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Sarkozy's Gamble in Recognizing the Libyan Opposition

Authors: James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair, and Kate Collins
March 11, 2011


Editor's Note: Dr. James Lindsay is a Senior Vice President at the Council on Foreign Relations (where he blogs) and co-author of "America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy" and a former director for global issues and multilateral affairs at the National Security Council." Kate Collins is a Research Associate at CFR.

On Thursday, France became the first country to recognize Libya's rebel coalition, the National Libyan Council, as the sole legitimate representative of the Libyan people.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy welcomed representatives of the group to Elysée Palace, calling the National Libyan Council the “only legitimate representative of the Libyan people.”

The news brought cries of joy in besieged Benghazi. But it remains an open question whether, or how soon, other major powers will follow suit.

No European capitals immediately followed Paris' lead. British Prime Minister David Cameron did sign a letter with Sarkozy offering “support” for the National Libyan Council's efforts “to prepare for a representative and accountable government.” Paris and London have been leading the effort to push for a no-fly zone over Libya.

Other European leaders grumbled that Sarkozy's unilateral announcement upset their efforts to forge a common position on Libya. EU High Representative Catherine Ashton tartly warned that, “We cannot unilaterally rush into recognizing groups.” Many Europeans still remember how Germany's rush to recognize the independence of Croatia and Slovenia in 1991 helped trigger bloodshed in the Balkans.

The White House has so far given Sarkozy's announcement the cold shoulder. The administration did suspend relations Thursday with the Libyan embassy in Washington, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she will meet with Libyan rebels next week. Both steps fall well short of formal recognition, however. And the administration edged away from the rebels in a separate announcement that in its view the U.N. arms embargo on Libya makes it illegal to give weapons to anti-Qaddafi forces.

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