PARIS – In diplomatic terms, international military action against Libya’s leader went from the brainstorming stage to the shooting-at-tanks stage with stunning speed.
Saturday’s launch of U.S., British and French airstrikes with Arab backing and U.N. mandate was not universally endorsed. And it’s unclear whether it will be fast enough to do what its proponents want, to shore up rebel forces and oust Libya’s leader Moammar Gadhafi.
But the cascade of quick, weighty decisions getting there was unusual – just one of the unusual things about this dramatic operation.
It has the backing of the Arab League, which has balked at other interventions in the Arab world and is known more for lengthy deliberations than action.
And it was initiated by the French, who famously opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
It was French President Nicolas Sarkozy who announced that 22 participants in an emergency summit in Paris on Saturday had agreed to launch armed action against Gadhafi’s military. And a French fighter jet reported the first strike Saturday afternoon, against a Libyan military vehicle in or near Benghazi, the heart of the uprising against the longtime leader, before over a hundred cruise missiles fired from U.S. and British ships slammed into this north African nation.
The action in Libya came after the international community was slow to respond to swelling protests in Tunisia and then Egypt in January and February that toppled longtime autocrats and sparked uprisings around the Arab world.
Leaders and diplomats dawdled less when Libya’s Gadhafi started shooting at protesters.
On Feb. 26, the U.N. Security Council imposed sanctions on Gadhafi’s regime after just about two days of discussion, and as rebel forces gained ground against the Libyan military.
On March 10, France recognized the opposition Interim Governing Council as the “legitimate representatives of the Libyan people.” The next day, the 27-nation European Union offered the opposition similar support.
With Gadhafi’s forces showing signs of a resurgence, the 22-member Arab League called March 12 for the U.N.’s Security Council to impose a no-fly zone.
That was a crucial moment, especially for the United States. Without Arab support, any intervention would have risked being seen as a Western occupation.
Sarkozy hastily gathered 22 high-powered guests for a lunch summit Saturday: U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, British Prime Minister David Cameron, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa, and top officials from around Europe and Arab countries.
After lunch, Sarkozy announced that the political leaders had agreed to launch military action. French planes, he said, were already in the air.
Ninety minutes later, French military officials reported their first strike.