed up with naval air assets and airborne surveillance ops. The U.S. then spent a great deal of money on ship-launched cruise missiles and laser-guided weaponry from its fighter-bomber aircraft. After about a week the financial costs began to mount up and Washington told the French and Brits that the rest was up to them and NATO.
Unfortunately, no one told Nicolas Sarkozy that without boots-on-the-ground there was no way the limitedly effective Anglo-French air power could keep Gaddafi’s forces from filtering back across the coastal desert terrain and flanking the insurgent rag-tag “army.” Everyone who remembered the war in the Western Desert in WW2 knew that the army with the most powerful mobile fighting force wins the Saharan field. Air power that does not have good ground-to-air communication and reliable forward observers can do only a limited job.
If Sarko had been a serious tough guy instead of just another French politician seeking to protect his position with a display of bravado, he would have shipped across the Med elements of the 8,500 man 11th Parachute Brigade along with the famed French 2nd Armored Brigade. Frankly, just the expectation that they might have to go up against the Foreign Legion paras regiment would have sent the regular Libyan forces scurrying for their civilian clothes.
Sarkozy already is behind in the electoral polls against Dominique Strauss-Kahn of the International Monetary Fund and the Socialist Party — and Strauss-Kahn hasn’t even announced his candidacy. If Sarko hopes to gain from his North African venture, he’s going to have to commit his military more substantially. It’s not enough to seek a way out by emphasizing he never intended regime change, just protection for the rebels. Maybe the Africa Union, the Arab League, or the Turks will get him off the hook with a negotiated settlement. Meanwhile Napoleon and de Gaulle are spinning in their graves.