Why this war on Gaddafi is a trap

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Sarkozy minister: it's 'a crusade'

That he has been abandoned by his closest or most compromised friends is a bad omen for Colonel Gaddafi. It is also, naturally, a good one for the Libyan people - although they may not find sincere friendship in Gaddafi's new enemies.

The most obvious evidence that no ethical conviction drives Nicolas Sarkozy on the issue of Libya is found in the fact that he now defends the exact opposite of what he stood for just a short time ago. Following a silence as contemptuous as it was embarrassing, his first reaction to the popular uprisings that led to the fall of his friends Ben Ali and Mubarak, pillars of his Union for the Mediterranean, was worry and fear. Worry about unpredictable events and one which he transformed into fear in his public declarations for home consumption. Speaking at the time of his government reshuffle on February 27th, he seized the opportunity to brandish the threat of uncontrollable invasions of migrants from the countries in turmoil, and the danger that the fallen dictators could be replaced by even more sinister regimes.

The usual scapegoats were designated in a chorus of comments by both his ruling UMP party and his close entourage, notably newly-appointed interior minister Claude Guéant; Islam and its place in France became a subject that required national debate, with Muslims referred to as a separate category to the rest of the French population, and claims that immigrant numbers are so vast that the French supposedly no longer feel as though they are in France. While this discourse continues uninterrupted by the intervention in Libya, how can a government pretend to sincerely want to bring liberty through war to a people whose culture, beliefs and itinerary it despises and stigmatizes?

Far from demonstrating an opening towards the world and others, the Libyan cause has become hostage to French regression and retreat. The most explicit example of this came from Claude Guéant, the longest-serving close collaborator of the president. Following the first round of the two-round local elections in France in March 2 and which saw a historic low score for the conservative right, the interior minister continued with his campaign of xenophobia that has no shyness in copying the cries of the far-right. "An excess of immigration troubles the French," he declared, before applauding his mentor Sarkozy for the military engagement over Libya in these loaded words: "The president has taken the lead of the crusade".

So, there we have it. A crusade. The unconscious colonial reference, one that establishes a hierarchy between civilizations and cultures, religions and peoples, remains at the core of the French presidency's political approach. The economist and essayist Alain Minc, an informal advisor to Nicolas Sarkozy, compared the current Franco-British alliance in Libya to that of the two countries' joint Suez Canal expedition in 1956, the very symbol of neo-colonialism in face of the emergence of Arab nationalism. So, according to Minc, the Libya campaign is a new Suez, although he nuances the comparison thus: "In 1956, [it was] to defend their interests. There [Libya], it is to defend principles." But already in 1956, as today, principles served as an alibi for interests.

Some might object that the fundamental difference is that the intervention in Libya is within the framework of a United Nations resolution, passed without veto in the Security Council. The Libyan exception - a grotesque dictatorship imposed 42 years ago on an oil-rich but sparsely-populated country of six million inhabitants - no doubt explains the majority vote reached. For, before long, the coalition was soon shaken by silence, contradictions and ambiguity. The prudence and precautions shown by the US underlined the questions raised by German, Indian and Brazilian diplomats at the UN (all three of whom abstained during the resolution vote despite having no tenderness towards the Tripoli regime) concerning the coherence and effectiveness of the proposed military intervention.

Indeed, there was no shortage of questions; what would be its unified command structure, its final military aim? How could the dictator be toppled without the use of ground troops? How could collateral damage, of which the first victims are the very civilians supposedly protected by the action, be prevented? How could an eventual handover of command to NATO - a move that stamps the Western character of the action - be avoided? Why not directly arm the insurgents in the east of the country?

Many of these questions remain today about a campaign that was decided both too late and too quickly. Too late, because it came after the launch of Colonel Gaddafi's increasingly successful counter-offensive against the rebels, and too quickly because it was conceived as a headline-grabbing media coup, without any precise analysis of the true situation.

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This commentary piece on the international military offensive against the regime of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi (first published by Mediapart in French on March 23rd) is also a more general reflection upon the blindness of our modern times. In this context, it is well worth recalling the prophetic illustration of a journalist's duty in wartime offered by French writer Albert Camus, and concerning the final chapter of World War II.

On August 8th, 1945, writing against the current of every received opinion and of those of others who had the pretension of being part of it, he published an editorial in the French newspaper Combat, which was created by the Resistance movement during the WWII occupation of France. His article went against the current of views held at the end of WWII, because it criticized the dropping of the atomic bomb upon Hiroshima which, followed by the next that dropped upon Nagasaki, forced the surrender of Japan, an ally of Nazi Germany. Camus wrote that the "grave news" of Hiroshima must encourage people "to appeal even more energetically for a true international society, in which the super powers would have no more rights than those of small or medium-sized nations, in which war, a scourge that human intelligence has transformed into definitive being, will no longer depend upon such or such a State's doctrines or appetites."