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.
By Dr. James Lindsay and Kate Collins – Special to CNN
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.
Clinton travels to Paris next week for a long-scheduled meeting of the G-8 foreign ministers. Whether to recognize the National Libyan Council will be a subject of debate. With the Obama administration by all indications unwilling to get ahead of its allies, we could see a reversal of the dynamic we saw last decade between George W. Bush and Jacques Chirac — a reluctant American president looking to slow down an impetuous French one.
One thing that Sarkozy’s recognition of the National Libyan Council does not signal is that we are close to Western military intervention in Libya. Many Western capitals are still uneasy about the idea, and Moscow says it will veto any move at the U.N. to impose a “no-fly zone.”
Nor is unilateral French military action on the table. Sarkozy’s approval ratings are at a record low — just 22% of French people give him a thumbs up. Following spectacular gaffes in how his team handled the crises in Tunisia and Egypt, the French people are unlikely to support bold unilateral action by their president in the newest North African hot spot.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of James Lindsay.