Who lost the Libyan war?
Last week marked the one year anniversary since the start of the Libyan war. On March 17, 2011 the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1973 establishing no-fly zones over Libya in order to protect civilians. On March 19, 2011 NATO began a military operation under the pretext of implementing Resolution 1973. A year on, it is time to summarize the first results of this operation. The key question is: “Who won and who lost as a result of the Libyan war?”
At first glance, the Libyan war ended with an unambiguous (and completely expected) victory for NATO. In August, the rebel forces, with NATO’s air support, took control of the capital of Libya Tripoli. On September 1, a conference on Libya was held in Paris under the presidency of France which recognized the National Transitional Council as the interim government of Libya. On October 20, the Jamahiriya leader Muammar Gaddafi was killed. On October 31, NATO stopped its military operation in view of the fact it had achieved its goals.
But the Libyan war changed the balance of power between the great powers. The structure of the Libyan war was different from NATO military operations in the former Yugoslavia, and even more so from U.S. and allied operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The leading player was not NATO under the overall command of the USA, but the military actions of two NATO members – France and Britain. Both countries conducted two parallel military operations in Libya, independently of NATO. For the first time since the Suez crisis of 1956, Paris and London launched major military and political projects in the Mediterranean and played a leading role in military operations. Britain and France seem to have overcome the consequences of the collapse of their colonial empires and regained their status as great powers, which they lost in the 1950s.
However, the benefits for Britain are different from those of France. Over the last year, the media has focused attention on the bellicose rhetoric of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The language of British Prime Minister David Cameron has been much softer and less prominent (although in October the British media did mention that through its actions in the Mediterranean London "had returned to 1943"). The joint success of Paris and London was more a success for London than for Paris. In the long term it was mainly France who lost the Libyan war.
Firstly, this war proved the inadequacy of France’s Mediterranean Union project. Back in 1995, France initiated the Barcelona Process: a dialogue between the European Union and other Mediterranean countries. In July 2008 the inaugural summit of the Mediterranean Union was held in Paris. Forty-three states were members of this organization, including EU member states like Sweden and the Netherlands far removed from the region. France submitted an application for the creation of a special EU security zone independent of the U.S. and NATO.
The Libyan War changed the strategic situation. The Elysee Palace succeeded in toppling the Gaddafi regime not with the help of the Mediterranean Union, but as part of NATO operations. The NATO operations involved interactions with the U.S. and Britain – two powers which in the past had been the main opponents of French initiatives in the Mediterranean. The current debates over Syria highlight that since 2011, Paris has started implementing its Mediterranean policy in coordination with London. It appears that France has not managed to pull off its role as leader of the Mediterranean Union independent of NATO.
Secondly, the Libyan war was the final step in creating a privileged partnership between France and Britain. As far back as March 26, 2008, during the visit of President Nicolas Sarkozy to London, the two parties agreed to extend the format of their bilateral cooperation. On November 2, 2010 Britain and France signed a declaration on cooperation in defense and security for the next 50 years. The document called for (1) the establishment of a combined joint expeditionary force, (2) strengthening cooperation in the naval and military air fields, (3) coordination on cyber security issues. At the same time both states signed the French-British agreement on cooperation on military nuclear energy issues. The NATO operation in Libya has set a precedent for how the French-British partnership can work in practice.
The strategy of David Cameron’s cabinet paid dividends for the UK. For the first time since 1956, Britain went into an alliance with a continental European power without the involvement of the U.S. Such a step reinforced London’s autonomy from Washington. The Libyan war has enabled Britain to become involved again in Mediterranean politics. Britain’s status within the "European security identity" project has also changed. In the midst of the Libyan war, on June 30, 2011 the Western European Union, which since 1997 had been the military-political foundation of the European Union, was dissolved. The EU member countries failed to reach agreement on the deployment of a European rapid reaction force at the summit in Ghent, Belgium, in September 2010. The military-political foundation of the European Union is becoming a French-British alliance more closely tied to NATO.
For France, the formation of the French-British tandem has created a reduction in its resources. Since the time of President Charles de Gaulle (1958 - 1969) Paris has concentrated on establishing a “European community” independent of the U.S. At its heart was the French-German sub-unit, which has united the economic potential of Germany with the military and political resources of France. The creation of the French-British tandem and the Libyan war changed this situation. In rejecting Gaullism, Paris is actually carving out a new role for itself, that of a junior partner to London and Washington. There is the potential for dissatisfaction with French policy in continental Europe. It has not yet manifested itself in any kind of concrete form. But during the Libyan war, German politicians expressed doubts about the feasibility of France’s Mediterranean Union project. For the first time since 1963, Germany failed to support the Paris line.
Thirdly, the Libyan war weakened France’s position in the Arab world. In the 2000s, Paris and Berlin offered an alternative to Washington's policy in the Middle East. On all the key issues – from the military operation against Iraq, to the crisis over Iran's nuclear program and Israel's actions in the Lebanon war of 2006 – France and Germany have consistently offered a peaceful alternative to the actions of the U.S., Britain and Israel. After the Libyan war Paris is now regarded in the Arab world as the "junior ally" of the U.S. French initiatives are no longer seen in the Arab countries as a positive alternative to U.S. policy.
The Elysee Palace presented the Libyan war as a victory for France. On a tactical level, this is true. But on the strategic level far greater dividends were gained by London and Washington, including at the expense of French interests.
Alexei Fenenko is Leading Research Fellow, Institute of International Security Studies of RAS, Russian Academy of Sciences.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.