In a major shift in its position on the war in Libya, France has announced it wants the rebels to begin direct negotiations with representatives of Muammar Gaddafi. NATO has been trying for more than three months to depose the Libyan leader in an air campaign, led by France, which has cost tens of millions of dollars and caused fractures in the alliance.
In a strong indication of mounting frustration over NATO’s lack of success from the air and the rebels’ slow progress on the ground, France’s defence minister, Gerard Longuet, said last Sunday on French television that NATO had “stopped the hand that was striking” against the insurgents and “now was the time to sit down at the negotiating table.
“We have asked them to speak to each other,” said Longuet, whose government was the most ardent supporter of military action three months ago and was the first to launch air strikes.
But the biggest surprise in Longuet’s television appearance came when he said the bombs would stop falling as soon as negotiations begin, indicating NATO will cease all military operations. Which means that Gaddafi, against all expectations, will survive. Forcing Gaddafi to leave had always been a main goal of the military campaign Great Britain and France have been spearheading.
“We will stop the bombing as soon as the Libyans start talking to one another and the military on both sides go back to their bases,” said Longuet. “They can talk to each other because we’ve shown there is no solution through force.”
Up until now, the rebels have refused to negotiate with the Libyan government until Gaddafi stepped down. France says it still wants Gaddafi out but obviously now believes NATO’s bombing campaign will not achieve this goal and is too expensive to maintain, so a diplomatic solution is now necessary. The war is costing France about one and a half million dollars a day.
On Tuesday, the French government voted to continue its military involvement in Libya for another four months, adding another $150 million to its war debt. Before the vote, France’s prime minister, Alain Juppe, said “A political solution is more indispensable than ever…” but depends on “an authentic and verifiable” ceasefire and “the departure of Col. Gaddafi from power.” As for Gaddafi, Longuet said he could “remain in Libya ‘in another room of the palace, with another title’.”
The United States and other NATO countries have never opposed the rebels’ position that Gaddafi must relinquish power before negotiations can begin. France’s two main NATO allies, Great Britain and America, were both quick to respond to Longuet’s announcement, indicating their displeasure as well as a possible breach opening up in the alliance. While one British official said there was “no daylight” between France’s and his country’s position, the State Department said in a release that “…we stand firm in our belief that Gaddafi cannot remain in power.”
The rebels were also “defiant.” After all, they rose in rebellion to destroy permanently Gaddafi’s hold on their country. Besides, they know they would never be safe if Gaddafi, his secret police and armed thugs were still around. The Libyan civilians NATO says it is bombing Libya to protect would be in danger with Gaddafi still at large.
“The only political solution is that Gaddafi and his family leave power,” said one rebel commander.
Longuet’s surprising comments apparently did not appear out of thin air. Last Monday, in an interview with an Algerian newspaper, Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam claimed that his father’s regime had been conducting negotiations the French government. The French foreign ministry immediately denied that direct talks were being held with Tripoli but admitted messages were sent through the rebel council and allies. So most likely an advanced agreement on negotiations had been reached between France and the Gaddafi regime before Longuet announced the U-turn in France’s Libya policy.
NATO’s failure to crack Gaddafi’s regime and its willingness to now end the war through negotiations will eventually have much greater consequences than the current splits appearing in the alliance. First and foremost, a failure to drive Gaddafi from power by military means will serve as a dangerous revelation and encouragement to other dictators that NATO is turning into a morally weak, willpower-lacking paper tiger that will turn tail and run when a conflict becomes too expensive or exceeds a certain time limit. As a result, NATO can expect more challenges thrown its way from thug regimes in the future.
The Libyan war has already shown the world how militarily weak the NATO alliance is. One retired British admiral found it disgraceful that NATO couldn’t get rid of Gaddafi in such a “tin-pot” operation, blaming military cutbacks for his own country’s navy’s poor contribution of only four ships. The fact that a sparsely populated country of only six million people, of whom many have risen in rebellion, and with an army of only 30,000 can withstand the military might of Europe speaks volumes about Europe’s strength.
But perhaps the worst feature the Libyan war has uncovered in NATO is that the military alliances’ governments are so caught up in their own human rights rhetoric and respect for United Nations (UN) rulings that they have actually tied their own hands behind their backs when it comes to dealing with criminals like Gaddafi. While the Libyan opposition was appealing to the world for help, President Obama and other Western leaders rushed off to the UN to get a mandate for action. During this three-week wait, however, the Gaddafi regime got over the shock of the uprising and captured the rebel-held areas of Eastern Libya, after which it sent in its secret police to hunt down rebel supporters. The resulting death toll is unknown.
What was worse, the UN mandate for action NATO finally did receive was actually a mandate for partial action. NATO was not allowed to send in ground forces, the one and only effective means of bringing the war to a quick and more humane end with limited casualties. Such quick, decisive and forceful action that ended in a deposed Gaddafi would also have shown other brutal dictators that NATO is a military and moral force to be reckoned with.
Like all half-measures, the action the UN did mandate arguably worsened the situation. Ironically, NATO bombing caused the current stalemate, from which France is currently trying to find an exit. When Gaddafi’s forces were about to capture Benghazi, the rebel stronghold, and practically end the war, NATO warplanes began their bombing campaign, which drove the government forces back to Tripoli. That was about ten thousand dead and hundreds of air strikes ago.
In the future, one can bet other hideous dictators will use the West’s respect for human rights and the UN to tie up NATO’s willingness to act against them, if NATO governments don’t do it to themselves first. They have already learned to use human shields to thwart military action, and one can probably some day expect whole populations to be held hostage.
Like NATO’s military effort, France’s current search for a diplomatic solution will neither sideline Gaddafi nor bring peace to Libya. It would be the height of naivite to expect Gaddafi to remain in his palace room. And with his prestige enhanced by NATO’s pullback, the Libyan tribes sitting on the fence in the conflict will probably now rush to support him to avoid revenge attacks. So in the end, France’s playing for the stalemate in Libya will only lead to more turmoil there and elsewhere.
Stephen Brown is Frontpage Magazine’s contributing editor. He can be reached at [email protected]