The last time the British and French indulged together in a military adventure in the Middle East, they were humiliated and their noses rubbed in the dust by the Americans. In 1956, Dwight D. Eisenhower was so incensed at the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt over Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal that he threatened economic Armageddon: the selling of US government Sterling bonds that would have crashed the pound and sent the British economy into a tailspin.
The British Prime Minister Anthony Eden felt so threatened, that he immediately ordered a ceasefire – without even telling France and Israel, whose troops were fighting alongside – and ultimately had to resign in disgrace over the fiasco.
The Suez misadventure was a stark demonstration of the changed global power equations. London and Paris had acted with imperial arrogance, still thinking of themselves as great powers, but were brutally put in their place by Washington.
A British prime minister lost his job and it arguably speeded up the process of decolonisation as both the British and French realised the limits of their power.
Five decades after their predecessors learnt a bitter lesson in diminishment, another generation of French and British leaders has led the world into yet another military campaign in the region. Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron led the push for intervention in Libya, in the face of tremendous reluctance from Obama.
Mired already in Afghanistan and Iraq and with its economy in a mess, Washington has been facing the stark reality of its own limitations and decline.
In March this year, Time magazine carried a cover story headlined ‘Yes, America is in decline.’ It followed the theme of a similar cover story earlier in the year by Foreign Policy magazine, titled ‘American decline, this time it’s real’. Can anyone blame Obama then for not wanting to get embroiled in another energy-sapping war?
The reluctance on Libya initially looked like US vindicating this growing discourse on its decline as a global supercop. The reality of the military campaign though has shown up a different picture.
Till Wednesday, the coalition on Libya had flown 175 air sorties, of which US planes flew 113. Of the 112 cruise missiles fired on day one of the campaign, only three were fired by the British, and one of them reportedly got stuck in the launch tube of HMS Triumph, the only British submarine in action.
The British only have about a dozen or so fighters and bombers, two frigates and a submarine. The French have more hardware, including an aircraft carrier, but there’s no doubt that it’s only the Americans who’re providing the real firepower.
Sarkozy may puff and strut in the UN and at home to shore up falling popularity ratings, David Cameron may try his best to look like a statesman at war while his government is sacking thousands of government workers and NATO is formally taking over command of combat operations but the military reality over Libya’s skies is clear.
Even as Obama was bullied into joining the Libyan fight – including by those in his own administration who believed in it – his message has evolved into a simple one to the Europeans: you wanted us to start, we did. But now it’s your fight, and you run it.
In fact, Obama has been looking to his allies to do some heavy lifting long before Libya. Last year, the Pentagon in its Quadrennial Defence Review, formally announced that the military burden of global security should be shared more by its allies.
The reality though is that among the old powers, everyone except the US has been dramatically cutting defence forces for over a decade.
According to NATO Secy General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Washington accounted for a little less than half of total NATO defence spending a decade ago.
Today it accounts for close to 75%, even after the recent defence cuts announced by US Secy of Defence Robert Gates. The Europeans can talk, but can do little else on their own.
Among the others, Russia has little motive to intervene abroad for universal principles, unless it is challenged in its own backyard.
China and India are the only other big powers who’ve been increasing defence spending but have absolutely zero appetite to get involved in any kind of a foreign fight as they focus on their own growth.
Is it any surprise then that when the UN Security Council voted to authorise the Libyan bombing, the countries who abstained included all the major emerging powers: Brazil, China, Germany, India and the Russian Federation?
In the 1990s, Madeline Albright propagated the notion of the United States as the “indispensable nation”. It was the kind of hyperbolic claim that always irritates and riles those have long been fed up with American overbearing.
The lesson of Libya though is clear: even though US is now in a period of unquestionable decline, the fact is that probably for another decade or so in real terms, American muscle will remain the only viable and practical recourse for large-scale military interventions in the name of humanitarianism of the kind we are now seeing.