There are few things more pitiful than a fading star trying to hold onto past glory. It’s a common phenomenon among athletes and entertainers. Empires frequently do the same. They strut, posture, and whine long after people stop paying attention to them.
The U.S. likely will eventually do the same. Uncle Sam is effectively bankrupt. Rising powers increasingly will deter the American government from intervening against them. Countries around the world, friend and foe alike, will be less inclined to take orders from Washington. Still, the U.S. remains the most powerful state. It will be able to preen as the world’s number one for some time.
France has no such luck. It hasn’t been a Great Power since World War I. That fratricidal conflict drained the land of Napoleon. The cost in lives, money, and morale left the victorious member of the Entente defeated in everything except the final battle. No surprise, France was ill-prepared for World War II and quickly defeated by Hitler’s Germany.
Nevertheless, British and American leaders maintained the fiction that France was an important member of the winning coalition. As an act of charity they awarded France a UN Security Council seat.
France lost its colonial empire after spilling much blood in a vain attempt to retain Vietnam and Algeria. Acquiring a nuclear force de frappe won the country a few status points, but the U.S. dominated post-war Europe. French President Charles de Gaulle vetoed British entry into the common market, but in general France’s diplomacy failed to impress. Paris could affect events in Francophone Africa, but those countries did not much matter internationally.
France maintains a potent but limited military. It is impressive by European standards, but that isn’t much of a standard. Today, like most of its financially beleaguered neighbors, Paris plans on shrinking its military budget. When forced to choose between welfare and warfare states, there aren’t many Frenchmen—nor many Europeans—who will choose the latter.
However, President Nicolas Sarkozy is in political trouble. Which means he is ready for military adventure.
The time when the fabled man on horseback could seize power in France seems over. It took the French five tries, but they appear to finally have a republic worth keeping. Still, gunpowder politics might offer a democratic boost. In the U.S. war often has provided presidents with an effective election prop.
So now the hyperactive French president is marching about in platform shoes, bombing one nation and threatening many others. It is behavior fit for an old Jerry Lewis comedy.
President Sarkozy initially practiced the sort of realpolitik for which his nation was famous. As democracy protests raged in Tunisia his government offered its assistance to the dictator. Only when that geopolitical bet turned bad did Paris remember its revolutionary roots.
The French president was then reborn as a scourge of autocracy. Earlier he joined with his European colleagues in welcoming Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi back into polite society after the latter atoned for his terrorist and nuclear forays. Now President Sarkozy has guillotined the ghost of King Louis XVI and initiated war against Qaddafi. The stated grounds were fraudulent—Libya’s civil war was no worse than many others around the globe—but provided a convenient opportunity for Nicolas Sarkozy to climb atop the world stage.
Civilians must be protected, said the United Nations resolution. But that wasn’t enough for Nicolas Napoleon Sarkozy. Never mind international law. Qaddafi must go. The rebels must win. President Sarkozy recreated the old entente cordiale along with British Prime Minister David Cameron. Only one thing was missing: the old entente’s military force. France and Britain were no longer the Great Powers of old. So they needed to borrow airplanes from someone else. Which meant convincing Washington to join in their adventure.
The good news was President Obama said yes. The bad news was President Obama was serious about turning responsibility over to NATO. Which meant Messrs. Sarkozy and Cameron quickly found their countries at war essentially alone. While the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg pronounced in favor of the necessity of war, it had no airplanes to contribute. Germany abstained in the Security Council vote. Poland and Turkey opposed getting NATO involved. Italy and Spain preferred to mount air patrols against the now nonexistent Libyan air force. Only a handful of small nations contributed toward air-to-ground operations, leaving most of the burden on France and Britain.
Alas, they didn’t have enough planes. France and Britain each provided about twenty strike aircraft. Four other NATO countries each offered six. But the allies didn’t have enough weapons even for this sparse air armada. The governments found themselves running out of precision, laser-guided bombs.
The prospect of an embarrassing stalemate loomed. Muammar Qaddafi obviously hadn’t gotten the memo. He was supposed to “just go,” allowing President Sarkozy to march through the Arc de Triomphe to mass applause. However, victory was giving way to embarrassment.
French diplomats responded by begging their allies for help. They couldn’t understand why the Obama administration left them to fight the war they had said they were so desperate to fight.