Cameron Gave Libyans A Chance. Pity They Blew It

With hindsight, it is easy for MPs to fault the West’s intervention. But overthrowing Gaddafi was the right thing to do at the time

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Goodbye to Gaddafi: A Libyan woman thanks the UK and France at a rally in Benghazi, September 2011 (© PHILIPPE WOJAZER/AFP/Getty Images)

The report published by Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, gleefully picked up by a host of ill-informed commentators keen to trash David Cameron, is woefully one-sided. The committee entirely fails to surmise what might have happened had Muammar Gaddafi been allowed to suppress the rebellion against him. And its summary, with its punchline that “David Cameron was ultimately responsible for the failure to develop a coherent Libya strategy”, includes a string of absurd presumptions, omissions and falsehoods. The partiality of the report brings into question the composition of the committee and its real purpose.

Plainly Libya is currently a disaster. But Gaddafi’s fall, engineered five years ago by Mr Cameron among others, did not lead directly to the current chaos. It was a gamble that in the short run succeeded and in the middle run has failed. But in ten years time Libya is still likely to be better-off than it was under the 42-year-long dictatorship of crazy Gaddafi.

For the first two years after his demise there was progress, albeit patchy and muddled. The Libyans’ initial transitional ruling council performed quite well. A remarkably successful election was then held in the summer of 2012, which produced a plurality for the more liberal and secular-minded Libyans in a fledgling parliament of 200, 80 of whose members were elected on party lists, the rest as individuals of varying beliefs, including Islamist. The treasury, the central bank and the national oil company continued to function adequately, with a plethora of foreign advisers, some of them British, giving sound advice, not always heeded. The 22-country Arab League, with the exception of Algeria and Syria, was unusually united in its enthusiasm, eagerly endorsing the initial Western intervention. The UN, assisted by the British, French, American and sundry Europeans, was entrusted with co-ordinating political and economic aid.

It is true that Libya’s fragile governments soon made a string of mistakes, often against outsiders’ counsel. A cardinal one in 2013 was the passage of a “law of political isolation” — eerily echoing the disastrous deBaathification law in Iraq — which barred from politics anyone who had worked for Gaddafi at a middling-to-upper level, including some impressive people who had defected many years before. Probably the biggest boob was endlessly to pander to the militias that proliferated during and after the rebellion rather than rein them in. But in the absence of an international peacekeeping force or a professional post-Gaddafi national army, none of the newly-elected leaders felt strong enough to crack the whip.

This was hardly the fault of the outside world, least of all Mr Cameron. Competing Arab and Muslim influences (Turkey and Qatar v. Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia) muddied the Libyan waters. Above all, the Libyans themselves were adamant that there should be no Western troops on the ground and no UN peacekeeping force. In any case, in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan, it was inconceivable that any Western government would wish to take part in one. A report by the Rand Corporation of California reckoned that 12,000 Western troops could have done the job, but most analysts reckoned that at least 120,000 was nearer the mark.

Plainly the UN’s and the West’s refusal to send troops sorely reduced the chances that the initial intervention would be followed by a successful transition. But the report fails to explore the alternatives. Had the West failed to act militarily when the rebellion broke out, it is likely that Gaddafi would either have suppressed it with the savagery that he had so often treated his enemies, or a civil war would have ensued with even greater bloodshed and chaos than currently prevail. Think of Syria, where Western non-intervention — against Mr Cameron’s wishes — has led to a far bloodier stalemate with no end in sight.

One of the report’s weirdest assertions, eagerly repeated by Cameron’s critics, is that “the [British] government failed to identify that the threat to civilians was overstated” and that “the rebels included a significant Islamist element”. Leaving aside the vexed question of how to define an Islamist, both statements are ridiculous. The first rests largely on the analysis of two academics (one of them an adviser to the LSE’s ill-fated North Africa project funded by a Gaddafi foundation), whose testimony was accorded reverential credence by the committee, in particular their assertions that there was “no evidence” that Gaddafi had planned a massacre in Benghazi in the event of recapturing it and that the British government “selectively took elements of [Gaddafi’s] rhetoric at face value”.

Tell that to the families of the 1,270 people (a tally documented by Human Rights Watch) who were murdered in one night in 1996 in a prison in Tripoli, or to those of the fans of Al-Ahly football club in Benghazi who were shot out of hand when the club’s stadium was blown up and bulldozed in 2000 after a match where jeering had broken out against a rival team controlled by one of the dictator’s sons. People like Gaddafi, a clown but also a mass-murderer, do not have to “plan” massacres.

As for the second notion, that the British government “failed to identify” Islamists, it was all too well known that there had long been Islamists in the anti-Gaddafi opposition. They could hardly be excluded during the rebels’ campaign. But both the first election, in 2012, and the less satisfactory second one, in 2014, showed that most Libyans preferred a more secular type of government. Cameron can hardly be blamed for not preventing them from coming out of the woodwork. Rooting them out was the task of the newly-elected Libyans.

The other standard canard, duly promoted in the report, was that UN Resolution 1973 allowed Nato to use “all necessary measures” to protect civilians (including bombing from the air but specifically not putting boots on the ground) but specifically barred regime change. It is true that the first morphed into the second as the rebellion proceeded. But that was entirely because it soon became clear that, as Gaddafi continued to shell towns in his determination to squash the rebels, civilians would be protected only if he were militarily defeated. It was obvious at the time to anyone, including the supposedly aggrieved Russians, that the resolution could and probably would be interpreted elastically, ending in Gaddafi’s demise. The report criticises this as “opportunistic”. In fact it was diplomatic common sense, while indeed offering a rare opportunity (if that word must be used) for Nato and the West to align themselves with the Arab world and give momentum to the Arab Spring, albeit that it subsequently fizzled.

The committee also highlights the “implied criticism” of Lord Richards, the former British general who oversaw the British campaign and is credited with questioning whether it was in the national interest. For sure, he raised doubts, as generals often must. But a close reading of his testimony shows his attitude to be more ambiguous than the report says. More recently, on the BBC’s Today programme, he went further, arguing with hindsight that only a “comprehensive” policy including troops on the ground could have worked. But in his testimony to the committee he acknowledged that that was politically impossible. At the time he did not flatly say, “Don’t do it.”

Yet another baseless criticism by the committee is that the British government failed to try hard enough to deploy the mediating services of Tony Blair, who had cultivated Gaddafi earlier in the century, persuading him to drop his chemical and nuclear weapons programmes. Nor, laments the committee, had the government considered a “pause” after Gaddafi’s forces had withdrawn from Benghazi, to give him a chance to negotiate. To his credit, Mr Blair refused to criticise Mr Cameron or the government, pointing out that Gaddafi showed no willingness whatever to seek a compromise once the rebellion had begun. Nor did the African Union, many of whose members had reason to be grateful to the Libyan dictator for his oily handouts, make the slightest headway on the same basis — a point oddly ignored in the report.

Especially in its summary and conclusions, the committee seemed determined to emphasise evidence that casts Mr Cameron’s government in a bad light, largely ignoring — for example — the nuanced eloquence of Sir Dominic Asquith, a fine Arabist who as ambassador advised the fledgling Libyan governments in the year after Gaddafi’s fall. In his testimony he scotches the overblown notion that the British had no follow-up plan. Incidentally, only two of the nine British ambassadors since 1984 gave evidence, though several were involved in post-Gaddafi projects. No witness from the UN was questioned, though its performance as chief overseer of the aftermath is widely deemed to have been limp. Only one British journalist gave evidence, and he notably failed to sing the committee’s tune. Nor, most strangely of all, did a single Libyan come before the committee. One wonders how the 17 witnesses were chosen. Mr Cameron was surely unwise, by the way, to refuse to take part himself.

It is hard to deny that Libya is now worse-off even than it was under the brutal but secure grip of the dictator. But in the first flush of the Arab Spring Mr Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy and indeed Barack Obama, albeit that he “led from the back”, were surely right to intervene to give Libyans a chance to start afresh. Self-serving though it sounds, Mr Cameron is also right to say that sadly it was the Libyans, not outsiders, who have been mainly responsible for blowing that chance.

Much has been made of the fact that a majority of the committee’s members — six out of 11 — are Conservatives. Was it a coincidence that every one of them is a Brexiteer, that the chairman was sacked as a minister by Cameron, and that John Baron, who expressed ill-disguised schadenfreude throughout the hearings, was the sole Conservative to vote against the intervention in Libya, along with just 12 other MPs, naturally including Jeremy Corbyn? The entire tone of the report, especially the summary, smacks of a desire to trash David Cameron. It is the report itself that should be trashed.