Are France, the UK and the US losing the PR war over Libya already?

Well it’s not looking good with the Arab League, Russia, China and India already saying that France, the UK and the US have gone too far, too fast in blitzing Libya with cruise missiles.

And the UK and the US saying France jumped the gun in launching air strikes on Saturday while the parties were supposedly finishing their ‘working lunch’ in Paris to finalise what they were going to do.

And Italy saying it might pull out of the ‘coalition,’ or whatever we’re supposed to call it, if the operation doesn’t come under Nato control (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, a body originally set up to oppose Soviet Russia).

And the French saying they’re not having that (being reluctant members) while the Arab League certainly don’t fancy the idea.

Karl Marx famously remarked, apropos a remark by German philosopher Hegel, that great events had a habit of repeating themselves, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.

And L’Affaire Gaddafi has all the marks of the Kossovo war back in the 1990s which was repeated as tragedy in Iraq by Messrs Bush and Blair. Is this then the farce?

Back in 1999 British PM Tony Blair despatched his official spin doctor Alastair Campbell (pictured) to Brussels to get a grip on the war being waged by Nato against Serbia because of Serbia’s treatment of the Kossovans.

Campbell knocked a few heads together among the generals and, hey presto, the war was won.

Well actually there was a bit more to it than that but the alliance against Serbia was definitely winging it (much like this one is) and Campbell did succeed in putting out a coherent version of what Nato was trying to do (which undeniably helped). When Serbia imploded the Nato allies were able to dress it up as masterly military strategy.

Iraq was much the same combination of impulse and improvisation with, alas, rather different consequences. Maybe Ally should have been sent out there like a latter day Lawrence of Arabia. But it probably wouldn’t have made much difference.

This Libya war is really rather reminiscent of Serbia/Kossovo. Nobody really knows what the end game is, they’re just hoping something turns up (like a dead Colonel Gaddafi).

It’s a real problem for UK prime minister David Cameron and US president Barack Obama; less so, at this stage, for French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

Why so? France has always regarded North Africa as its territory (thanks to its colonial past) and France still wields huge influence across most of Africa, including in countries like Chad where Gaddafi recruits most of his mercenaries.

So at this stage most French people won’t find anything too strange about France intervening. Also Sarkozy has an election to fight within a couple of years and the French (for now anyway) will see his martial attitude as to be expected, a gambler’s last throw.

But Cameron and Obama have far less to gain and certainly far more to lose, given that they’re both desperately trying to extricate themselves from Afghanistan and Iraq.

They say they had to intervene because, had they not done so, Gaddafi would have slaughtered the inhabitants of rebel-held Benghazi and other towns in East Libya.

They’re probably right. In the era of 24-hour rolling news it’s very hard for any powerful Western leader not to intervene when one of the world’s bad guys attacks his people, even avowed rebels.

Cynics would say, what about Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe? Or the governments of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia?

But most people accept that you can only do so much.

Even so Cameron and Obama are on a hiding to nothing here, unless they can somehow or other get rid of Gaddafi in a hurry.

A division of well-armed Nato troops would do so in double-quick time but they have both said they don’t want to do that. The UN resolution they’re working under doesn’t allow it for a start.

This is very like the argument Tony Blair had with a reluctant US president Bill Clinton over ground troops in Kossovo, and Blair won. And the war was won.

In the absence of such a solution (and bearing in mind more recent history in the Middle East it’s easy to see why no-one wants to do it) it’s hard to see how this matter can can be resolved quickly.

So a PR disaster of mega-proportions is almost upon us.

Unless someone, somehow, can rid of the pesky Colonel.

Without anyone noticing who did it.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.