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Libya and Sarkozy's moment

Gavin Hewitt | 10:00 UK time, Friday, 18 March 2011

If sometime in the future the Libyan opposition win and come to power in Tripoli, they might consider a statue to the French president. There could be a Sarkozy Square or even a boulevard named after him.

There is no doubt that the French leader, with his renowned energy, was the key player in driving through a UN resolution that now allows "all necessary measures" to be used to protect civilians in Libya. He was undeterred by a divided EU and a G8 palpably unenthusiastic about any military action.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy

It's not that he acted alone. David Cameron was an ally, working the phones to get the votes in New York. But as Francois Baroin, Sarkozy's spokesman said, it was "the French who led the calls for action". The French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe travelled to New York to lobby the UN ambassadors.

Go back a week ago. The EU was hopelessly split. The Germans were implacably opposed to intervening. To the obvious irritation of the French president, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and her team were seen to be briefing against a no-fly zone which they said could not be implemented for weeks. The European heads of government could not even stomach using the words "no fly zone" in a final communique. Likewise a meeting of the G8 in Paris firmly rejected using force.

So what happened? Firstly, the decision by the Arab League to back a no-fly zone was a game changer. It gave the West crucial political cover.

Secondly, it was the rapid counter-offensive by Gaddafi's forces that focused minds, particularly in Washington. The Obama administration had hesitated, reluctant to use its power in another Arab nation. But if Gaddafi won it would have been asked in Washington: "Who lost Libya?" And around the world, Obama would have been seen to have failed the Arab spring.

The French and the British worked on getting key countries like China to abstain, while ensuring other Arab nations like Qatar and the UAE would join any action.

There are some observations that can be made. Without US leadership there is drift. The EU is ill-suited for taking decisive action. To some people it has failed to learn the lessons of the Balkans. It seeks a stronger voice on the world stage but fails to understand the importance of hard power.

We had a situation where some Europeans were frustrated with Washington. Some in the American capital were bemoaning the fact that all this was happening in Europe's back yard - and where was Europe? "It's high time that Europeans stopped exporting their own responsibilities to Washington," said Nick Witney from the European Council on Foreign Relations. "If the West fails on Libya, it will be primarily a European failure."

In the end it was the French and British who filled the vacuum and with the wind of the Arab League behind them secured a UN resolution.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe raises his hand to vote in favour of a UN resolution on Libya

That was hard. What lies ahead may be harder. As of writing we don't know whether this will principally be a French/British operation. The Americans are briefing that no immediate US action is expected.

It should be possible to stop Gaddafi's planes from flying. But that may not in itself change the reality on the ground. Combat air patrols might be able to target his forces heading, say, for Benghazi. But very quickly Libyan forces will operate from within city perimeters and they will be difficult to dislodge without risking wider civilian casualties.

And say Benghazi is spared, Gaddafi won't relinquish his grip on other places. You might have a ceasefire of sorts but the world could be left with a divided Libya with Gaddafi still in power. After pushing for action, would Paris and London be prepared to see the Gaddafi family in control of much of Western Libya, albeit unable to use aggression against his own people?

The logic will be to arm and train the opposition. Does that fall under "all necessary measures"? And so the risk of mission creep...

We know with any military action that plans are quickly torn up. The unpredictable occurs. Although there will be no boots on the ground, getting into a country is always easier than getting out.

What is the exit strategy? When is it "job done"? When is it "mission accomplished"? Is this an operation to end the fighting or to finish off the Gaddafi regime? All difficult questions that lie ahead.

But today the French will say they have won a battle for intervention. As Alain Juppe, the French foreign minister said: "We cannot allow these warmongers to go on. We cannot let international law be flouted."

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