In Britain, which led the campaign for military intervention, there is nervousness despite a public show of bravado.
Two days into military action in Libya, its legitimacy is already being questioned amid fears of another Iraq in the making. The Arab League, whose support was invoked by Britain and its allies as providing justification for the invasion, has been the first to criticise it saying the bombardment has gone beyond the United Nations Security Council remit which was limited to enforcing a “no-fly” zone.
“What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians,” Amr Moussa, head of the Arab League, said. The 22-member group is expected to meet soon to discuss its future strategy.
There has also been criticism from India, Russia, China and a number of African states which have called for an African Union summit to discuss an “African solution” to the crisis, according to media reports. Even Americans were reported to be thinking of scaling down their role in the operation with Defence Secretary Robert Gates saying that while America would continue to be part of the coalition, it “will not have the pre-eminent role.”
In Britain, which led the campaign for military intervention, there is inevitably nervousness despite a public show of bravado. The fact is that despite British claims there was never really a consensus on support for military action. Five leading nations, including two permanent members — China and Russia —besides India, Brazil and Germany, abstained from the vote on the U.N. resolution and made clear that they would not get involved in any armed intervention.
Germany, reflecting the divisions in Europe, said the move was fraught with “considerable dangers and risks.” India thought there was not enough “credible” information to warrant military intervention and Brazil warned that it could actually harm civilians more than helping them.
At an EU summit days before the U.N. vote, British Prime Minister David Cameron was isolated when he pressed for a military option with only French President Nicolas Sarkozy supporting the idea. At home, too, there was — and still is — considerable opposition to an Iraq-like adventure.
Critics say the government's approach to the Libyan crisis has been amateurish, starting with Foreign Secretary William Hague's statement — in the first week of the revolt — that he had “seen some information” suggesting that Muammar Qadhafi was on his way to Venezuela “at this moment.” At one stage, Mr. Hague was struggling after a series of blunders — from the shambolic airlift of Libyan refugees to the botched “spy” mission to help anti-Qadhafi forces.
Last summer, when he became Foreign Secretary he made a long and passionate speech outlining his plans for a new “distinctive” foreign policy, a sort of “Hague doctrine” that was meant to draw a line under the supposed failings of his Labour predecessors. His supporters sought to project him as the best thing that had happened to the Foreign Office after 13 years of Labour “misrule,” epitomised by the Iraq invasion. (Never mind Mr. Hague and his Conservative party fully backed the invasion and still justify it on the same grounds as Labour.)
Nine months after that brave start, questions are being raised about his judgment and fitness for the job. The media are buzzing with speculation on the back of rumours that his party colleagues have already started positioning themselves in case he is forced to go.
Education Secretary Michael Gove, former Times journalist transformed into a rising star of the Conservative party with close personal links to Mr. Cameron, is among those said to be eyeing his job. The only thing that apparently counts against him is his fear of flying which, given the amount of travelling a Foreign Secretary is expected to do, can be a fatal flaw.
In the wake of the “spy” mission fiasco, Mr. Hague's position became so vulnerable that Mr. Cameron was forced to stand up in the Commons to defend him, describing him as an “excellent” Foreign Secretary. This after Downing Street was accused of trying to hang Mr. Hague out to dry when, initially, it tried to distance itself from the mission saying the Foreign Secretary had personally authorised it. Only after Mr. Hague made clear that it had the backing of the Prime Minister and the government appeared threatened with what The Daily Mail described as the makings of a “civil war” did Mr. Cameron intervene to defend his embattled Foreign Secretary.
It was on Friday, March 4, that six members of the elite Special Air Service (SAS) and two junior British diplomats landed in a rebel-held area of Benghazi, eastern Libya, unannounced. The government said their aim was to establish contact with groups fighting the Qadhafi forces and assess their humanitarian needs. But in a farcical turn of events, the men were seized by the very people they had been sent to help. They were detained and taken to a military base reportedly in handcuffs.
Their helicopter, weapons and telephones were confiscated. Rebel leaders were reported to be furious fearing that such interventions would be seized by the Qadhafi regime as evidence of western interference. It took frantic calls from London to senior rebel leaders to secure the men's release.
The government faced more embarrassment after it emerged that a call by British Ambassador to Libya Richard Northern, appealing for the release of the captured men and apologising for their behaviour, was intercepted by the Libyan regime and broadcast on state television handing it a PR coup.
Former Libyan Justice Minister Mostafa Abdel Jalil, who is now a commander of a rebel group, is heard telling Mr. Northern: “They made a big mistake, coming with a helicopter in an open area.” A stuttering Mr. Northern says: “I didn't know how they were coming.”
The incident sparked widespread criticism with Oliver Miles, a former British ambassador to Libya, saying the whole idea of sending such a mission was “bizarre.” It also opened up divisions within the ruling coalition with the Liberal Democrats joining the Opposition to attack the move. The former Lib Dem leader, Menzies Campbell, denounced it as an “ill-conceived, poorly planned and embarrassingly executed” operation.
MPs wondered why the rebels were not informed of the team's mission if it had gone to meet them. Mr. Hague's claim that the mission collapsed because of a “misunderstanding” was greeted with mocking laughter in the Commons. So, what was the nature of the “misunderstanding” on which Mr. Hague blamed the mission's failure?
It seems what happened was a replay of the events that led to the invasion of Iraq, when western governments willing to clutch at any straw that reinforced their claims about Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction relied heavily on dodgy sources of intelligence.
According to The Sunday Times, the mission was conceived at the behest of an opposition figure, Abdul Fattah Younis, who hyped his influence among rebel groups. Mr. Younis was a Minister in the Qadhafi government until recently and though he has now joined the revolt he is still regarded with suspicion by main rebel groups. “When the members of MI6/SAS mission said they had come to see Younis, they may have increased their captors' suspicion,” the newspaper said.
Meanwhile, observers detect an element of hypocrisy in the moral outrage sweeping Britain over Libya. There is concern that it is taking the form of a witch-hunt with reputations being trashed and internationally respected institutions denounced over their previous links with Libya. Eminent economist Howard Davies has been forced to resign as director of the London School of Economics because the university accepted funding from the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation under his watch; and the LSE itself has been dubbed the “Libyan School of Economics” amid unsubstantiated claims that it awarded Mr. Qadhafi's son Saif-al Qadhafi (an allegedly plagiarised) PhD in return for the £1.5 million from the Foundation. Lord Meghnad Desai, emeritus professor at LSE, one of the two academics who reviewed Mr. Qadhafi's thesis, says he is “hurt” that his academic “integrity” is being questioned.
Every day, a new institution or individual is added to the “hall of shame” and there are calls for an investigation into its/his Libya “connection.” Yet until a few weeks ago, Britain took pride in bringing Mr. Qadhafi “out from the cold” and British companies were officially encouraged and helped to do business with Libya. Britain even sold it arms. As the Observer columnist Henry Porter pointed out, Libya had “teargas [equipment] made in Britain,” “Mirage F-1 planes, recently upgraded by the French,” and “C-130 H Hercules transport places from the U.S.” The prevailing wave of moral indignation was at odds, he suggested, with the trend over the past decade when everyone, it seemed, wanted to get into bed with Mr. Qadhafi.
The Libyan crisis is the first major foreign policy test of Mr. Cameron's leadership, and there is already a sense that he is struggling to find the right answers.