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John Metzler Archive
Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Libya mission prompts transatlantic divide:
The Paris option

UNITED NATIONS — As NATO warplanes blast targets throughout Col. Gadhafi’s Libya and enforce a “No Fly Zone” over the North African desert, much of the collateral damage from the operation appears to be diplomatic; especially between the USA and the French/British allies flying most of the missions.


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After indecisive diplomatic dithering, President Barack Obama, pressured by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, only signed onto the Libyan military mission late in the game, and then with mixed messages and objectives. But Washington’s humanitarian compass pointed to protecting civilians in freed eastern Libya from Gadhafi’s forces, rather than the focused strategic aim of toppling the longtime tyrant.

When the USA joined Britain and France to politically support UN Security Council resolution #1973 passed on St. Patrick’s Day, the balance initially favored the rebels and the imminent overthrow of Gadhafi. A month later, there’s a stalemate on the military game board and confusion in many foreign ministries. The “No Fly Zone” soon morphed into the “No Tank Zone” and now the “No Policy Zone.” Washington’s policies appear indecisive.

Initially the United States Air Force pounded Libyan air defenses and radar as a prelude to enforce the “No Fly Zone.” Then as the Anglo/French coalition expanded operations from passively protecting civilians to actively blasting away at their attackers, diplomatic cracks in the anti-Gaddafi mission appeared in the Arab League. Then Washington shifted gears, and turned the operation over to NATO.

Mechanics check the flight deck of France's flagship Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier for debris, before missions over Libya, in the Gulf of Sirte, off the Libyan coast on Wednesday, April 13.     AP/Christophe Ena
While six NATO countries (out of 28 in the Atlantic Alliance) among them the USA, Britain, Belgium, Canada, France, Denmark and Norway are flying sorties over Gadhafi-land, key NATO members Germany and Turkey sit on the sidelines and are politically sniping. There are divides inside NATO and across the Atlantic too over an unfocused operation in what has become Libya’s East/West civil war. Echoes of Suez 1956?

Inexplicitly while NATO was protecting Libyan civilians from the vengeful wrath of Colonel Gadhafi, the British government landed an intelligence windfall with the defection of the Tripoli regime’s Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa. Yet, after an initial debriefing of the mysterious man whose sanguinary signature allegedly appears on a spate of terrorist attacks including the bombing of Pan Am flight #103, the reviled former intelligence kingpin soon legally left Britain as a “free man.” Koussa’s already flown the coop to Qatar. What’s wrong with this picture?

Now after a Berlin meeting, NATO’s leaders call for “a few more aircraft” to fly ramped-up attacks on Gadhafi’s tanks and troops. Naturally everybody is nervous about “boots on the ground,” namely sending in troops/advisors, to help the rag-tag Libyan rebels. The opposition in the meantime, is criticizing NATO for often doing too little, too late in attacking regime forces in key cities.

The Benghazi government is recognized by few countries (France and Italy) but enabled by NATO’s mailed fist under the political mantra “responsibility to protect.” The rebels remain a rump coalition of dubious political pedigree ranging from Islamic fundamentalists to genuine nationalists.

Meanwhile the humanitarian crisis continues with over 500,000 people having left Libya since the uprising; UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon adds, “Within Libya itself, the picture is especially grave,” In the meantime the UN has launched contingency planning to assist the North African country in the near future.

Ban Ki-Moon conceded, “We must expect this work to span the full range of peacemaking, peace building and post-conflict reconstruction.” In other words, the UN envisages peacekeeping “boots on the ground ” in Libya’s desert sands.

But before the UN Blue Helmets deploy there must likely be a first step: Toppling the tyrant of Tripoli. Should it come to “boots on the ground”, may I make a suggestion? France who is among one of the few countries to diplomatically recognize the rebels in Benghazi holds the ultimate card. Beyond a very lethal Air force, what about the vaunted and legendary French Foreign Legion? These are troops specifically suited for this terrain, mission, and overall operation. A few battalions of the La Legion Etrangere, will bring a real meaning to “Boots on the ground” and will vanquish Colonel Gadhafi’s fourth-rate army. Moreover, is our objective just to protect civilians from Col. Gadhafi or oust the Libyan dictator? NATO needs to be clear on both objectives lest we become mired in a murky mission in the Libyan sands.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for

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