After an initial burst of aerial strikes on Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi's defenses by the United States, the Barack Obama administration stepped back to hand over the bulk of operations to Britain and France under the NATO banner. The passing of the baton made pragmatic sense for Washington, which has been hard-pressed since the corporate bailouts of 2008-2009 to cut its ballooning budget deficit.
Even playing second fiddle to Britain and France in the Libyan
conflict has been controversial in the US, with the Republican opposition crying hoarse about Obama running a de facto war without congressional authorization. Last Friday, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted against formal approval of the ongoing American participation in the combat in Libya.
The recent televised debates of early hopefuls for the Republican presidential nomination revealed an isolationist but fiscally responsible streak among candidates backed by the Tea Party movement. They broke ranks with traditional Republicans by arguing that the US must put its own indebted economy in order and disentangle completely from the slow-attrition war in Libya (besides pulling out bag and baggage from Afghanistan).
But no such wisdom has yet dawned in Britain and France, which are emptying their depleted exchequers to pay for air assaults in Libya. According to the French Defense Ministry, Paris is spending US$1.4 million each day in the Libyan war, while some predict that Britain may incur a cost of $1.4 billion if it continues hitting targets in Libya until September.
Some Western media outlets mocked at the ridiculous spectacle of Gaddafi amusing himself with a game of chess against a Russian sports official when Libya was on fire. What the governments of Britain and France are doing in Libya is no less an act of fiddling while rioters are running amok in London and Paris against benefit retrenchments.
If British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy are gambling on the Libyan mission as a diversionary tactic to pacify citizens furious at their tanking economies, it is poor politics. The eventual ouster of Gaddafi will not restore British and French jobs, subsidized college education, or welfare benefits.
If Cameron and Sarkozy are placing bets on military Keynesianism (a spinoff economic theory that big war spending can pull a country out of recession by revving up demand for the defense industry and heavy machinery sectors), history shows that past wars in Suez (1956) and the Falklands (1982) did not magically pull Britain and France out of economic slumps.
Cameron has even rebuked senior British naval and air force officials who have rung alarm bells that Britain's air fighting capacity will be badly undermined if the Libyan war goes on indefinitely. The Conservative prime minister struck an adamant note that the British military would keep waging war in Libya "as long as is necessary".
One plausible reason why deficit-laden London and Paris have plunged into the Libyan war is geopolitical. American strategists have commented that North Africa is a "European affair", ie a sphere of influence that has greater strategic value for Europe than for the US.
Although Europe's global footprint has been shrinking in the past few years while China's shadow has lengthened, the urge to dominate Africa is viewed by some European foreign policy pundits as natural. Denomination of regions of Africa as "Anglophone", "Francophone" and "Lusophone" zones owes to this nostalgic neo-colonial mentality.
Secondly, European policymakers are growing jittery about a deadly weapon that Gaddafi has unleashed since the war began - African immigrants and refugees headed towards Italy first and then seeping across open borders to the rest of the European continent.
The Mediterranean boat people were hitherto controlled by the Gaddafi regime in exchange for symbolic and economic concessions from the European Union. That sinister pact, where desperate human beings were pawns in an international diplomatic game, came unstuck once NATO started bombing Libya.
So, Britain and France (disregarding Italy's agony about a deluge of refugees triggered by the NATO bombing campaign) are apparently fighting to get rid of Gaddafi and to install a friendlier government that will curb the African exodus to the continent as a matter of policy.
Here too, the contradictions are glaring. A Europe that is aging and demographically declining actually needs more skilled and unskilled workers from the developing world. Opening "fortress Europe" is good economics, but bad politics, which is based on racial discrimination and religious profiling in both Britain and France.
It bears reminder that France and Britain had for long coddled Arab dictators in North Africa, including the ousted Ben Ali of Tunisia and Gaddafi himself since his diplomatic "rehabilitation" by the West and the influx of European companies into Libya's oil sector a few years ago. The best-case projection for the Quixotic European war in Libya is that Paris and London are making amends for their past misdeeds and policy errors. But such course corrections are costly and unsustainable in the present economic doldrums.
The rhetorical claim that Britain and France are rescuing the people of Libya from state-sponsored massacres through a war on humanitarian grounds raises a deeper question: why are Cameron and Sarkozy not moved by humanitarian concern for their own masses who are reeling under acute economic distress?
The fragile economies of Europe are in such abject state that they cannot wish away the classic "guns versus butter" choice. Britain and France saw the writing on the wall last November, when they chose to share troops, aircraft carriers and nuclear weapons facilities, thereby diluting sovereignty in an attempt to notch up some direly required savings in their respective military budgets. But their joint war in Libya is proving penny wise, pound foolish.
Germany, which has been skewered in the Anglo-American press for chicaning out of the Libyan war effort, is behaving more humanely than Britain and France by tending to its own citizens' plights in tough times. Its neutral stance on Libya is proving to be wiser and ironically in the greater interest of the crisis-plagued European Union, whose survival in one piece depends on stable economic recovery rather than Pyrrhic military successes.
Cameron and Sarkozy are bankrupting their treasuries and jeopardizing the wider European integration project. The European Union's skepticism is mounting among distressed European publics by the day even as French and British jets fly sorties over Libya. Nero's ghost has possessed present ruling elites in London and Paris. These two European capitals are condemned to keep burning until more accountable politicians take power and clean up the mess.
By Sreeram Chaulia