Sarko strikes a pose

The French president's bellicosity masks his lack of substance.

The sudden U-turn by President Nicolas Sar­kozy, in which he abandoned cosy relations with Middle Eastern dictators in favour of a warlike pose in defence of oppressed and unarmed peoples, is rather perplexing. One explanation for it could be the threat of an electoral rout that the president's party faces in France. But that is unlikely: the Libyan cause is not especially popular and public opinion fears an uncontrolled escalation of the conflict.

Furthermore, the president's reputation is so badly damaged that it would be impossible for a foreign adventure - even a successful one - to change the stakes electorally. And in any event, the chances are slim of this operation being a glittering success in the short term.

There could be a more cynical motive - to jump on the bandwagon of "democratisation" and if possible grab hold of the reins, so that France regains its regional standing along with a prime role in defining European policy across the Mediterranean. This would make up for the failure of the "Mediterranean Union" (a project Sarkozy championed during his 2007 presidential campaign), conceived as it was in terms of regimes and not people.

This would have the advantage of making Sarkozy look like a proper statesman; cynical, for sure, but capable of envisaging a long-term strategy. This long-term explanation fits well enough with the urgency of the moment: as the fall of Benghazi loomed, it was necessary to act quickly, especially as France had reached the point of no return. Given that reconciliation with Gaddafi was no longer possible, everything had to be done to ensure his departure.

But this rational explanation does not fit with the hesitations, flip-flops and sudden whims characteristic of any policy carried out under the president's aegis. It is as if, to him, "communication" matters more than strategy, and admiring op-eds by public intellectuals matter more than public opinion. Nobody in France is taken in any longer by the president's posturing and spin, and if the Libyan adventure turns sour, it will count against Sarkozy.

For the president, "position" comes before strategy: fire the first shots, make it seem as if France is directing operations (when it's really the Americans) and behave as a kind of president of Europe - which is the best way to weaken France's role, because its partners will do everything they can to make sure it doesn't happen again. This posturing causes as much concern in France as abroad, because it has too often gone hand in hand with a lack of consistency, as was the case with his inability to push through the Mediterranean Union.

Sarkozy's volte-face, carried out in the space of a few weeks, is cause for scepticism. Above all, it leaves the president exposed if the best-case scenario does not unfold - that is, a rapid seizure of power by the Libyan rebels under the aerial protection of Nato, followed by an end to the fighting and the establishment of a provisional government. One can - and must - wish for such an outcome, but it is far from being the most likely.

There is a fundamental problem facing all the participants here, not just France: whatever the reasons for the decision to intervene, and whatever the circumstances in which it was taken, the objectives are unclear. And here the patterns established in Iraq and Afghanistan are being reproduced: were those interventions only intended to overthrow Saddam Hussein and the Taliban, or were they the prelude to "state-building", "peacekeeping", "democratisation" and so on?

By offering to protect the Libyan opposition, the west is, in effect, engaged in helping it take power and therefore in overthrowing Gaddafi. To abandon an opposition that could not win alone would be an admission of defeat and would leave the door open for Gaddafi to take revenge. The timing is crucial here: neither the fragile coalition assembled for the intervention nor the official war aims (to support democratisation, but not regime change) will prevent a stalemate in the conflict. If this happens, then Sarkozy's emotional savvy and media management will be of no help to him.

The great strength of the movement for democracy in Arab countries is that it is both indigenous and national. That is why it has flourished today, rather than after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

To see it develop in the shadow of Nato warplanes (even if the west is intervening under a different name) risks depriving it precisely of its political legitimacy and justifies other interventions, such as the Saudi army's support for the emir of Bahrain in his struggle against his own people. (And what if Iran sends its warplanes to Bahrain to prevent Saudi armoured cars from firing on civilians?)

The old suspicion of double standards will resurface, casting doubt on the whole of western policy in the region: why single out one dictator for toppling while letting it be understood that another has a free hand to oppress his own people?

How is it possible to develop a strategy that recognises people's aspirations, security needs and the regional balance of power when we are caught between a discourse of moral obligation in which few people believe, and the cynicism of a realpolitik that has never been realistic, because it believes in the stability of dictatorships?

We would have to begin by identifying the tangible problems at hand, instead of bandying about hollow notions such as "terrorism", "fear of immigration" and "the Muslim threat". In their place would be a political analysis of
social movements.

It has been clear since 1991 and the first Gulf war that there is no such thing as a surgical intervention; and that a UN Security Council resolution provides a legal framework but cannot define a military strategy. It is also clear that if Gaddafi holds on to power in any form it will be perceived as a defeat for the west and will make it impossible, or at least extremely costly, to protect Libya's civilian population.

This, perhaps, should have been considered before now. l

Olivier Roy is professor of social and political theory at the European University Institute in Florence. His most recent book is "Holy Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Part Ways" (C Hurst & Co, £20)

This commentary, written exclusively for the NS, was translated by Daniel Trilling

This article first appeared in the 28 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Why Libya? Why now?