US Reluctant to Support More European Adventures in MENA


From Richard Gowan, World Politics Review :  Britain, traditionally obsessive about the Atlantic alliance, has responded to the messages coming from the U.S. by deepening defense cooperation with France. Paris and London have also worked in tandem on both Libya and Syria, and the U.K. hastened to assist the French intervention in Mali. This cross-channel diplomacy is peripheral to the great debates inside the EU about austerity and the eurozone and, as I have previously noted, it has sometimes alienated Germany. But it looks very much like the first steps toward the development of the self-sufficient European security agenda the Americans say they want.

There are only two problems with this. First, however effectively they cooperate, European powers are still trapped in a cycle of defense cuts. Their limitations as military crisis managers are likely to increase rather than diminish in the years ahead. Second, the Obama administration seems to think that European diplomatic decision-making in recent crises has been at best erratic and at worst feckless.

As a recent article on Obama and interventionism by Dexter Filkins in the New Yorker underlines, the White House was unimpressed by the initial Franco-British response to the war in Libya. U.S. officials felt that Paris and London were too eager to get into the fight, and take the U.S. with them, on the basis of a flawed plan for a no-fly zone that was unlikely to make much difference to the ground battle. When the U.S. eventually decided to support action, it insisted on a far broader campaign. . . .

Nonetheless, the Libyan and Malian crises exposed a trans-Atlantic rift over crisis management, especially along Europe’s southern flank in North Africa and the Middle East. Whereas the U.S. is committed to strategic caution, London and Paris are willing to experiment with tactical risk-taking. A similar pattern has emerged over Syria, as Britain and France have argued for military aid to the rebels while the U.S. has focused on the dangers of weaponry falling into the wrong hands. In all these crises, the U.S. priority has often appeared to be to impose some discipline on, or even constrain, its European allies.

This pattern is likely to continue in future crises due to the basic imbalance in power between the U.S. and its frustrated European friends. For Britain and France, tactical risk-taking is now a way of life. The two erstwhile superpowers lack the military, political and diplomatic resources to undertake the sort of comprehensive effort necessary to stabilize a crisis zone like Syria, and Afghanistan has taught them to be suspicious about such projects anyway. They have to try to shape crises with targeted interventions such as limited, rapid military operations and forging alliances with more-or-less reliable rebel groups.

The U.S. has faced, and will continue the face, the dilemma of whether it can back up these European adventures without overcommitting its much greater, but increasingly constrained strategic resources. In a manageable case like Mali, France may be able to conclude a short, sharp war with limited U.S. support. In Syria, by contrast, the British and French may be able to stir up trouble, but would need America to intervene more substantially. With friends like these, perhaps it’s no surprise that the U.S. is still trying to cooperate with Russia over Syria.

Richard Gowan is the associate director for Crisis Management and Peace Operations at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.   (graphic: Peter Schrank/PressEurop)

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