|European harakiri in Libya
By Sreeram Chaulia
As European economies wilt under unchecked fiscal imprudence
and fears of contagious sovereign defaults, it seems absurd
that Britain and France are leading a depleted North
Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) coalition to militarily
attack Libya. Financially imperiled states facing mass
protests from irate citizens are puzzlingly prosecuting war
in North Africa.
After an initial burst of aerial strikes on Libyan dictator
Muammar Gaddafi's defenses by the United States, the Barack
Obama administration stepped back to hand over the bulk of
operations to Britain and France under the NATO banner. The
passing of the baton made pragmatic sense for Washington,
which has been hard-pressed since the corporate bailouts of
2008-2009 to cut its ballooning budget deficit.
Even playing second fiddle to Britain and France in the
Libyan conflict has been controversial in the US, with the
Republican opposition crying hoarse about Obama running a de
facto war without congressional authorization. Last Friday,
the House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted against
formal approval of the ongoing American participation in the
combat in Libya.
The recent televised debates of early hopefuls for the
Republican presidential nomination revealed an isolationist
but fiscally responsible streak among candidates backed by
the Tea Party movement. They broke ranks with traditional
Republicans by arguing that the US must put its own indebted
economy in order and disentangle completely from the
slow-attrition war in Libya (besides pulling out bag and
baggage from Afghanistan).
But no such wisdom has yet dawned in Britain and France,
which are emptying their depleted exchequers to pay for air
assaults in Libya. According to the French Defense Ministry,
Paris is spending US$1.4 million each day in the Libyan war,
while some predict that Britain may incur a cost of $1.4
billion if it continues hitting targets in Libya until
Some Western media outlets mocked at the ridiculous
spectacle of Gaddafi amusing himself with a game of chess
against a Russian sports official when Libya was on fire.
What the governments of Britain and France are doing in
Libya is no less an act of fiddling while rioters are
running amok in London and Paris against benefit
If British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President
Nicolas Sarkozy are gambling on the Libyan mission as a
diversionary tactic to pacify citizens furious at their
tanking economies, it is poor politics. The eventual ouster
of Gaddafi will not restore British and French jobs,
subsidized college education, or welfare benefits.
If Cameron and Sarkozy are placing bets on military
Keynesianism (a spinoff economic theory that big war
spending can pull a country out of recession by revving up
demand for the defense industry and heavy machinery
sectors), history shows that past wars in Suez (1956) and
the Falklands (1982) did not magically pull Britain and
France out of economic slumps.
Cameron has even rebuked senior British naval and air force
officials who have rung alarm bells that Britain's air
fighting capacity will be badly undermined if the Libyan war
goes on indefinitely. The Conservative prime minister struck
an adamant note that the British military would keep waging
war in Libya "as long as is necessary".
One plausible reason why deficit-laden London and Paris have
plunged into the Libyan war is geopolitical. American
strategists have commented that North Africa is a "European
affair", ie a sphere of influence that has greater strategic
value for Europe than for the US.
Although Europe's global footprint has been shrinking in the
past few years while China's shadow has lengthened, the urge
to dominate Africa is viewed by some European foreign policy
pundits as natural. Denomination of regions of Africa as
"Anglophone", "Francophone" and "Lusophone" zones owes to
this nostalgic neo-colonial mentality.
Secondly, European policymakers are growing jittery about a
deadly weapon that Gaddafi has unleashed since the war began
- African immigrants and refugees headed towards Italy first
and then seeping across open borders to the rest of the
The Mediterranean boat people were hitherto controlled by
the Gaddafi regime in exchange for symbolic and economic
concessions from the European Union. That sinister pact,
where desperate human beings were pawns in an international
diplomatic game, came unstuck once NATO started bombing
So, Britain and France (disregarding Italy's agony about a
deluge of refugees triggered by the NATO bombing campaign)
are apparently fighting to get rid of Gaddafi and to install
a friendlier government that will curb the African exodus to
the continent as a matter of policy.
Here too, the contradictions are glaring. A Europe that is
aging and demographically declining actually needs more
skilled and unskilled workers from the developing world.
Opening "fortress Europe" is good economics, but bad
politics, which is based on racial discrimination and
religious profiling in both Britain and France.
It bears reminder that France and Britain had for long
coddled Arab dictators in North Africa, including the ousted
Ben Ali of Tunisia and Gaddafi himself since his diplomatic
"rehabilitation" by the West and the influx of European
companies into Libya's oil sector a few years ago. The
best-case projection for the Quixotic European war in Libya
is that Paris and London are making amends for their past
misdeeds and policy errors. But such course corrections are
costly and unsustainable in the present economic doldrums.
The rhetorical claim that Britain and France are rescuing
the people of Libya from state-sponsored massacres through a
war on humanitarian grounds raises a deeper question: why
are Cameron and Sarkozy not moved by humanitarian concern
for their own masses who are reeling under acute economic
The fragile economies of Europe are in such abject state
that they cannot wish away the classic "guns versus butter"
choice. Britain and France saw the writing on the wall last
November, when they chose to share troops, aircraft carriers
and nuclear weapons facilities, thereby diluting sovereignty
in an attempt to notch up some direly required savings in
their respective military budgets. But their joint war in
Libya is proving penny wise, pound foolish.
Germany, which has been skewered in the Anglo-American press
for chicaning out of the Libyan war effort, is behaving more
humanely than Britain and France by tending to its own
citizens' plights in tough times. Its neutral stance on
Libya is proving to be wiser and ironically in the greater
interest of the crisis-plagued European Union, whose
survival in one piece depends on stable economic recovery
rather than Pyrrhic military successes.
Cameron and Sarkozy are bankrupting their treasuries and
jeopardizing the wider European integration project.
Skepticism of the European Union is mounting among
distressed European publics by the day even as French and
British jets fly sorties over Libya. Nero's ghost has
possessed present ruling elites in London and Paris. These
two European capitals are condemned to keep burning until
more accountable politicians take power and clean up the
Sreeram Chaulia is Professor and Vice Dean of the
Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India,
and the author of the new book International
Organizations and Civilian Protection: Power, Ideas and
Humanitarian Aid in Conflict Zones (I B Tauris, London)
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