There is something frivolous and absurd about France’s sudden recognition of the Libyan rebel leadership in Benghazi as a sort of quasi-government. Presumably it’s intended to give the impression Nicolas Sarkozy has a grip on events, it is evidence he does not know what to do any more than other European leaders.
The recognition of unelected and self-appointed leaders in countries in which civil war is raging is a reminder, rather, of 19th century imperialism, when the British, for instance, would choose a leader in a country like Afghanistan who was most likely to be co-operative. There is usually a price to be paid for this.
Leaders backed by outside powers may obtain arms and money, but their local credibility is unlikely to be enhanced. In Libya, Gaddafi can more easily deride his opponents as foreign dupes. If recognition of the Benghazi junta is aimed at providing political cover for later military intervention it is again unlikely to convince anybody that Libyans are taking the decisions.
What makes France’s move all the more surprising is that US intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq shows the devastating consequences of not having a credible local ally. The only thing known about the rebel leadership in Libya is that it is divided and ineffective. In Afghanistan the elevation of Hamid Karzai as leader in 2001, even when confirmed by election, left the US without a real partner. In Iraq in 2003 the US started its occupation by exercising power itself, but chose Iraqis as interlocutors who were without support. So far the Libyan crisis has exposed the low quality of European leadership in general, which is now confirmed by the French action. It is difficult to see what good it will do Libyans, except make them expect an intervention that may never come.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq