How do you solve a problem like Sarkozy?


It’s difficult to comment on the situations in Libya and Côte d’Ivoire without sounding like you are in favour of either side. As both crises deepen, the cut and dry actions that underpinned the need for intervention are muddied by significant loss of civilian life and large refugee movements in both countries.

In order to avoid any confusion, however, allow me to categorically state that neither Laurent Gbagbo nor Muammar Ghadaffi are objects of sympathy or support in my view. That said, the US and European governments and agencies that are currently opposing both men and their machines aren’t exactly doing themselves any favours.

For one, there has to be a better way to end the suffering of civilians than bombing them into oblivion. When the insurgency in Libya began to take shape, no one was wringing their hands in fear for Ghaddafi’s legacy, but when the NATO headed military campaign hesitates to apologise for bombing the rebels they nominally support, we have to question what exactly they are fighting for.

Similarly, even if you acept  the legitimacy of the Ouattara government,  we recall that the role of United Nations peacekeeping missions in conflict is to maintain peace and security, and not to support either one of the actors militarily. In a post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan world, have no lessons been drawn about the folly of underestimating the reach of an embattled but determined leader of disorganised but loyal troops? Or should we brace ourselves for more wars that start with a bang and simmer on indefinitely?

One government in particular has been pushing for a more aggressive stance on both crises, which in the context of historical developments may lead one to conclude that there is more at stake here than stability in Libya and Cote d’Ivoire.

The aggressive posturing of the French in both cases is a development of concern to anyone who believes that violence should be a tool of last resort in international diplomacy. In Côte d’Ivoire as in Libya, the French government has been on the forefront of demanding direct military intervention, some would say, without giving diplomacy or discussion a fair try. It was France that struck first in Libya, and as the former colonial power, France remains deeply intertwined with the UN mission in Côte d’Ivoire. More sympathetic observers argue that the aggressive tack is in part due to a desire to avoid a second Rwanda; the more cynical amongst us find it far too coincidental that the increasingly unpopular president, caught underfoot in Tunisia, is pushing for a war with a government that apparently helped finance his presidential campaign and another that has consistently rebuffed his attempts at intervention.

Beyond the curious coincidences, it is no secret that the Sarkozy government has failed to develop a comprehensive foreign policy, especially towards former colonies in Africa. Oscillating between palpable disregard and ersatz sycophancy, the French failure to read the writing on the wall is perhaps the best argument for reform of the UN Security Council, within which some form of consistency is needed for legitimacy. Indeed, Sarkozy set the tone for his country’s policy on Africa in his speech at the University of Dakar in 2007. Fumbling and bumbling his way through addressing the gathered crowd, he finally concluded that ‘the tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history…they have never really launched themselves into the future’.

It may be that the belief that Africans had somehow been overlooked by the march of time underpins the Sarkozy government’s inability to read the mood of African people. Perhaps Sarkozy genuinely believes that everything that could be learnt about Africa has already been learnt, and what remains is to mould the continent into a more tolerable image.

This would go some way towards explaining the lack of finesse in the French approach to resolving issues on the continent. The world’s eyes may now be trained on Libya and Côte d’Ivoire, but consider the French conduct towards Chad, where the French government saw no contradiction between selling £11.8 million worth of arms – making Chad the second largest consumer of French military exports – days after negotiating the release of French ‘aid workers’ caught apparently smuggling children out of the country.

Never mind that Idriss Déby (president of Chad) has been implicated in everything from the crisis in Darfur, to brutally suppressing the rebellion seething in Chad, to pulling one of the most remarkable bait-and-switches in history in the construction of and allocation of resources from the Chad-Cameroon pipeline by the World Bank. A more measured approach would have considered the implications of arming a man who has proven time and again that his personal needs outweigh any national concerns, but a Sarkoziste approach only sees a potential ally in a global war for influence or cultural superiority that France has already lost.

To be sure, a concrete foreign policy is no guarantee of good behaviour – look at Obama’s tentative foray into the crisis in Libya. Still, there is some measure of cold comfort in knowing that it is only a matter of time before a US president flies half way around the world to start or extend a war only months after a British prime minister has sold that country a vast cache of weapons.

In contrast, the wild oscillations between interventionism and blatant neglect that characterise the French approach to international relations, worsened by Sarkozy’s own short sightedness and braggadocio, has introduced an unnecessary wild card into international conflict resolution, that seems to be itching for overly aggressive behaviour. Maybe it’s time we heard a little more from Germany or Japan.