Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The French Moment

Danger de Mort

One of the things that's most been bothering me about the Libyan intervention is the why. This kind of thing demands a lot of effort and big risks. Why? What's the payoff to justify all that? No answers yet, but I'm starting to have a few ideas that make some kind of sense to me. What follows is extremely speculative, essentially me thinking out loud, so take it for what it's worth, i.e., not a whole lot.

First, a little speculation about the "what."

This thing has Nicolas Sarkozy, Président de la République, written all over it. The situation in Libya—all the MENA in fact—has been developing extremely quickly. The intervention itself has clearly been in the execution phase for an absolute minimum of two weeks before the first bombs fell, with Special Forces teams in place scoping out the terrain and what have you. Since Libya only blew up around a month ago, somebody's moved extremely quickly. Nicolas Sarkozy is highly intelligent and audacious, and a very fast mover. Just ask Carla.1

The "what" proceeded something like this.

North Africa has been a strategic priority for France for about two hundred years now. France sees her former colonies as part of her sphere of influence. In recent years, this has taken the form of all kinds of political, cultural, and economic initiatives. It's a long-term project that includes stuff like the massive EuroMéditerranée infrastructure project in Marseilles.

The Arab Spring took Sarkozy by surprise, just like everyone else. His response to the Tunisian situation was totally confused; he even ended up having to sack his foreign minister for apparently siding with Ben Ali, the now deposed dictator. With Ben Ali gone, he started scrambling to get the initiative back. He was still behind the curve with Egypt; there was even a bit of a public oopsie when an evacuation boat he sent in had to return empty after all the evacuees had already taken a plane home.

So he ordered the French intelligence agencies to get on top of the situation in the entire MENA region, but especially North Africa, and the diplomatic corps to find out exactly how every country worth a damn feels about the developments and how they could be swayed. A crisis is always an opportunity; little pushes can move big things, if you're audacious enough to move when others are dithering. France has got lots of diplomatic, intelligence, and military assets already in the region. Pretty soon, he would have Special Forces teams all over North Africa: the French Special Forces and intelligence has the great advantage of being able to draw on recruits with roots in the countries, so they have no trouble blending in when under cover. This effort is feeding him a constant and improving stream of human intelligence.

A few weeks later, he's got enough data to start making predictions. The shit hits the fan in Libya. He's the first to know about the tide turning as Qaddafi's generals stop wavering and his military re-coalesces. He also knows that the rebels are missing a Trotsky and don't yet have a military capable of resisting Qaddafi's army for long. He sees his opportunity and kicks into high gear.

France has possibly the best diplomatic corps in the world. Sarkozy has been getting some really good information from it, and now uses it for the next step: persuading, fast-talking, bribing, or blackmailing the Arab League into issuing a call for a no-fly zone. He needs that to get a UN resolution: his diplomats tell him that allies say that they couldn't possibly support one without Arab support, no doubt believing that the pusillanimous, corrupt, and eternally divided Arab League will never be able to do anything beyond deploring tragic loss of life, thereby letting them off the hook. His master diplomats pull a rabbit out of a hat, and before anyone has time to think, succeed in fast-talking the Security Council members into accepting resolution 1973—with some pretty broad language in it too, allowing just about any action short of a full-on occupation, which he doesn't want to do anyway.

Simultaneously, his diplomats fast-talk some allies into joining the enforcement: Cameron in the UK, Spain, Italy, Qatar, and the US being the most important ones. He probably took Cameron in on the game earlier than the others; the Brits were suspiciously ready to go when the resolution was approved.

I have no idea exactly what favors he had to call in, what bribes to pay, and what promises to make to make all of this happen, but he did—and you gotta hand it to those diplomats, they know their job.

And here we are, bombing Libya, with pretty much the entire world scratching their heads and going "I attacked who last night?"

Sound crazy? I don't think so. When confronted with sudden shocks, we humans go into monkey mode. That means we freeze and look around what everybody else is doing. That means that if one monkey has a bright idea and acts on it decisively, it's very likely he'll get lots of other monkeys following. This diplomatic conjuring trick is a large-scale repetition of what happens on a smaller scale when a crowd starts rushing somewhere with no apparent reason. Diplomats and leaders are monkeys too, and susceptible to just the same kind of monkey business.

So, the "why."

There are lots of little "whys" there, of course. There is a genuine humanitarian motive there somewhere, I'm sure. There's the matter of showing off the capability of those weapons systems France is trying to export—the Rafales waxing that armored column without taking a scratch before any SEAD missions had been flown will look good on the sales brochure, and the F-15E pancaking in a field a few days later won't hurt. There is Sarkozy's wobbly domestic situation that a nice, victorious war will surely sort out neatly. There's Libyan oil. There's France's large Arab minority with whom such a fraternal intervention is surely hugely popular.

But while all of that factors in, and I've no doubt all of it has been used as arguments to sell the intervention in that huge diplomatic effort, I don't think that's the big "why."

In addition to his other qualities, Sarkozy is also a visionary. He thinks big. Grandiose, even. He wouldn't exactly mind being written down in history as the Président de la République that restored French leadership to Europe, and European leadership to... if not the world, at least a big chunk of it. L'État, c'est moi, et l'Europe, c'est la France.

That's what this is about.

After the débacle in Tunisia, Sarkozy sees a new order developing: one where the corrupt old dictators of the Middle East fall one by one, to be replaced by systems that are if not exactly democratic, at least popular. The great tide of history is sweeping them away. It might not all happen now, but he believes it will happen sooner rather than later. The ones clinging to the old order will end up sidelined in the new one, and the ones in early will get the biggest rewards. He wants to be first to side with the winners.

When he sees the first signs of Qaddafi rallying, he sees his chance. France will save the rebellion, and thereby the entire Arab Spring. After the mess the USA has made in the Middle East, French colonial sins are fading into the background. They really will welcome them with roses. So he goes for his great gamble, and the show is on. Perhaps he has a plan B, or perhaps he figures he'll continue to improvise, play it by ear, as a fluid and fast-moving situations develops. I'm quite sure that his corps diplomatique is working like mad all over the place, as are intelligence and special ops teams.

That's gotta be crazy difficult, what with the NATO allies going WTF?, a lukewarm Obama not used to seeing the USA riding shotgun, the Turks wanting nothing to do with it, Putin and Medvedev crashing into each other like ice hockey defenders outmaneuvered by someone too small and fast for them, the Germans being scandalized about proper procedure not being followed, and the Swedes wanting to get in on the action and show off their JAS Gripens in some real fighting so maybe somebody somewhere would buy one, and poor Amr Moussa looking like a rabbit caught in the headlights, going "What did I just do?"

This is a very high-stakes game. I'm doubtful about its chances of success. But it might, and if it does succeed, the payoff for France—and Sarkozy personally—would be huge. The USA would be as good as out of the game in the Middle East, France would be the unquestioned leader there, and would have strongly strengthened its position in the EU as well. This also explains why Turkey is so pissed off about it—despite being the poster-boy of democratic Islamism, they've been quietly pursuing a long-term Great Power strategy in the Mediterranean. Libya has been one of the linchpins of that strategy; they've had a good thing going with Qaddafi, and if the French plan succeeds, that'll all have gone to waste.

And if it fails... well, the French are used to terrorism, and it'd be mostly the Libyans bearing the brunt of it. Can't make une omelette without breaking a few eggs and all that, eh?

This is getting very interesting indeed. Sarkozy isn't one to get caught in a stalemate. Expect something imaginative and possibly quite crazy to break it. We'll see lots of twists and turns before this is over, and if it fails, it'll be almost as spectacular as the unraveling that kicked it off.

But Arab Spring it is no more. Once more, this has reduced the Libyans at least to pawns rather than players. That is tragic, no matter who emerges from the smoking wreckage of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania.

1Speaking of Carla, it seems she's tight with Sheikha Mozah, wife of the Emir of Qatar. Could that have something to do with Qatar being the only Arab country to actually contribute military assets to the operation?


  1. Nitpicking, but you know, avoiding over simplification and all that kind of things... "France sees her former colonies as part of her sphere of influence" - Neither Libya nor Egypt can be considered as former French colonies though - and France has had very different relations with these than for example with Tunisia or Algeria (which actually makes your argument stronger - France is trying to extend its influence in places where it wasn't necessarily that strong - Libya).

  2. Yes, that's correct. I should've been clearer. I do think this is a new chapter of the colonial rivalry that saw the region parceled out between Britain the European powers in the first place, on some level at least.

  3. Petrol, geostrategic questions, to demonstrate that is still a powerful nation.

  4. Interesting theory, to say the least, and has a ring of great possibility to it. On the economic side, it also seems to makes sense. And we've discussed before the sunsetting of the US as policeman of the world not being a bad thing. (Might irk some righties though, to have France step into our almighty asskickin shoes.)

    Playing it out, even if successful as an actual ouster of Gadhafi, the losers here do seem to be the Libyans, who would be in the unenviable position of either totally getting their military and political act together on an instant and grand scale and rebuffing any puppetmastering, or finding out whether the French (and/or any UN/NATO ally involvements) are any less overbearing than we've been.

    If so many lives weren't involved, this would be fascinating in a good instead of bad way to watch develop, because it does seem to herald some pretty significant change in the balance of things.