The Ambiguous No-Fly Zone
University of Valenciennes’ Mokhtar Ben Barka, a political scientist specializing in American and European politics, analyzes the repercussions of the Security Council Resolution 1973 in the United States and Europe
CartaCapital: According to a recent CNN opinion poll, 50 percent of adult Americans approved of Barack Obama’s handling of Libya. This is a considerable low rate given to a president at the beginning of a military intervention. Is domestic politics what is driving Mr. Obama to give NATO military control in Libya?
Mokhtar Ben Barka: Obama’s attitude is the result of the widespread fear the US has of getting bogged in a prolonged war. Yes, at its beginning the war seemed sort of clear. But what is going to happen next in Libya? Consider the recent Iraq syndrome. The no-fly zone in Iraq lasted 10 years. And there were previous cases in Vietnam, and now not only in Iraq but also in Afghanistan. At the same time, the US cannot stay away from the international arena and leave France in charge.
CC: So why the US is part of the alliance in Libya?
MBB: Remember: there is oil in Libya. Libya is an ironic story: Ronald Reagan bombed it in 1986 and eventually George W. Bush became friends with Muammar Gaddafi. Europe is more concerned than the US with human rights in Libya. I am not saying that Washington does not take into account human rights issues, but for the US national interests are always more important than human rights.
CC: Nicolas Sarkozy was the most active leader to have the Security Council Resolution 1973 passed. He wished to forge an Anglo-French alliance to continue controlling the military enforcement of a no-fly zone. But now, following talks between Obama and the British Premier David Cameron, it seems that NATO will lead the military operations. Did Sarkozy lose some of his initial diplomatic influence?
MBB: Perhaps Sarkozy acted too quickly. This has to do more with his personality than with his political orientations. After all, this military enforcement of a no-fly zone involves civilian casualties. Sarkozy was not expecting Germany’s decision to stay out of the coalition. The United States was at first reluctant. Then Washington reconsidered the plan, but the Obama administration made it clear the US would get out of Libya as soon as possible.
CC: Are you saying that Sarkozy went beyond the no-fly zone limits?
MBB: I am not implying that Sarkozy violated the 1973 resolution. The problem lies in the ambiguous no-fly zone resolution. How far can you go at the risk of endangering the lives of civilians – the same civilians that you are supposed to protect? In any case, Sarkozy is right in saying that the Arab world does not like NATO. This is why he wants to set up an Anglo-French alliance with the participation of Arab nations to supervise the military operations in Libya.
CC: Did Turkey’s Europe minister have any grounds to accuse Sarkozy of exploiting Libya for his own electoral ambitions?
MBB: It is a valid argument. But in general one cannot put in doubt France’s reputation in terms of human rights. Of course, paradoxes are the rule in politics. Michèle Alliot-Marie, France’s former minister of Foreign Affairs, did not offer police support for the repressive regime of Ben Ali in the beginning of the Tunisian uprising? Being half-Tunisian I was shocked when she made the offer.
CC: Washington and Brussels are taking part in an alliance that is tough with Libya and diplomatic with repressive regimes in Yemen and Bahrain…
MBB: Yes, this does pose a problem in the Arab world. Again, paradoxes are the rule of politics. Here’s another example: some retired Israeli officers support Gaddafi. They fear that without him Libya, Tunisia and Egypt may be controlled by radical Islamists. In Tunisia, a secular society, the Islamists do not have a chance. But the retired Israeli officers believe there may be danger in Libya and Egypt.
CC: In a speech Gaddafi said that this is a new ‘’crusader battle’’ led by ‘’crusader countries’’ against Islam. Could Gaddafi garner support from other Arab nations with this language?
MBB: This possibility cannot be ruled out. Gaddafi is perverse. He says he is fighting against Al-Qaeda, and that is clearly not the case. Now he is exploiting the crusade logic with all its results, including fanaticism.