Small Wars Create Big Problems for U.K.’s Cameron, France’s Hollande.
By Richard Gowan, May 4, 2015, Column
Would you rather follow David Cameron or Francois Hollande into battle? The British prime minister and the French president have both had to navigate a steady stream of small wars, and both face criticism for their responses. Cameron was an early advocate for the international intervention in Libya in 2011, but stands accused of mishandling its chaotic aftermath. Hollande won praise for sending troops to stem the conflicts in Mali and the Central African Republic (CAR) in 2013, but France has struggled to extract itself from either of its turbulent former colonies.
The two leaders’ decisions have been under particular scrutiny in recent weeks. In the run-up to this week’s British elections, the opposition has highlighted the Libyan mess. Labour leader Ed Miliband has faulted Cameron for a “failure of post-conflict planning,” saying he “was wrong to assume that Libya was a country whose institutions could simply be left to evolve and transform themselves.”
If Cameron stands accused of strategic indolence, his French counterpart is paying the price for his activism. Last week, Hollande was stung by reports that French troops sexually abused children in CAR in 2014. He promised “no mercy,” but there are suspicions of a cover-up. There is also alarm over a surge of violence in the north of Mali, where rebel groups supposedly suppressed by French forces remain active.
If the campaigns in CAR and Mali drag on indefinitely, Hollande may be blamed for wasting France’s limited resources on two strategic sideshows. Conversely, Cameron will face the claim that he “lost Libya” for years, whatever happens in this week’s polls. These accusations are not entirely fair and, more seriously, such blame games obscure a larger strategic question: What sorts of interventions can Britain, France and their European allies hope to launch with any chance of success in the future?
Britain did not, in fact, completely neglect post-conflict planning in Libya in 2011. It supported planning by the United Nations for a postwar civilian assistance mission that initially appeared successful. Libyan leaders explicitly rejected even a minimal international military presence. Some observers, including U.S. President Barack Obama, have concluded that the West should have gone in “full-force” to ensure postwar stability anyway. There is no way of telling whether this would have resulted in stability or an Afghan-style insurgency.
Asked how he might now make up for Britain’s flawed postwar strategy, Miliband has said that he would reconvene the Friends of Libya, a contact group for the countries that backed the intervention. This is not a compelling answer, as the group was little more than a talking shop. It is true that the Cameron government did not pump resources into Libya after 2011 and only sporadically engaged with the worsening security situation there until this year. But while Miliband has rightly argued for more “on the ground” analysis of the current conflict, it is unclear that he has a better strategy.
The U.K. is ultimately in a long-term process of strategic and military retrenchment that will almost certainly continue whoever is in charge. The British army is still recovering from its long tour in Afghanistan. Even some of the officers who led that campaign admit that it was a poorly managed failure. The present government has cut the defense budget stringently, and no future administration is likely to reverse this.
France faces immense financial pressures too, but is more willing to contemplate the use of force. During the Syrian chemical weapons crisis in 2013, Hollande used his presidential prerogative to prepare for air strikes. Cameron put the issue to parliament and lost, reportedly reducing Obama’s appetite for action.
U.S. officials mutter that France is replacing the U.K. as their natural military partner in Europe, although both London and Paris have contributed to the air campaign in Iraq against the so-called Islamic State. Yet the idea that Hollande is innately trigger-happy is misleading. As I have noted, he made extensive efforts to avoid getting entangled in Mali and CAR, and only intervened in both countries when violence had started to run out of control. Paris has tried to hand off both countries to U.N. peacekeepers as fast as it can, arguably risking fresh instability by doing so. While Hollande may enjoy the kudos he wins for his interventions, he may also privately wish that he could follow Cameron’s example and avoid additional foreign adventures.
Despite their apparent differences, Britain and France are searching for answers to the same trifecta of challenges. Both have to rein in their medium- and long-term military ambitions to match their limited resources. Yet both also face major short-term pressures to fight the fires flaring up on Europe’s southern flank. And neither has hit upon a fully satisfactory strategy to take on more crises in their near abroad while simultaneously shifting to more-modest military postures. The end of the Afghan campaign may have eased the situations, but now there is Russia to worry about.
As Nick Witney and I argued in a paper for the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) last year, the long-term solution is for Britain, France and their NATO allies to work more closely with a mixture of U.N. forces and African and Arab coalitions to handle trouble spots like Mali and Libya. Arab air forces played a supporting role in the 2011 Libyan campaign and have taken a much more prominent one in the current conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. France has prioritized revitalizing military cooperation with African states to tackle threats in the Sahel. Britain is exploring options for offering the U.N. more troops in the post-Afghan era.
If British and French leaders are smart, they can leverage these forms of cooperation as force multipliers, allowing Paris and London to take a pivotal role in multiple crises in the Middle East and Africa without getting dragged into quagmires. Yet there will still be crises like those in Libya, Mali and CAR that spiral out of control, forcing European leaders to decide on interventions at short notice. They are almost bound to make some poor judgments and bad decisions. Cameron and Hollande have made their fair share of strategic mistakes, but crisis management is inherently a process of trial and error.
Richard Gowan is research director at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. His weekly column for World Politics Review, Diplomatic Fallout, appears every Monday.