The military intervention in Libya led by the French and British enters into its third month without a political solution in sight, threatening to pull the United States into a quagmire that Barack Obama tried to avoid.
Washington’s European allies are at risk, in the short term, of yielding to the temptation of mobilizing forces on the ground to try to tip the balance of power against Gadhafi in a civil war that drags on.
The colonel has been able to maintain control over the major urban centers of the western and southern regions of Libya despite the international isolation of Tripoli.
The military actions of the countries in NATO went beyond the terms of mere protection of civilians safeguarded by a U.N. Security Council decision and placed London, Paris, Rome and Washington on a collision course with a large number of Arab states as well as powers like China, India, Russia, Brazil or South Africa.
The United States, after assuming military command and coordination in the initial phase of the airstrikes and naval participation, had scaled back in its participation in the offensive push against Gadhafi, considering Libya to not be a country of strategic interest.
The lack of coordination, political differences and military insufficiencies of European allies ultimately constrained the United States from continuing direct participation in the attacks, and it gave coverage to a dubious coalition of the colonel’s opponents.
The Libyan civil war, which mainly involved the interests of allies such as Italy, Spain, France or Turkey, reveals one of the greatest paradoxes confronting the United States: even when the White House intends to distance itself from certain regional crises, the network of international alliances and interests eventually drags Washington into unwanted interventions.
The Backup of the Allies
Despite all these impediments, the United States needs European allies to finance, politically sustain and militarily support the strategy defined for North Africa and the Middle East, a strategy reiterated by Obama last week.
The rhetoric in support of Tunisia and Egypt, the condemnation of violence in Libya, Syria and Yemen, the silence about the repression of the Shiites in Bahrain, the omissions regarding democratization in countries such as Morocco, Saudi Arabia or Jordan have defined the strategic framework outlined by Obama, and in all the cases it will be convenient for Washington to rely on NATO and the European Union.
The impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nevertheless, will be able to be resolved in the short term by a serious diplomatic divergence if Turkey and some E.U. states support a unilateral declaration of Palestinian independence in September, but the consequences on the ground will be small.
A Democratic administration will never withdraw financial and military support to Israel; however, it condemns the expansion of settlements in the West Bank and, as a last resort — as with NATO allies and the E.U. — will find in the campaign to contain Iran’s nuclear military program sufficient grounds to avoid diplomatic isolation of Tel Aviv.
The Iranian issue also affects the relations with the Baltic countries, Eastern Europe and Turkey to the extent that Washington and NATO have not yet agreed with Moscow upon the terms of a possible partnership for a system of missile defense which is ultimately justified by the alleged threat from Tehran.
Lost in the Hindu Kush
The hangover of a war without a mission in Mesopotamia, where Iran emerges as the beneficiary, clearly left the Europeans with diminished influence on the planned partial withdrawal of North American troops from Iraq, but already in Afghanistan, the U.S. needs all the backup possible.
The ongoing negotiations with the Taliban will, with difficulty, lead the rebels to participate in December’s Bonn Conference, which marks the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the interim Afghanistan government and, through negotiations, has shown itself to be incapable of ending the war.
The impossibility of military victory is put forward as a justification for phasing out the argument that permanent bases of terrorist organizations capable of representing a regional and international danger in Afghanistan will disappear.
The abandonment of the Afghan war theatre will be well-received in Western public opinion, but it is a solution of illusory appeal if the neutralization of Afghanistan — regardless of the political regime in Kabul or the sharing of power designed by Westerners, Russians and Iranians — is made in terms that antagonize Pakistan or is seen as a threat by India.
All of these issues that Obama addresses in this European tour are revealing some characteristics of U.S. relations with its major partners in the Old Continent, which go far beyond economic and financial dimensions.
NATO, the presence of the United Kingdom and France on the Security Council and the political structures of the E.U. represent the strongest support of the United States despite growing constraints on the projection of power by Europeans.
The support that the Europeans offer does not extend beyond the traditional areas of influence in Africa and focuses on the foothills of the Caucasus, but it contains Russia and from the Middle East, reaches forward to Central Asia thanks to the increasingly significant contribution of Turkey.
Beyond the economic and cultural weight of Europe, colonial legacies provide a disproportionate global influence that is unparalleled in powers from other continents.
In Tokyo, in November 2009, not having completed a year in office, Obama proclaimed himself “America’s first Pacific president.”
The “president of the Pacific,” through the symbolism of a childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, needs to rebalance Washington’s strategy to try to accommodate the interests of the emerging powers, especially China and India.
In Europe, most notably in countries with older historical links with the United States, Washington continues to find a nucleus of political support and a global influence without parallel.