Rebel march on Tripoli buoys France, UK

The general reaction in Europe is guarded optimism as rebels have moved quickly into Tripoli. The UK and France were driving forces behind the NATO intervention in Libya.

Benoit Tessie/Reuters
Libyans living in France wave flags of the Kingdom of Libya during a protest against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi outside of the Libyan embassy in Paris on Aug. 22.

While it may be too early for any triumphal "high fives" in Libya, the entrance of rebels in the capital Tripoli brings considerable relief in London and Paris.

Britain’s David Cameron and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy initiated the drive for NATO intervention in Libya, aimed at protecting civilians from Col. Muammar Qaddafi's forces. Almost right away, France recognized the rebel government, even as Libya appeared to be mired in a civil war.

The sudden news of Mr. Qaddafi’s near-end thus brings vindication for both leaders in a European holiday month that has been rather cheerless. August started shortly after the mass killing rampage of Anders Breivik in Norway, continued with markets falling in the midst of a debt crisis and an unsettling US debate on debt ceilings, then slouched into the mayhem of London riots and further bitter tussles over European unity and what to do about Greek debt. Time magazine's cover offered “The Decline and Fall of Europe.”

“The images of cheering crowds in the center of Tripoli are promises for the future,” opens an editorial today in the French newspaper Le Monde. “It is the victory of an international effort in which France and the United Kingdom have occupied a seat in the first row.”

If Qaddafi leaves, President Sarkozy will have both Libya and an earlier French-led ouster of Laurent Gbagbo in the Ivory Coast to use as examples of a renewed French internationalism in the 2012 national elections next spring.

In Britain, the success of the rebels allowed Mr. Cameron, up to his waist in damage control from the riots and a recent media scandal, a buoyant moment outside 10 Downing Street only weeks after his foreign secretary said the Arab Spring was starting to turn into an Arab winter.

“We have no confirmation of Qaddafi's whereabouts, but at least two of Qaddafi's sons have been detained,” Cameron said. “His regime is falling apart and in full retreat…. Qaddafi must stop fighting, without conditions – and clearly show that he has given up any claim to control Libya.... This has not been our revolution, but we can be proud that we have played our part.”

European markets had been expected to fall again today after German Chancellor Angela Merkel said “no” Sunday to issuing eurozone bonds designed to soak up debt. Yet eurozone markets opened on the upside today due to developments in Tripoli. “Let's not be angels here,” says Karim Emile Bitar of the Institute for International Studies in Paris. “It will be NATO countries that will get the lion’s share of post-Qaddafi contracts in Libya. We are already seeing this.”

Mobilizing air power

Sarkozy and Cameron initiated the UN and NATO mobilization of air power to support besieged Libyan rebels in March, a belated reaction by Europe to the Arab Spring. French jets stopped Qaddafi’s forces from taking the rebel capital of Benghazi only hours after a Paris conference in March, and French weapons and training aided the rebels in quickly entering Tripoli. A Libya stability conference is already planned for Paris next week.

Privately, European officials may be concerned about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have dragged on after their presumed end. Yet the general reaction in Europe on Libya is guarded optimism. EU policymakers are calling for aid, though in an era of austerity there is little desire for any the responsibility of nation building. (Nor is it clear that Libyan rebels, already sensitive about the levels of NATO support, want any help with that.)

Regardless of the sizable questions about “what next?” in Libya, the corner being turned there is seen here as a positive development for ordinary Libyans who have suffered “42 years of an atrocious dictatorship,” Mr. Bitar says.

A change in Libya’s fortunes may also aid Egypt and bordering Tunisia, where the Arab Spring revolution of last January has been jeopardized by the proximity of the Libyan war. “The Tunisians can now feel more confident,” argues Bitar.

But for Europe, the hard part lies ahead, says Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

“Assuming the Qaddafi regime falls, which appears quite likely, Sarkozy and Cameron will enjoy a certain political boost,” says Mr. Kupchan. “But it is important to keep in mind there is a lot of uncertainty ahead [in Europe and Libya]. The success of a NATO operation won’t overwhelm the financial crisis in Europe, the riots, the pulling and hauling over immigration…[an overturning of Qaddafi] is a positive development in the North African region toward a more liberal politics, but a relatively incremental one.”

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