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Obama, European allies eye Libya maritime mission

US President Barack Obama waves as he departs the White House for his trip to Saudi Arabia, Germany and Great Britain on April 19, 2016, in Washington, DC.   US President Barack Obama heads to Saudi Arabia Tuesday amid tensions over congressional legislation which would potentially allow the royal government to be sued in American courts over the September 11, 2001 attacks. / AFP PHOTO / MOLLY RILEY

US President Barack Obama waves as he departs the White House for his trip to Saudi Arabia, Germany and Great Britain on April 19, 2016, in Washington, DC.<br />US President Barack Obama heads to Saudi Arabia Tuesday amid tensions over congressional legislation which would potentially allow the royal government to be sued in American courts over the September 11, 2001 attacks. / AFP PHOTO / MOLLY RILEY

President Barack Obama’s challenge that Europe unite and shoulder more of the burden for its own security might soon be answered, in part, by a military mission off the Libyan coast.

“Europe has sometimes been complacent about its own defense.”

That was the staggeringly blunt criticism from Obama on Monday in Hanover, the last stop on a valedictory visit to Britain and Germany as he prepares to leave office.

It came in a speech that was part admonishment, part plea for Europeans who are increasingly skittish about the European Union to recognize what continental unity has achieved.

The EU, Obama argued, had helped shepherd the continent from the horrors of war to a level of prosperity unparalleled in history.

The fact that Obama felt the need to cheerlead for European integration was itself implied criticism of the continent’s leaders.

Why had Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande, David Cameron or Matteo Renzi been unwilling or unable to make the case themselves? How could the crisis get so acute that Britain could be on the verge of voting to leave the union?

Obama’s speech was in some ways a culmination of seven years of his frustration about global “freeloaders,” who depend on US security and in his administration’s view draw the United States into costly endeavors that are not always vital to national security.

But in talks later that day, Obama and the leaders of Germany, France, Britain and Italy, discussed one concrete measure that could ameliorate some of the strategic threats facing the EU, and perhaps go a little way to answering the US president’s complaints.

The measure was a maritime mission off the coast of Libya that is laden with geostrategic significance.

The crux of Obama’s concern for Europe can be found in a refugee crisis that has been something of a perfect storm for the European project.

A wave of migrants from the continent’s south and east has caused a severe humanitarian crisis, killing untold numbers, challenging leaders’ moral standing and leaving responders struggling to cope.

It has also raised the specter of the Islamic State using migrant flows as cover to deploy militants plotting Paris- and Brussels-style attacks on Europe’s shores.

All of this has fueled European populist and far-right movements that often oppose integration and sow social instability.

Russia’s alleged involvement in funding such groups in Europe has long worried Washington.

– ‘Central Mediterranean’ focus –
Obama and his European counterparts have already worked together to set up an anti-trafficking naval force in the Aegean, to stop migrant boats from reaching the Greek islands from Turkey.

Now transatlantic leaders are looking at whether something similar could work off Libya’s much larger and more perilous coast.

According to the White House, allies may draw on the Aegean experience to “explore how they could work together to address in an orderly and humane way migrant flows in the central Mediterranean.”

An estimated 350,000 people have embarked on a journey from Libya across the sea to Italy since the start of 2014.

All the while the Islamic State’s foothold in the country has grown.

Many questions about the plan remain, including whether it would be a NATO or EU mission, how heavily it would rely on US surveillance, intelligence and other assets, and what would be done with migrants who have been interdicted.

And the foreign powers will have to tread lightly.

Libya’s fragile unity government, which is vying for power with assorted rebel groups and rival administrations, wants to hear less discussion about foreign military intervention that could undercut its legitimacy.

As a result, Western talk of a ground operation to clear the Islamic State out of its foothold at Sirte has died down.

Speaking in London, Obama went as far as to say “there’s no plan for ground troops in Libya.”

“I don’t think that’s necessary. I don’t think it would be welcomed by this new government. It would send the wrong signal.”

The British government in particular framed the possible maritime mission as an effort to “build the capacity of the Libyan coast guard to help stem the flow of illegal migration across the Mediterranean into Europe.”

But the Hanover meeting appeared to have propelled European action that would be welcomed in Washington.

“The United states would be supportive of a NATO ‎mission in the central Mediterranean,” a senior US administration official told AFP.

Such a mission would not boost European military spending, streamline EU decision making or stop the duplicate procurement of military equipment that squanders what is spent.

But it could ease one crisis that has Obama worried enough to plunge into European politics.



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