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Cameron’s Libyan Recklessness

3 March 2011

5:53 PM

3 March 2011

5:53 PM

Is David Cameron a hawk or a dove? And how useful is that question anyway? I suspect the answers are "more of a hawk than not" and "not much". The Prime Minister has not, shall we say, been at his best vis a vis Libya. Then again, foreign policy is not his longest-suit as anyone who recalls his reckless – and pointless – response to the mini-crisis in South Ossettia. His Dash to Tbilisi was straight from the pages of the John McCain Foreign Policy Manual, substituting feel-good sloganising and photo ops for measured calculations of both the national interest and anything Britain could practically or usefully do.

Something similar may be said of his call earlier this week for a No-Fly Zone across the skies above Libya. Since he has neither the opportunity nor the capability to enforce any such policy it might have been wise for the Prime Minister to consult with allies before, not after, he spoke. As Brother Korski notes in a typically astute post A no-fly zone may be a start, but policy-makers would do well to think through what kind of subsequent steps they are willing to take.

And there’s the rub. Even if a NFZ didn’t require the immediate targetting of Libya’s air defence networks it is at best a half-measure and almost certainly the first step towards further measures. Tom Ricks has a good post listing six objections to a NFZ but the main one is that it is, by definition, an act of war. That has consequences.


Suppose you enforce a NFZ but that Gaddafi continues to attack the rebels, only using ground troops rather than planes. Are we saying that, now that we’re refereeing the fixture, this is a legitimate tactic? In other words, the problem with Gaddafi’s use of aircraft is not that he’s killing his opponents but that he’s killing them too efficiently and we think it sporting to level the playing field somewhat? Are we really proposing to circle overhead while Libya’s civil war escalates, carefully monitoring the situation to ensure no-one gets carried away? This seems preposterous and morally dubious too.

Which in turn means we’d need to be prepared for air strikes and, quite possibly, the use of ground troops. Where will those troops come from? What will they actually be asked to do? How long would we be prepared to remain in theatre?

Meanwhile, Ben Brogan frets that the real problem is that too many people are too cautious about using force.

Arguably, what should be exercising us just as much is the argument that Jim Murphy, the thoughtful shadow defence secretary, has begun to sketch out. In an age where the pain and cost of British entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan have sapped the public and political will for armed intervention, how does one make the case for using force? The horrified reaction to Mr Cameron’s sabre-rattling may be justified by the amateurishness shown by his government. But it should also worry us that a country and a political class that used to be at ease with the idea of projecting force now gets the vapours the minute someone suggests it.

This, I sense, is the dilemma that will dog Mr Cameron. We invested our treasure in Afghanistan and Iraq, for no obvious return. Now we want to bring what’s left home, and lock it in the vault, far from harm. Yes, financial circumstances of our own making mean that we would struggle to mount a substantial operation, even if we wanted to. But the real danger is not that Mr Cameron has suddenly developed a Blair-like desire to meet our responsibilities abroad – it’s that the rest of us no longer want to.

If I have this right, Brogan is suggesting that having "invested our treasure" in two recent wars "for no obvious return" (a questionable proposition, to be sure, but never mind) the problem is now that there’s a reluctance to get involved in a third adventure that offers little in the way of any obvious return? And the "real danger" is that the political class lacks the toughness, gumption and boldness to pursue an expedition that’s fraught with difficulty and, in any case, beyond our likely capabilities? Gimme a break.

Afghanistan was, or became, a treaty obligation and Iraq was a special case. I doubt many people in Britain really, deep down, think Libya is any part of "our responsibilities abroad". It’s not – or should not be – some kind of machismo test. I doubt, in any case, whether the public is as frit as Brogan suggests it must be; rather it’s wary of adventures based on little more than a sense that since terrible things are happening something must be done about them and we must be some of the people to do something about it.

If Libya were a more important country matters might be different. But it isn’t and they aren’t. That doesn’t mean approving of Gaddafi or wishing him luck. Far from it. But if Afghanistan and Iraq have soured the public on fresh wars then the public is probably reacting rationally and those parts of the political class urging robust intervention should at least be expected to say what they mean by intervention, how it may be done and where it may actually lead.


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