On Libya, France sees chance to lead

Can Americans tolerate the United States playing anything less than the predominant role in an international military intervention in the Middle East? French President Nicholas Sarkozy is willing to give Washington a chance to find out.

Even while the Obama administration reflects some of the ambivalence of a war-weary American public for wading into another Middle East military effort, Sarkozy has shown great eagerness to lead an international intervention to protect Libyans struggling to oust Muammar Gadhafi.

Sarkozy became the first world leader to confer official diplomatic recognition on the Libyan opposition-rebel National Council last week as the legitimate representative of Tripoli. The step has not yet been fully matched by either the European Union or Washington, which took the lesser step of naming a diplomatic liaison, Chris Stevens, to Libyan opposition groups this week.

Then yesterday, Sarkozy dispatched his new foreign minister Alain Juppe to New York to address the chamber ahead of the U.N. Security Council vote on a resolution authorizing air strikes and a no-fly zone on Libya.

Even as debate on the resolution was still underway in New York, reports citing French and British officials hinted air strikes on Gadhafi's air defense would start just hours after it was passed. But the prospect of the U.S. military participating in international air strikes before Obama had even addressed the American public on the Libya issue seemed out of step with past peacekeeping actions. And some influential lawmakers, such as Indiana GOP Sen. Richard Lugar, have insisted that Obama should first obtain a Congressional declaration of war before putting U.S. military personnel in harms way in a new military action.

The strikes have not yet materialized, although intense military preparations and consultations are underway at NATO, in Paris and other world capitals, even while Libya's foreign minister Musa Kusa announced a ceasefire this morning.

Today, as Obama conferred with congressional leaders about his plan on Libya before addressing the American public, Sarkozy demonstrated continued French willingness to lead coordination of the international military effort there, seeming not to mind in the least if the U.S. administration for once preferred to play a supporting role.

Sarkozy conferred by phone with British Prime Minister David Cameron, and met with Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani in Paris today to discuss a measure to "follow-up" on Security Council resolution 1973 on Libya, Sarkozy's office said Friday. Qatar is one of a small group of Arab states--along with the United Arab Emirates and Jordan-- that have reportedly agreed to participate in imposing a military no-fly zone over Libya.

Sarkozy's office also announced plans to host a Paris summit in support of the Libyan people on Saturday. Expected to attend: Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, European Union High Rep Catherine Ashton, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, "and high officials of all nations that wish to offer their support to the implementation of this resolution," the Elysee Palace said.

France is among the key U.S. allies who have expressed annoyance that the Obama administration--for all its professed emphasis on rebuilding international alliances--has at times seemed to take them for granted. They complain that Washington has at times treated them basically as yes-men in the Security Council, and not as as real partners in shared diplomatic initiatives such as the sanctions resolution on Iran and future steps in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. For these critics, the somewhat equivocal position of the United States in the no-fly zone resolution creates an opening for powers to assert a leading role.

In taking the lead in Libya, France is seeking to showcase the advantage of it serving as a full-fledged partner in multilateral diplomatic and military planning. Whether or not the intervention proves successful, Washington will have the chance to consider whether it prefers such burden-sharing to the control, prestige, and privileges that come with doing most of the military heavy-lifting.

(France's President Nicolas Sarkozy shakes hands with Libyan National Council emissaries Mahmoud Jebril (R) and Ali Essawi after a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris March 10, 2011. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes.)