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NATO splinters over the Libya endgame


President Obama's political opponents evidently got bored criticizing and embarrassing him over the U.S. role in the Libya intervention -- it hasn't come up for awhile now -- but the campaign is still Topic A in the European capitals, and it has taken another twist: France is breaking with the U.S., U.K. and other NATO allies by saying that the NATO bombardment will stop if Libyan strongman Moammar Qaddafi agrees to talks with the rebel alliance. Although France says it still takes the position that Qaddafi must eventually step down, the message from Paris on Monday was as soft on his regime as it has ever been, a clear concession that the French government wants to wrap up this misadventure soon.

Here's how the foreign staff of the U.K.'s Telegraph newspaper put it:

Discussions between both sides have been going on behind the scenes for weeks, but Qaddafi's future has been a major stumbling block. The rebels have so far refused to hold talks as long as Qaddafi is still in power, a stance which before now none of NATO's major powers has publicly challenged.

[French defense minister] Gerard Longuet also appeared to leave the door open for Qaddafi to remain in Libya. When asked whether it was possible to hold talks if Qaddafi had not stepped down he said: "He will be in another room in his palace, with another title."

So Paris would apparently accept Qaddafi as Chief Potentate Emeritus, or something, under the New Libya -- quite a reversal from all those weeks of public unity about there being no future for him. Here's another detail from an earlier story:
The Italian foreign minister, Francesco Frattini, has already called for negotiations, while Alain Juppe, the French foreign minister, in a separate interview also suggested Col Gaddafi could stay in power while negotiations took place.

“The question is not to know whether he must leave, but when and how,” he said, adding that he had no answer to the question of whether he could stay in Libya if he stood down, or would be allowed to seek refuge elsewhere.

But as the Telegraph points out, there has been none of this repositioning in Washington or London:
In response to Mr Longuet's comments, the US State Department reiterated that Gaddafi must go. The Foreign Office supports this stance.
The next moves probably will depend on events on the ground. If Qaddafi dies or surrenders, this point becomes moot. But if the allied bombardment drags on, don't be surprised if more countries begin to support France's offer to end the campaign in exchange for a real cease-fire and negotiations. France wanted a quick, clean, 1991 Gulf War-style adventure with this Libya intervention, but as Secretary Gates pointed out, that has apparently proved too much for NATO, so now all it wants is for it to end.

And the Americans' perspective? The White House may not talk about this until right up until the moment negotiations begin. No reason to remind Congress about Libya when it seems to have lost interest, and especially if Qaddafi gets to stay in Tripoli after all the tough talk in Washington about him stepping down.

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