U.N. To Lift Sanctions on Libya Despite French Veto Threat
Aug 20, 2003 Stratfor.com
Britain and Bulgaria jointly presented the United Nations Security Council with a resolution on Aug. 18 that formally would end all U.N. sanctions against Libya. A vote is expected within the next few days.
The sanctions were enacted after the 1988 Lockerbie bombing in which Libyan agents were implicated. After years of negotiation, Tripoli finally agreed to take responsibility for its agents' actions and pay out $2.7 billion in compensation, about $10 million to the families of each victim. In exchange, the United Nations would lift sanctions -- and that, as they say, should be that.
Paris sees things differently.
France is strenuously hinting that it will veto the kiss-and-make-up resolution. On Aug. 19, France formally requested that the U.N. Security Council delay consideration of the resolution, and on Aug. 20, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin telephoned both his American and British counterparts to make his case.
The rationale is that in 1989 a Libyan agent destroyed a French jet departing Brazzaville. Long before the Lockerbie situation reached settlement, the French government came to a compensation agreement with the Libyans in 1999 for $200,000 per victim; lawyers' fees absorbed most of this payment. Now that Paris has seen Washington extract a much higher price, the French want more money.
If this sounds like sour grapes, that is because it is.
As one American diplomat at the United Nations bluntly put it, "We're getting a better deal and they're upset. It's not our fault that the French let their people get screwed." U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher was only slightly less blunt in calling the French action "last-minute" and "extraneous," and he reminded all concerned that the French government had lobbied for lifting U.N. sanctions against Libya even before the 1989 compensation agreement had been reached.
Paris' veto threat is a bluff -- and a bad one at that.
The British-Bulgarian resolution already has both U.S. and Russian support and, French opposition aside, is expected to be a shoo-in when it comes up for a vote in the days ahead. A French veto would matter little to the United States, which -- despite relenting to the lifting of U.N. sanctions -- has no intention of loosening its own sanctions at this time.
However, it would upset almost everyone else.
First and foremost, Tripoli will be quite put out. France's energy major, TotalFinaElf, has substantial holdings in Libya that it could pretty much kiss good bye. Ironically, Libya's rogue-state status is a boon to French foreign policy. So long as Libya remains beyond the fringe of respectability, France can use it as a pawn in its geopolitical chess game vis-а-vis the United States. Should Libya become a "normal" country, Paris knows it cannot compete with American money or Italian proximity. Unfortunately, threats are not a particularly smart means of keeping Libya in France's back pocket. As Libyan Foreign Minister Abdel Raman Shalgham said Aug. 20, "France is using pressure and blackmail and we do not accept this."
Second, France also greatly prizes its influence in the Arab world. Voting -- alone -- to keep sanctions in place on an Arab state when even the Americans are willing to live-and-let-live would not be interpreted as anything less than extremely bad form. French diplomatic efforts throughout the region would suffer as a result.
Third, the French position is rubbing Paris' European partners the wrong way. The foreign company with the largest operating presence is Italian oil firm Agip/ENI. Rome would not appreciate it if Paris blocked the lifting of sanctions. With Italy currently holding the rotating European Union presidency, angering Italy takes on another layer of significance.
Fourth, a French veto would be very damaging to a United Nations that already has had its credibility stripped to the bone because of the recent Franco-American spat over Iraq. The United States already considers the Libyan matter closed and is only letting the matter pass through the Security Council to humor its British ally. In the case of a French veto, Washington -- and other players -- then simply would ignore the U.N. sanctions, undermining the United Nations as a whole. That would critically injure one of the final bastions of international authority to which Paris -- by virtue of its veto power -- still can cling.
Finally, there's the United States itself. While Washington isn't exactly Tripoli's best friend, it does approve of the path that the country is following and would like to encourage it by removing the sanctions and setting the stage for the lifting of EU sanctions as well. There also is the significant fact that the mere action of lifting sanctions will unlock a large chunk of the compensation payments.
In short, all vetoing Libya's rehabilitation would accomplish would be the generation of considerable ill will in Europe and the Arab world toward all things French. (It is likely that already there is so much ill will toward Paris in Washington that no one would notice the difference.)
If the Libyan sanctions had been up for discussion as recently as two years ago, France probably would have been able to convince Washington to delay a deal until Paris could hammer out a better package. Those good old days are gone. Paris' staunch opposition to the Iraq war and the U.S. administration's newfound distrust of Paris have knocked France's standing in Washington down to such a level that the country no longer even factors into consideration.
The bulk of the change in the U.S. mindset occurred because of the French government's position to the war in Iraq. When Paris looked into the future last year, it saw a powerful United States that was unchallenged on the global scene. It saw a United States that could act anywhere -- anytime -- without so much as a spare thought of Paris' position or interests. Therefore, Paris fought tooth and nail to prevent the Iraq war.
The French government's position on the Iraq war gained it much popularity, both domestically and abroad. Most non-Americans strongly opposed the war and were offended by what they perceived as Washington's steamrollering. But at the same time most governments were pragmatic enough to realize that Washington either was their ultimate security guarantor (Poland), their primary source of economic support (Morocco), or both (Japan), and that opposing Washington would be counterproductive in the long term. Therefore, the French policy not only ruptured Paris' relations with the United States, but also strained them with most of its European allies.
In the months since, Washington's willingness to throw its weight around has given new meaning to "power politics," and countries are more willing to concede to the American point of view. Meanwhile, states that find themselves in opposition to a U.S. stance are discovering that few others are listening. It is one thing for Paris to discover that France does not figure highly into Washington's calculus. It is quite another to find out that the same holds true in Tripoli.