The American World Turned Upside Down

PARIS – From Washington, the enthusiasm of the French for intervention in Libya is seen with a mixture of relief and puzzlement. The Americans do not want the job and are happy that someone else does. Indeed, President Nicolas Sarkozy’s willingness to intervene (alongside British Prime Minister David Cameron) helped close a dangerous gap between the world of “values,” which would call for direct American intervention against Muammar el-Qaddafi, and the world of “interest,” which impelled President Barack Obama to restraint.

America’s strategy seems to be to squeeze Qaddafi’s regime out of power through a combination of financial, economic, and even “psychological” pressure aimed at isolating the Colonel from his sources of support within his own inner circle. That is a wise approach, one that may ultimately work. But it will likely take a lot of time to produce results.

While Americans are relieved by France’s display of determination, they cannot refrain from expressing a sense of bemusement: Do the French really know what they are up against? What has happened to them? We know what war means, but they seem to have forgotten!

Indeed, France and the United States seem to have switched roles from just a few years ago. Listening to Obama’s reflexive and distant speeches on Libya, one can nearly hear French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin’s flamboyant intervention at the United Nations on the eve of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. And, though the circumstances and the “legal” environment are very different – there is a UN resolution for the Libya intervention, and a vague declaration of support by the Arab League – Sarkozy’s stance reminds some of George W. Bush’s enthusiasm for war.