Commentary: Libyan 'no fly zone' is also a don't boat zone

Before U.S. jets started racing across the Libyan sky, there was the European uproar that the slaughter of civilians cannot be tolerated.

Before that European uproar, however, there was another European uproar: At the massive flow of refugees from Libya, and before that Tunisia and Egypt, showing up on European shores. As dictatorial regimes began to topple and chaos ensued, Italians warned that as many as 300,000 north Africans might soon be boating across the genial Mediterranean, many landing on the Italian island of Lampedusa, a sort of Euro Ellis Island or chamber of horrors, depending upon perspective.

Consider these statements: Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni: "Europe is being invaded." French Interior Minister Claude Gueant: "French people no longer feel at home in France." French European Affairs Minister Laurent Wauquiez: "We must defend our frontiers on a European level."

Anti-immigrant rhetoric is very cool in much of Europe today. In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi (when not romancing underage erotic dancers) has aligned with nationalist efforts to close shop. In France, Marine Le Pen, daughter of the founder of the neo-nationalist (read neo-Nazi) National Front, today is polling ahead of President Nicolas Sarkozy in advance of looming national elections.

Europe, however, cannot build a wall between Africa and its southern border. So earlier this month, the chatter shifted to perhaps the best way of dealing with the immigrant flood: Stop it at its roots. If Europeans could help convince those preparing to flee that there were reasons aplenty to wait and see, surely, not as many would hop on boats.

Or, in the words of Turkish President Abdullah Gul: "The aim of the air campaign is not the liberation of the Libyan people. There are hidden agendas and different interests."

Indeed, for years Europeans had funneled billions of dollars to dictators, including Col. Moammar Gadhafi, in exchange for his willingness to "convince" potential immigrants not to jump on boats headed for Italy or France or Spain. That he was known for treating potential emigrants roughly was not a European concern. But when they realized democratic movements might be more than a fad, they needed a new approach.

While once Gadhafi's brutality had been a necessary evil, stopping it was suddenly chic. Libyans wouldn't run from violence if there was none.

So the French insisted on a no-fly zone. Certainly there were atrocities. Certainly there was humanitarian concern.

And certainly, American actions have nothing to do with such immigration issues. But was righteous indignation alone at the heart of this action?

Or, when the air strikes began, did the U.S. military strike a blow not just for freedom but for the teetering but still ruling Union for a Popular Movement of Sarkozy? Sarkozy's indignation at the humanitarian crisis seemed to increase in direct relation to his slipping poll numbers. It wasn't so long ago that France unified to note that "Fraternite" did not include Polish plumbers. The colonial history of France and Italy in north Africa is far more perilous.

The approach focuses on the attackers and tyrants and not the immigrants, but it does show a similar level of disdain for huddled masses as Kansas Rep. Virgil Peck's infamous shooting pigs comment. Whatever it takes to keep them out, keep them out.

Peck's quote reminded me of a pig-meat quote from the leftie mayor of a suburban Paris village I met with back in 2004. He was puzzled by a 30 percent Muslim immigrant population. At the time, he was appalled that an Islamic grocer had the audacity not to stock French essentials such as wine and ham, which Muslims don't consume.

He brushed aside the rising, and legitimate, anger of his nation's immigrant population at being locked outside of French society. Instead, he suggested, that France's best hope for a bright future might be seen in the non-ham selling store: "There is hope that they will go out of business within the year, and perhaps then a new store will open in their place. And perhaps they will sell foods for everyone."

Instead, of course, the "Muslim problem" intensified. And bombing Libya will not save Europe for the Europeans.


Matthew Schofield is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. Readers may write to him at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or by email at mschofield@kcstar.com.