Foreign Affairs

Sarkozy’s Hot Air Strikes

Earlier this week, the main Drudge Report headline shouted:  “Sarkozy Fills Leadership Void on Libya ‘Air Strikes.’ ”  It would be all too easy to conclude that French President Nicolas Sarkozy is usurping Obama’s moral authority on the raging Libyan civil war by taking charge.

If leading can be reduced to talking, then I suppose that would be true, as Sarkozy is doing a lot of meeting and talking right now about the Libyan crisis.  Any hope of translating that leadership into tangible action—or, as Drudge would suggest—“air strikes,” is far-fetched at best.

If there’s anyone here in France who’s in lockstep with Sarkozy’s right-wing laissez-faire ideas, it’s me.  If he actually followed through on executing the concepts from his 2007 election platform, he’d whiplash France into something unrecognizable from its current state, which has been molded through decades of nanny state socialism.  The problem is that he has constant difficulty passing from expressing his ideas to implementing them, as demonstrated, for example, in the case of his proposed legislation mandating DNA testing for African immigrants to prove genetic links in family reunification requests.  After lobbying his party’s elected representatives to vote for the bill, he then instructed his minister not to sign it. 

Sarkozy also has a bad habit of blasting confidently out of the gate, but then grinding to a near-halt when faced with ideological opposition, or even the potential of it, as he did with his pension reform initiative, which increased the legal retirement age by a whopping two years.

It’s this wishy-washiness ultimately overshadowing the tough talk that’s causing Sarkozy’s base to shift even further right in the lead-up to next year’s presidential election.  According to new polls, if the first round was held today, the right-wing Marine Le Pen’s Front National party would beat both Sarkozy and any given Socialist opponent.  One might therefore forgive those of us here in France who can’t really bother getting too excited over Sarko’s macho posturing on Libya, especially when the relationship between the two countries exemplifies the fine line between love and hate.

Only four years ago, Sarko was cutting a “civilian” nuclear trade deal with Gaddafi to provide reactors and 10 billion Euros worth of trade in the wake of Sarko claiming credit for freeing Bulgarian nurses from Tripoli’s clutches.  Granted, alliances change depending on circumstances, and even the U.S. State Department was convinced that Bush had scared Gaddafi straight during the Iraq invasion, and he had dismantled any WMD initiatives. 

But with Bush no longer a threat to despots, and Gaddafi fighting for his existence, it’s easy to see in hindsight why perhaps, as I suggested in a column when the deal was signed, Gaddafi shouldn’t be trusted with toenail clippers, let alone anything remotely linked to the word “nuclear,”  But in 2007, Gaddafi came to Paris for a five-day tour and signed a deal for some nuclear reactors while only Germany was throwing side eye, suggesting that this sounded like a bad plan.

Thankfully, according to Areva, the French nuclear company, that agreement went the way of so many bold French initiatives and belly-flopped into the Seine.  Apparently all Gaddafi ended up getting out of that 10 billion Euro trade deal was 21 Airbuses at a total cost of 3 billion Euros.  So maybe it’s a good thing that sometimes Sarko is weak on the follow-through.

While America may be hearing and applauding Sarko’s talk of air strikes, here in France his defense minister is tempering it with a reminder that any air strikes would require UN approval.  This effectively translates to inaction—or at least action delayed to the point of uselessness.

Sarkozy can’t even acknowledge Libya’s new opposition “Interim Transitional National Council” without the rest of Europe mitigating any expressed support.  The way the European Union works, Sarkozy doesn’t hold unilateral moral authority to keep even diplomatic promises, let alone those requiring military intervention—especially when Germany would have to foot the bill for it, as they generally tend to do in EU matters. 

Sarkozy met with representatives of the transitional group this week at the Elysee, and accorded them diplomatic exclusivity—but his EU counterparts, in a more measured and cautious approach, have only thus far recognized the group as one among possible others, and aren’t happy that Sarkozy did otherwise.

The EU countries also face the problem of being hampered by saving the world while unable to pay their own rent, which is why they’re currently holding a summit meeting in Brussels to deal with their debt crisis.

If the world is waiting for Sarkozy or the EU to bring meaningful change to the world—please, take a number and get behind those of us still waiting for it in France.

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