Will Sarkozy get a statue in Tripoli?

French President Nicolas Sarkozy shakes hand with the number two in Libya's NTC Mahmoud Jibril after a joint press conference in Paris on 24 August 2011 Image copyright AFP
Image caption French President Nicolas Sarkozy took the lead in the international response to the Libyan uprising

Sometime when the fighting in Libya has subsided, when Col Muammar Gaddafi has been hunted down, when the National Transitional Council has started running the country, when security and essential services have been restored, there may be time for reflection.

How was this great uprooting of a dictator achieved? There will be huge pride inside the country that the people carved out their own destiny, that this rebellion was made in Libya rather than in the think-tanks of Washington. Yes, it was an Arab uprising, but it could not have succeeded without outside help.

In the final days - as we shall learn - Nato used drones, bombers, helicopters, electronic interference and special forces on the ground "painting" targets for the attack aircraft as the rebels closed in on the capital, Tripoli.

But if ever new statues are erected in Tripoli, French President Nicholas Sarkozy may just find a niche or a plinth. For internationally, this was his war. The French president is never shy in playing the leading role in any situation. Over Libya, he was roused by the activist-philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy.

The argument was simple. The West faced a moment of choice. A moral choice. It could stand by, as it had in Rwanda, and watch a massacre in Benghazi or it could intervene.

Intervention, however, was out of favour. President Bush and Iraq and the intractable Afghanistan had dulled appetites to intervene and carve out new democracies. But Europe - believing so strongly in soft power - had failed utterly in its own backyard at Srebrenica. Mr Sarkozy did not want another failure on his doorstep.

Blank cheque

So the French president, full of righteous certainty, attended a summit in Brussels determined to get backing for a no-fly zone. He garnered little support apart from UK Prime Minister David Cameron.

The words "no-fly zone" didn't even make it to the final communique. Europe believed, somehow, that sanctions and the opprobrium of the international community would sway Col Gaddafi.

Crucially, the Germans were against intervention and the Americans were decidedly lukewarm.

But Mr Sarkozy and the British worked on a clever UN resolution that got the Americans on-side and neutralised the opposition of the Chinese and the Russians.

Not only did they win the authorisation to enforce a "no fly-zone", but also, and crucially, the power to protect civilians.

This loosely drafted resolution enabled Nato to become, in effect, the air force for the rebels. Attacking Gaddafi's compound could always be justified as protecting civilians. It may be a long time before nations are given by the UN such a blank cheque again.

During all of this, President Sarkozy did not play the European leader. He acted as a powerful head of a nation state, free to act in what he saw as his country's interest and that of the international community.

It exposed the weakness of Europe in international affairs. Brussels was left on the sidelines, hosting conferences about future trade relationships with North Africa.

So the French president, without consulting his European partners, broke ranks and recognised the National Transitional Council (NTC).

After the UN resolution had been passed, even David Cameron was surprised to learn that French planes were already over Benghazi.

US role

The French took the lead but, in truth, the American military was needed in the opening rounds. Only they had the cruise missiles that could take out Col Gaddafi's air defence system. In the later stages, only the Americans had the drones that pinpointed for the rebels where the Gaddafi forces were.

But US President Barack Obama did not want American forces involved in another war. He wanted the Europeans to take a lead and so put down a marker for the future.

Europe would have to be the main actor in its own backyard.

Privately, at first, many European officials moaned about the French and British action. It was tough getting Nato to assume responsibility for running the operation. There were tensions. The Germans remained totally unconvinced. At the UN, they had stood with China and Russia and abstained.

In May, I had attended in Berlin a briefing with one of the most powerful figures in Germany. The military action was wrong and ill-thought through, he insisted. We did not understand Libya, he went on.

The relationship between tribes was complicated. Col Gaddafi had support in the country. If Nato's action failed to dislodge the Libyan leader, there would be the temptation to put Western troops on the ground.

It is of course true that some of those doubts may prove to be well founded. But as Libyans taste the elixir of freedom, Germany will debate whether it made the right choice.

Enigma

The Libyan operation has strengthened the Anglo-French relationship. Sarkozy and Cameron like each other. Both leaders believe the EU is a long long way from being able to take decisive action as a bloc.

When it comes to military action, the French and the British are indisputably the key players in Europe. Once the intervention began, the British along the French shouldered the burden of the operation.

Inside France, there is pride at the outcome. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe summed it up on seeing the liberation of Tripoli: "This is a subject of great satisfaction. France took risks, calculated risks, but the cause was just."

This time, Western intervention was judged to be on the side of the people of an Arab country and in tune with the West's values of freedom and democracy.

A final thought. It is part of the enigma of Sarkozy. He can act boldly and independently, even rashly. Yet when it comes to the eurozone, he is prepared to push for economic government that will weaken France's decision-making over its own economy.

As someone told me in France recently, he backs greater European unity as long as France - and Germany - remains in the driving seat.

But if the scenes of jubilation in Tripoli have a single western author, it is Nicolas Sarkozy.