We may all applaud Qadhafi 's downfall, but it remains the case that Britain's intervention in Libya was wrong.
The downfall of a dictator is always welcome. Especially welcome is the downfall of Qadhafi of Libya. He was not the worst of his genre, but for 42 years was the beneficiary of the crassest western intervention, veering between ineffective sanctions and ostracism and Tony Blair's cringing, oil-drenched “friendship.” More welcome still would have been his downfall clearly at the hands of his own people, not courtesy of western armies.
The odds on mayhem after revolution are always high, and the pressure on those who aided revolution to forestall mayhem is intense. Libya on August 23 was fit only for Churchill's cautious remark about the same place in 1942, that the defeat of Rommel's army was not the beginning of the end but “perhaps the end of the beginning.” The British and French governments have been accused of excessive optimism over the summer, and are wisely avoiding Bush's “mission accomplished” boast in Iraq. Nothing is for sure until a peaceful, democratic government is in place, and that is far from being the case.
The mission creep of intervention in Libya has been a classic. Britain and France said they were establishing a no-fly zone “to save Benghazi” from putative attack, and soon found themselves taking sides in a civil war. This escalated into a bombing campaign against Tripoli to “defend the lives of the Libyan people,” and then into a claim that this was impossible without toppling, and even possibly assassinating, Qadhafi . Likewise did British and American troops go into Iraq merely to “find weapons of mass destruction,” and into Afghanistan merely to “eliminate al-Qaeda bases.” There would be no North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) forces on the ground in Libya, then only special forces, then a complete panoply of close air-support for Benghazi troops — and now, British defence sources admit that troops may be necessary to “help keep order.”
David Cameron, who has clearly been prime mover of the NATO initiative in Libya, must understandably feel satisfied at the current turn of events. It is too early to assess fully his strategy. He is undoubtedly lucky, so far, that his illegal attempt to kill Qadhafi and his family from the air has not succeeded, for it would have yielded an anti-western backlash across the Muslim world. As in Baghdad and Belgrade, the psychological “terror” bombing of civilian targets in big cities probably did little beyond winning Qadhafi some sympathy and even admiration in the eyes of his followers. But on the battlefield the RAF has been the Benghazi air force in all but name. Close support for the rebel advance on Tripoli appears to have been crucial, opening up the coast road and making counter-attack by Qadhafi 's troops near impossible.
Cameron has been out on his own in this, with only the maverick Nicolas Sarkozy for company. But he can plead he's deftly walked the narrow line between too little intervention and too much. He stood out against both Washington and most of Europe in the rebel cause. He kept British assistance covert — so far. He backed a putative winner in Libya's national transitional council, and now has a massive vested interest in its triumph and security. After five months of bad news, he can sense the surge of relief that comes with the first part of the mission apparently on brink of achievement.
Lessons of Iraq
Now begins the hard part. It has become a cliche that Libya “needs to learn the lessons of Iraq.” All such interventions, in Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, share the features of drawn-out mission creep followed by clarity in battle that is somehow lost in shambolic occupation. Winning the precondition for a coup is not the same as the securing a revolution, let alone a democratic one. Soldiers propose but politicians must dispose. Cameron is now at his Lawrence of Arabia moment, standing triumphant at the gates of Damascus. Like Lawrence, he is at the mercy of local forces he has unleashed but cannot command or contain.
Britain and France can hardly back off by not offering aid, advisers, logistical support and possibly troops to Tripoli to keep order and his faction out of power. Neither Tunisia nor Egypt played any part in this operation, proud that their revolutions were autonomous and untainted by western aid. Tripoli is as dependent on Britain as Britain on Tripoli. If Cameron wants to take credit for the removal of Qadhafi then he cannot avoid responsibility for the aftermath. Yet that responsibility strips a new regime of home-grown legitimacy and strength. This is the classic paradox of liberal interventionism.
So do this week's events justify Britain's Libya intervention? No, however churlish it may be to say so at this point. Nor would success in Libya justify attacking Syria, Yemen, Bahrain or Egypt, should the last turn sour. The Libyan adventure, its apologists point out, was tactically easy, and even that took five months and cost Britain hundreds of millions of pounds. Libya has a small population and is rich. If it now becomes a puppet oil state in the manner of the Gulf, it may be governable as an outpost of western interests, but it will become the same magnet for anti-western forces as was Iraq and Lebanon before it.
The U.N. basis for the intervention, supposedly to prevent “massacre in Benghazi,” showed how tenuous was the case for British aggression to achieve regime change. Britons might fervently will freedom on Libyans, as on Egyptians and Syrians, but how these people achieve it is their business, not Britain's. The more we make it our business, the less robust their liberation will be.
Britain remains enmeshed in the Muslim world. It made a mess of Iraq and is trapped in Afghanistan. It hardly needs another costly and embarrassing client state to look after in this surge of neo-imperial do-goodery. We may applaud the chance of freedom about to be granted to a lucky group of oppressed people, but that doesn't justify the means by which it is achieved: in another fury of great-power aggression. The truth is that Qadhafi 's downfall, like his earlier propping up, will have been Britain's doing. A new Libyan regime will be less legitimate and less secure as a result. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011