PARIS – America unleashed the heavier firepower, but Europe – to the surprise of some – was the driving force behind the assault on Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi on Saturday.
France, perhaps hoping to purge memories of a dictator-coddling past, fired the first strikes Saturday. Britain, still stinging from its release of the Libyan agent behind the Lockerbie plane bombing, cajoled other nations into joining.
And all 27 countries in the European Union insisted nine days ago that Gadhafi “must relinquish power immediately” – unexpected, from a bloc often accused of being too slow and too soft. President Barack Obama, initially reticent, joined in the call and seemed happy to let Europe take the lead publicly.
The contrast with 2003 – when France led global opposition to the war on Iraq – shows how much has changed since then, and also how different things can be when the problem is on Europe’s doorstep.
Europeans fear a flood of refugees, making them particularly sensitive to the possibility of a humanitarian disaster in North Africa.
But the reasons for Europe’s anti-Gadhafi push are more complex than that, and may have as much to do with personalities as politics: The frenetic French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, eager for attention on the world stage and suffering in the polls at home; Britain’s youthful prime minister, David Cameron, eager to deflect attention from tough austerity measures and score some foreign policy points.
It doesn’t hurt that there is a grand ideological imperative that Europe can embrace: Alongside the oil interests in Libya, the Arab world is undergoing a massive convulsion fueled by a desire for freedom – a value modern Europe has always claimed to uphold.
Speaking Saturday as he announced the wide-reaching international agreement on military action, Sarkozy framed it as a decisive measure to support pro-democracy protesters.
“We have the duty to respond to this anguished appeal,” he said. “The Arab people have chosen to liberate themselves from the servitude they have found themselves locked in for too long. These revolutions have made a huge hope grow in the heart of all those who share the values of democracy and human rights.”