Read more of Slate’s coverage of the Libya conflict.
The French Socialist Party triumphed in local elections last weekend. The Libyan rebels triumphed in Brega and Raz Lanuf. In France, attention turned to the presidential election of 2012. In Libya, the rebels set their sights on Tripoli. You may not think these things are connected. But, of course, they are.
We Americans have a long tradition of declaring war in the run-up to election campaigns: Hollywood once mocked the idea in Wag the Dog, a movie starring Robert De Niro as a political consultant who covers up a presidential sex scandal and wins an election by launching a fake war in Albania. In this real-life Francophone sequel, there is no sex scandal. The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is unpopular because of government corruption, because the French economy is weaker than it was supposed to be, because he and his now ex-foreign minister chose the wrong side in Tunisia, and because he’s erratic and unpredictable. Nor is the war a fake. The no-fly zone in Libya is real enough, as is a bombing campaign designed to aid the Libyan rebels.
No sly consultant lurks in the wings, either. Au contraire. The man who introduced Sarkozy to the Benghazi rebels is none other than Bernard-Henri Lévy, a pop philosopher so French that I can’t think of an American equivalent. We just don’t have philosophers who wear their shirts unbuttoned, marry blond actresses, and take sides, enthusiastically, in wars in Bangladesh, Angola, Rwanda, Bosnia, and beyond. By siding with Lévy’s emotional plea for humanitarian intervention—a decision that surprised even his own foreign minister—Sarkozy apparently thinks he might share some of the philosopher’s glamour.
Sarkozy clearly hopes the Libyan adventure will make him popular, too. Nobody finds this surprising. At a conference in Brussels over the weekend, I watched a French participant boast of France’s leading role in the Libyan air campaign. A minute later, he heartily agreed that the war was a ploy to help Sarkozy get re-elected. The two emotions—pride in French leadership and cynicism about Sarkozy’s real motives—were not, it seems, mutually exclusive.
Some elements of this story are familiar. France has long resented not just America’s leadership of the world, but also America’s status as democracy-in-chief: They reckon they have as much to do with inventing liberté, egalité, et fraternité as we did, and they want a share of the credit. But this French president’s willingness to take real risks in order to play a role—any role, at any cost—in the interests of the glory of France and himself are unprecedented. Charles de Gaulle defied NATO at a time when France was safe beneath the American nuclear umbrella. Sarkozy’s enthusiasm for a war the outcome of which he cannot predict comes at a time when NATO is divided, and the European Union—the centerpiece of France’s foreign policy since its creation—has never been weaker.
In the interests of what remains of alliance solidarity, none of NATO’s members actually vetoed the Libyan operation, thrust upon the organization by President Barack Obama. But Germany and Turkey—two historical pillars of the alliance—vehemently and publicly objected. A host of others are quietly fuming. According to one insider’s account, Sarkozy himself only agreed to put the operation under a NATO flag after the White House threatened to withdraw completely. He had apparently assumed that the U.S. military would continue to underwrite an intervention he was leading.
The European Union emerges looking even worse. Indeed, had Sarkozy’s primary aim been to expose the weakness and incoherence of European foreign policy, he could not have done so any more effectively. Europe’s “foreign minister,” Catherine Ashton, has been sidelined in Libya. Europe’s institutions have played no part. An editorialist in (pro-European) Le Monde put it best: The Libyan affair “demonstrates the immaturity of European security and defense policy, the poverty of the political debate, and the inadequacy of personnel.” No one thinks Europe is going to emerge from this affair any stronger, either, even if the French president does.
Napoleon—Sarkozy’s antecedent in so many ways—once said that “luck” is the most important quality in a general, and Sarkozy might get lucky in Libya. The rebels might win. His popularity might be restored. The results of this weekend’s local elections in France don’t point in that direction—not only did the socialists win big; the anti-European, anti-immigration National Front did very well, too—but the president might as well keep rolling the dice. At this point, it’s double or quits.