European and American forces find themselves, once again, fighting side-by-side over foreign lands; this time acting under a United Nations mandate protecting citizens in Libya.
Yet this demonstration of trans-atlantic unity was far from a foregone conclusion.
The early stages of the rebellion saw tensions between the US and Europe over whether to become involved. Britain and France championed the cause of intervention whilst the US was much more cautious. It was only when Arab countries signalled their support and rebel forces faced imminent defeat in Benghazi that President Obama seized the initiative.
As I argue in my new book, Libya has long been a source of disagreement in trans-atlantic relations. In 1986 President Reagan fell out with most European countries over his decision to authorise a bombing raid on the country. A decade later President Clinton imposed punitive sanctions on the Qaddafi regime only to find that his European allies refused to follow suit. When President George W. Bush fixed his sights on Tripoli after intervening in Iraq, there was, again, an absence of support from this side of the Atlantic.
European states have differed with America over how to respond to the behaviour of dictators such as Qaddafi. They shared US abhorrence of his sponsorship of terrorism and desire to obtain weapons of mass destruction, but they advocated a different approach. Instead of isolating Qaddafi, European governments, such as France, Germany and even Britain, sought to engage with him in an effort to reintegrate Libya into the international mainstream.
America has tended to regard the European approach as hypocritical. They judged that European policy was driven by commercial interests, namely the opportunity to pick up lucrative Libyan contracts. Washington saw Libya as one more example of a Europe overly dependent on the US for the provision of security but unwilling to make commercial sacrifices.
It is against this backcloth of trans-atlantic differences over Libya that the current crisis is being played out. It is ironic that the US was reluctant to be drawn into the Libyan crisis, yet found itself reacting to a Franco-British initiative. European calculations were altered by the experiences of regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt. The chance to remove Qaddafi has been seized upon and the fear of watching the rebellion crushed was a catalyst for action. The change in America’s calculations stem from its reluctance to be drawn into conflict in yet another Muslim country. This unwillingness is multiplied now that Libya no longer represents a strategic threat to US interests.
The US has been eager to hand over command of the intervention to NATO. The operations carry both military and political risks because the objectives of the UN Resolution are open to interpretation and the crisis within Libya may degenerate into stalemate. It is unclear how well the coalition will hold together in the midst of these uncertainties and the US wants to minimise its exposure.
But US withdrawal will not bring an end to trans-atlantic tension. European countries have shifted uneasily as the US moves to the sidelines. In the recent past Europe has wanted superpower leadership in situations where military force is involved. If the rebellion in Libya falters, or if the coalition’s military operations go awry, it is quite conceivable that Europe will implore the US for assistance.
Diplomatic channels between Washington and European capitals are likely to remain lively for the foreseeable future.