De Gaulle, He Ain't

Nicolas Sarkozy's misguided quest for glory in Libya.

View a photo essay of Sarko's grand tour here.

The Libyan uprising has given French President Nicolas Sarkozy an opportunity he has long coveted: to lead a risky international mission that holds out promise of ultimate glory. For Gen. Charles de Gaulle, the founder of the Fifth Republic, the pursuit of what the French call la grandeur was the primary raison d'être of a head of state. His successors have by and large shared the general's view, tenaciously defending French national interests and independence.

Sarkozy's idea of grandeur differs from de Gaulle's or Mitterrand's, however. The two former presidents saw themselves as students of history, men with long views of the national interest. Sarkozy is a creature of the moment who has always lived by the daily news cycle. Risk quickens his pulse and whets his appetite. He first came to prominence as mayor of the Paris suburb of Neuilly, when a madman with a bomb held a preschool classroom hostage. Sarkozy entered the room, talked the bomber into surrendering, and emerged to waiting cameras with a child in his arms. Crisis is his element.

In the crisis that followed Russia's invasion of South Ossetia in 2008, for example, Sarkozy, who then occupied the rotating presidency of the European Union, inserted himself into the center of the conflict and, in a whirlwind of shuttle diplomacy, persuaded the Russians not to make good on their threat to overthrow the Georgian government. His penchant for taking risks has not always paid off, however. Before he became Muammar al-Qaddafi's nemesis, he tried to reintegrate the colonel into the international community by inviting him to Paris in December 2007. This gesture drew criticism from Sarkozy's own secretary of state for human rights and proved to be an embarrassment because of Qaddafi's erratic behavior. Worse, it was probably quid pro quo for Qaddafi's agreement earlier that year to release Bulgarian nurses he had been holding prisoner. Qaddafi also extracted other tribute from France in return for this favor, including a promise to sell Libya €100 million of weapons and build a nuclear power plant in the country. Despite these overtures, the Libyan leader  later refused to join the Union for the Mediterranean, a pet project of Sarkozy's, on the grounds that it would wreck "the unity of the Arab League." If Qaddafi disappointed Sarkozy, the Arab League must surely have disappointed Qaddafi by joining the current action against him.

Of course the French president had motives other than disappointment for urging decisive action against the Libyan dictator. Sarkozy likes to stress the humanitarian motive, which is perfectly legitimate, and "shared democratic values," which the rebels may or may not in fact hold. But he also hoped to draw a veil over earlier disarray in his government's response to the "Arab spring." When demonstrators in Tunis faced the armed forces of another dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, then Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie proposed sending French riot police to Tunisia to help train their Tunisian counterparts in crowd-control techniques. She also vacationed in Tunisia in the rebellion's early days and accepted transportation on the private jet of a Ben Ali crony with whom her elderly parents had entered into a business deal.

These revelations eventually forced Alliot-Marie's resignation and led to the appointment of Alain Juppé, a man of vast experience as well as an old rival of Sarkozy, as foreign minister. But the president then stunned Juppé by deciding to recognize the rebels and bomb Libyan airfields while his foreign minister was in Brussels, negotiating with European partners. Juppé had not been told of this decision in advance and was visibly dumbfounded when informed by reporters. To add insult to injury, the announcement of France's policy was made on the steps of the Élysée Palace by the playboy philosopher and gadabout humanitarian Bernard-Henri Lévy, an acquaintance of Sarkozy who had developed his own private contacts in the rebel camp. Juppé reportedly threatened to resign over this affront to his authority, but to date he remains in his post.

Sarkozy also faces a tough fight for reelection in 2012. His approval rating is at its nadir, around 25 percent. Several recent polls have shown him running third, behind Marine Le Pen, the new leader of the extreme right-wing National Front, and any of several possible Socialist candidates. And in cantonal elections held this past weekend, as the military action in Libya was unfolding, the president's party took a shellacking. In such circumstances, a leader who takes his country to war will always be suspected of seeking advantage at the polls. Yet there has been no discernible surge of support for the president since French jets first took off for Libya a few days ago.

If there are suspicions about Sarkozy's motives, the president himself must share the blame. Various officials have indicated that one of the government's concerns about turmoil in Libya is the possibility that any state failure there will increase the influx of refugees attempting to enter Europe by boat. Le Pen went to the Italian island of Lampedusa, tantalizingly close to the Libyan coast, to dramatize this concern, but the president's own party played on similar fears. One deputy, Chantal Brunel, threatened a week ago to "put them back into boats" if North African refugees landed on European shores. Earlier, Laurent Wauquiez, minister for European affairs, warned against tolerating illegal immigration in the wake of the Tunisian rebellion. Such statements undermine the president's high humanitarian rhetoric and foster suspicion of base ulterior motives.

Furthermore, Gaullist grandeur may prove elusive if the fighting in the desert fails to go as planned. To be sure, French planes were the first to bomb targets around Benghazi, even before the U.S. cruise missile strikes on air defense sites. But the reality is that the French and British, who are supposed to bear the brunt of the action, do not have the "force projection" capabilities of the United States. The engagement has already gone well beyond enforcement of a no-fly zone to include action against Libyan armor and artillery. The poorly trained rebels may need a good deal more close support, unless the intervention persuades Qaddafi's mercenaries that the risks of fighting on now outweigh the benefits. But even if the mercenaries quit, loyalist Libyan troops would remain in the field, and the rebels' ability to defeat them even with air support remains to be demonstrated. Finally, even if Qaddafi is toppled, Libya's future will be determined by what unfolds in the aftermath, and France will have to contend with other interested parties for influence over that process. In short, France's intervention may serve to underscore the limits of the French global reach, even in a region where it was once a dominant player.

And that brings us to another key aspect of Sarkozy's gamble. France has a large immigrant population, much of it drawn from North Africa. French Muslims, especially the younger ones, identified with the youthful and largely secular protesters in Tunis and Cairo. The effort to prevent a massacre in Benghazi has had popular appeal, but escalation may lead to protest. Bitter memories of French imperialism can easily flare into open opposition if the military adventure takes a wrong turn.

Finally, there is the matter of the European Union, where Sarkozy's initiative has already proved problematic. His hasty recognition of the rebels, just as talks with European partners were getting under way in Brussels, and in the absence of any clear indications of who the rebel leaders are and what political forces they might represent, made a mockery of the idea of a common EU foreign policy -- an idea that Sarkozy championed back in the days when he was crusading for the Lisbon Treaty. He has been careless of European sensibilities in most of his foreign ventures to date and has frequently ruffled the feathers of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has not been enthusiastic about military action in Libya. Sarkozy's penchant for impetuous action may well have put paid to European cooperation in the short to medium term.

Conversely, the rapprochement of France and Britain, which was already apparent in the agreement to share an aircraft carrier, has been advanced by the Libyan affair, in which Prime Minister David Cameron and Sarkozy have generally seen eye to eye, despite a temporary disagreement about the role of NATO in the operation. One difference is worth noting, however: Cameron sought a vote of confidence from the House of Commons before going to war. Sarkozy didn't need to bother with such niceties -- he controls his National Assembly. He simply acted, like the Bourbon kings of old, de son bon plaisir -- at his own pleasure. But so did Barack Obama, whose presidency is not supposed to bear the regal trappings that go with executive office in France. Sovereignty, it has been said, is the power to declare an emergency. If so, then the Libyan intervention has been a striking demonstration of Sarkozy's sovereignty over la Grande Nation. He has stuck his neck out quite far in pushing for Western intervention in Libya, and he is now committed to see the mission through, though it may well strain French military capabilities to the breaking point.

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Nuclear Nation

Japan's unlikely love affair with atomic energy.

The devastating earthquake that hit Japan on March 11, together with the following massive tsunami, completely destroyed the picturesque northeast coast of Japan's main island, taking potentially tens of thousands of lives and creating hundreds of thousands of refugees.

Along this stretch of utter destruction sit four nuclear power stations, comprising a total of 15 reactors, within a distance of about 200 kilometers. Of these, the Fukushima No.1 nuclear power station, operated by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), is the largest, comprising six nuclear reactors. Until now, TEPCO was proud of the robustness of the containment vessels of these reactors, claiming that they were made utilizing the same technology originally developed to produce the main battery of the world-largest naval artillery ever produced, mounted on the gigantic battleship, Yamato, the pride of the Japanese Imperial Navy, which U.S. forces destroyed toward the end of the Asia-Pacific War. TEPCO claimed that the nuclear reactors would safely stop, then automatically cool down and tightly contain the radiation in the event of an earthquake, and that there would therefore be no danger that earthquakes would cause any serious nuclear accident. The vulnerability of nuclear reactors to earthquakes was already evident, however, when TEPCO's Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant on Japan's northwest coast caused several malfunctions, including a fire in a transformer, and a small quantity of radiation leaked into the ocean and the atmosphere following a magnitude 6.8 earthquake that hit this region in July 2007. In spite of this serious accident, TEPCO officials still arrogantly boasted of their "world-best nuclear power technology."

They're not boasting anymore. Immediately after the earthquake violently shook Fukushima and the tsunami surged and damaged many buildings of the power station, the notion of the "safe and durable reactor," a myth promulgated by TEPCO, was immediately shattered. At this writing, half of the six reactors seem to be on the verge of melting down, and one of the containment buildings has caught fire due to spent fuel rods combusting. The radiation level in the vicinity of the power station is extremely high, and it is spreading as far as Tokyo and Yokohama. Thus, as every day passes, an unprecedented scale of nuclear disaster is unfolding, making it more and more difficult to arrest the multiple problems of radioactivity.

What went wrong with Japan's nuclear industry? It is often said that the Japanese are hypersensitive about nuclear issues because of the experience of nuclear holocaust. How could they not be? On the morning of August 6, 1945, an atomic bomb instantly killed 70,000 to 80,000 civilian residents of Hiroshima city, and by the end of that year, 140,000 residents of that city had died as a result of the bombing. Another 70,000 were killed in Nagasaki. Many others have subsequently died, often after experiencing a lifetime of suffering, or are still suffering from various diseases caused by the blast, fire, and radiation.

Yet opposition to nuclear energy has never been strong in Japan. Why? It is true that the Japanese, in particular the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are highly conscious of the danger of nuclear weapons. A-bomb survivors, who know well the terror of the bomb and who fear the long-lasting effects of radiation, have therefore been the vanguard of the anti-nuclear weapon campaign. Despite this, however, many A-bomb survivors and anti-nuclear weapon activists have so far been indifferent to the nuclear energy issue. Anti-nuclear energy campaigners have long been marginalized in Japan.

For example, a small group of anti-nuclear energy activists in Hiroshima have been actively involved in the movement against the Chugoku Electric Power Company's (CEPCO) plan to build a nuclear power station near Kaminoseki, a beautiful fishing village on Japan's Inland Sea, about 50 miles away from Hiroshima. However they have had virtually no support from any A-bomb survivors' organizations. Nor have either the former or current mayors of Hiroshima, who are widely known as staunch advocates for the abolishment of nuclear weapons, ever supported this local anti-nuclear power movement. Indeed they never expressed concern about the danger of nuclear power accidents. That made it easier for CEPCO, over strong opposition by this group of anti-nuclear energy activists in solidarity with the fishermen of Kaminoseki, to start construction work early this year. (The company did, however, temporarily stop construction work on the Kaminoseki site on the day of the earthquake, suggesting that the nuclear power industry and the government will have difficulty resuming work on nuclear plants following the disasters.)

There are many reasons for this peculiar dichotomy in the antinuclear movement in Japan. One reason is that postwar Japanese governments strongly backed nuclear science, particularly after U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower began promoting the idea of "atoms for peace" in 1953. The feeling in Tokyo, among politicians and scientists alike, was that Japan had neglected scientific research during the war. Many believed their nation was defeated in World War II by American technological prowess, exemplified above all by the United States' evident mastery of nuclear physics.

This attitude, together with a deep anxiety about the lack of natural energy resources in a nation that relies on imports for 100 percent of its oil and is the world's largest importer of coal, overtly encouraged Japan's embrace of nuclear energy. Particularly since the late 1960s, the Japanese government has wielded pork-barrel policies to secure the approval of local communities in remote areas for the construction of nuclear-power plants in their backyards. The government has allocated huge sums to build public facilities such as libraries, hospitals, recreation centers, gymnasiums, and swimming pools in areas where local councils accepted a nuclear power station. Meanwhile, power companies have paid large sums of money to landowners and fishermen to force them to relinquish their properties and fishing rights. Unsurprisingly, political corruption soon became part of the package as construction companies provided large sums of kickbacks to politicians in return for contracts. All the while, the government and power companies promoted the myth that nuclear power was clean and safe, thereby marginalizing the anti-nuclear energy movement.

Although for a short period following the Chernobyl accident in 1986, the anti-nuclear power movement in Japan enjoyed nationwide popular support, but it quickly faded following campaigns by the government and the power companies. Despite many accidents since, the seriousness of these incidents was effectively covered up by changing data records and falsifying reports to the government. Consequently, there are now 17 nuclear power stations around the earthquake-prone Japanese archipelago, comprising 54 nuclear reactors that provide 30 percent of Japan's total electricity generating capacity.

The anti-nuclear movement has been warning of the dangers of a devastating nuclear accident for years, but those efforts have always been met with dismissive assurances both by electric power companies and the government about the safety of the reactors. The Fukushima accident has brought to fruition all the fears and predictions previously expressed. And just as the atomic bomb indiscriminately killed tens of thousands of civilians, this nuclear reactor accident, albeit on a smaller scale, will be responsible for indiscriminate suffering and lives cut short; the consequences are likely to play out over the next several decades due to radiation pollution and the resulting economic costs.

And yet, amid catastrophe, a better Japan might well emerge. At a minimum, it ought to provide a wakeup call to those who wrongly assumed that nuclear power was as safe, clean, and cost-effective as its boosters told us. Japan has the technical, scientific, and financial resources to become a world leader in truly green energy. All it needs now is the will.