Sharp comments this week by the British and French foreign ministers, chiding other members of NATO for not supporting—and not doing more to carry out—more vigorous military operations against Libya underscore how much this intervention has been a project of France and the United Kingdom. Anne Applebaum, in her column on Tuesday, notes that it is a mischaracterization to describe the intervention as a “NATO operation” given that “there was no NATO discussion of the operation, no debate, no vote, no joint planning.” Moreover, NATO members as important as Germany and Turkey oppose the operation, and several smaller members have made no secret of their reservations and have balked at playing any more than a token role.
The special French and British interest in this intervention probably stems less from some old imperial swagger or sense of noblesse oblige than from, as I have noted earlier, more contemporary political circumstances and policy controversies in Paris and London. This episode does evoke memories, however, of the last time Britain and France joined forces to intervene militarily against an Arab autocrat in North Africa: the Suez crisis of 1956. In that case, the intervention was a response to Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal. Paris and London concocted with Israel a secret plan in which Israel would start the conflict by invading the Sinai peninsula, after which British and French forces would intervene, ostensibly to separate the Israelis from the Egyptians. The actual goals of the operation were to regain control of the canal and, it was hoped, to set in motion events that would lead to Nasser’s downfall. The similarity with the Libyan intervention thus includes having an immediate objective (protecting the canal, or protecting Libyan citizens) coupled with the less openly declared objective of regime change.
The French, British, and Israelis succeeded militarily at Suez, but their operation was a political and diplomatic fiasco—leading, among other things, to an early termination of Anthony Eden’s prime ministry. Unlike 2011, when London and Paris won support from the United States and endorsement by the United Nations for using force against Libya, in 1956 the U.S.-supported action in the United Nations took the form of opposition to the intervention and a call for withdrawal of all foreign forces from Egypt. When Britain and France wielded their vetoes in the Security Council, the United States and others opposed to the intervention—using a procedure devised during the Korean War—moved the matter to the General Assembly.
There are some obvious differences in the circumstances of 1956 and 2011 that help to explain the diametrically opposite diplomatic results. In addition to the Israelis not being involved in Libya, the current intervention could be clothed in the rationale of humanitarianism and the idea that innocent Libyans were being protected from Muammar Qaddafi’s vengeance. With Suez, what was being protected was a ditch and the French and British economic and strategic interests that went with it.
The U.S. response to the Suez crisis was shaped in part by the historical accident of it happening to coincide with the Soviet Union’s forceful suppression of a popular uprising in Hungary. The Eisenhower administration did not want to appear inconsistent in denouncing the one use of military force while acceding to its allies’ use of it elsewhere. In 2011, the comparisons being made are not with anything another major power is doing in another region but instead with what people in the street are doing elsewhere in the Middle East.
Whether or not old imperial juices are flowing today in Paris and London, the events in Libya probably are triggering thoughts in the minds of historically conscious Middle Easterners about not only Suez but also other aspects of the French and British colonial legacy in the Middle East. That includes the carving up of much of the Ottoman Empire by British and French officials after World War I and the continuing dominance of those two European powers in the resulting Arab states for the next two decades.