Libya: please don’t let ‘success’ go to our heads

As soon as the Libyan rebels appeared to have captured most of Tripoli, there was an outbreak of decidedly premature triumphalism by some, but not all, of the noisiest cheer-leaders for the NATO bombing campaign and Britain’s prominent role in it.  Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former Foreign Secretary who should know better, relieved himself of an article in the London Evening Standard which sneered at Tony Blair’s successful establishment of mutually beneficial trade and investment relations with Libya, and exulted that

It is a relief that the present Government has been far more robust in its approach to Libya. David Cameron, in particular, is entitled to credit for taking the lead in calling for international action and ensuring that the RAF has been one of the lead participants in the successful Nato action. Nato forces will be needed for a few more days but it is certain that they will be able to declare their mission accomplished in the near future.

Whichever sub-editor on the London Evening Standard wrote the heading of another article, by the American academic historian and diplomat Professor Philip Bobbitt, went one better, with the chilling words:

Libya shows the way the West can now intervene

— although Bobbitt’s enthusiasm for western intervention in the affairs of second and  third world states was somewhat more tempered than his sub-editor’s effort suggested:

Above all, will the publics of the Nato countries see events in Libya as validating preclusive interventions, when the experience in Iraq has convinced them that intervention is too costly, too bloody, and too lawless?

Still, Bobbitt’s article celebrated what he portrayed as an exciting new precedent for the UN Security Council to authorise western military action anywhere in the world where some disaster seemed likely to happen unless action was taken to stop it, a hair-raising doctrine that the professor christened ‘precursive intervention’ (a wonderful example of a scholarly high-falutin’ term designed to sterilise a brutal and bloody reality).

Dismayed by these arguments for repeating the Libyan adventure all over the place in the future, I wrote a dissenting letter to the Evening Standard, which duly published most of the first part of it on 24 August.  I had written:

Sir, In 2004 I was one of 52 former British ambassadors and high commissioners who signed a letter to the then prime minister strongly criticising many aspects of our government’s role in Iraq. The Iraq and Libyan situations are different in many ways but similar in others, such as the West’s reckless defiance, in both cases, of the UN Charter. The attack on Iraq was never authorised by the UN Security Council. Our initial military intervention in Libya was authorised by UN resolution 1973, but we ignored that resolution’s primary demand for an immediate cease-fire, and its requirement that outside military force should be used only to protect civilians.  After intervening to protect Benghazi, we brazenly supported the rebels militarily to bring about régime change, contrary to resolution 1973 and international law.

As in Iraq, by our intervention in Libya we have assumed a potentially expensive responsibility to help sort out the post-civil-war mess, probably including sending ground troops to maintain security.  Any Libyan government we help to create will risk being regarded throughout the middle east as a western puppet.  Even if western military intervention for a limited purpose was justified, Britain had no obligation to participate, given our disproportionate role in Afghanistan and our parlous budgetary situation.  We can’t afford our libraries but apparently we can afford to spend millions on bombing and rocketing a small country in the middle east which posed no threat to us.  A former Foreign Secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind’s, praise of David Cameron for rushing us into this costly and unnecessary adventure is incomprehensible.

Professor Bobbitt sees the NATO action as setting a useful precedent under a new doctrine of ‘preclusive intervention’, asserting that the Security Council broke new ground by authorising force when no other state was threatened by Libya: but that overlooks the Security Council’s formal finding that the Libyan situation constituted “a threat to international peace and security”, and the Charter recognises no such thing as a right of preclusive intervention.  Our involvement is by no means over and we shall come to regret ever taking on this open-ended commitment.

I wonder when our senior civil servants and diplomats, our air marshals and generals, will discover the intestinal fortitude to say to their naïve glory-seeking ministers:

“Sir, There are persuasive arguments for a western military operation to forestall the human catastrophe which you foresee, but there is nothing in the UN Charter (which constitutes international law on the use of force in international affairs and with which we are legally required to comply) that would permit the Security Council to authorise a military attack of the kind you envisage:  so anyone who launched such an attack in the circumstances and for the purposes that you describe would be committing the crime of aggression, and liable to prosecution in the International Criminal Court.

“Furthermore, even if the Security Council were to authorise such military action, there is no reason why Britain should take part in it, and many compelling reasons why we should not.  We have played a major role in Iraq and Afghanistan, second only to the Americans, and unmatched by any of our EU or other partners.  We are imposing on our own population unprecedented cuts in vital social services on which the poorest and most vulnerable in our society depend, in order to reduce a budget deficit for which ordinary British people are not responsible:  to embark now on a military adventure certain to cost many millions of pounds would be wildly irresponsible in present financial circumstances.

“It’s anyway far from certain that the political and social objectives for Tsetseland which you wish to achieve can be achieved by military force: and even if they were, our participation in the attack would impose on us an obligation to help financially and in other ways with a costly process of post-war reconstruction which could go on for decades, over which we would have no control and which we could not afford.

“Finally, you, the relevant government ministers, have very sensibly approved cuts in the UK defence budget which reflect a more realistic appreciation of Britain’s place in the world but which will make it impossible for us to arm and equip our soldiers, seamen and airmen adequately for an operation on the scale that would be required, to reinforce them if necessary, to rotate them to allow adequate rest and recovery, to take care of the wounded and of the families of those who may be killed, and at the same time to continue to fulfil our military commitments elsewhere in the world, including at home.  Against this background, we are bound to tell you that our armed forces are in no position to undertake the kind of military action which you envisage.  If you want a purely symbolic British contribution to this operation, and provided that it is properly and unambiguously authorised by the UN in accordance with our Charter obligations, we could probably find the money for a small team of communications experts and an ambulance unit.”


1 Response

  1. Oliver Miles says:

    I agree with a good deal of what you say, but think you have been a bit carried away.
    When Libyans and the Arab League first asked for military intervention I had grave misgivings on several grounds: legality, effectiveness, politics. Security Council resolutions 1970 and 1973 satisfied me on legality, although they clearly didn’t satisfy you.
    Effectiveness depends on how one defines the objective. I have heard enough Libyans, both in public and in private, thanking us for preventing an act of genocide – “a mini-Rwanda” – to be satisfied. It is true that we are left with the ambiguity of the double objective: protecting civilians according to the UN mandate, getting rid of Qadhafi according to the statements of our political leaders. That might have led us into an impossible and contradictory position, and had I been advising David Cameron or one of the other leaders who agreed with him I would have been warning of the danger. But it now looks as though the danger has passed.
    That leaves politics. At present the balance is positive. The military intervention has had an amazingly good press worldwide, including in the Arab world. The only significant exception is the usual suspects, Russia and China (more in a moment on them) and the African Union and some of its members, until recently on the Qadhafi payroll.
    If we resist the temptation to get drawn in to responsibilities which properly belong to the Libyans we can build a decent relationship with the new Libya. On this David Cameron said on 22 August “Our task now is to do all we can to support the will of the Libyan people, which is for an effective transition to a free, democratic and inclusive Libya. This will be a Libyan-led and Libyan-owned process with broad international support co-ordinated by the UN – and I am in close contact with partners from NATO, the Arab League and with Chairman Jalil himself.” We must beware of backsliding on that.
    As for Professor Bobbitt’s “validating preclusive interventions” I think Libya has done just the contrary. Russia and China, though just as keen as we are to get on good terms with the new Libyan regime, reacted to our interpretation of SCR1973 with characteristic Pecksniffery and for the moment seem determined to prevent any such Responsibility to Protect operations in the future, which they can do. (Their hand-wringing would have been more convincing had Robert Gates, speaking just before 1973 went to the vote, not gone to great lengths to set out exactly how intrusive the military operation to establish a no-fly zone would be.)

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Oliver. I too agree with much of what you say, although not that I have been ‘carried away’! I accept that UNSCR 1973 authorised military action to protect Libyan civilians, and especially those then threatened in Benghazi; but it seems very far-fetched to suggest that virtually any of the NATO action, once Benghazi was safe from Gaddafi’s forces, had anything to do with protecting civilians. It was brazenly designed to make it possible for the rebels to gain control of the rest of Libya, including Tripoli, and to kill or capture Gaddafi, none of which was authorised by UNSCR 1973 or otherwise by the UN, and which was therefore in breach of the UN Charter and international law, precisely as the attack on and occupation of Iraq were in breach of international law. No-one claims to believe that without the extensive NATO air campaign in support of the rebels they would have got as far as Tripoli, still less that they would have gained control of most of the capital. Whatever regime now becomes the new government of Libya will have come to power riding on NATO bombs and rockets, and everyone knows it. However hard we camouflage our financial aid and technical assistance to the new regime, help it with its security needs (probably with boots on the ground) and ‘advise’ it on how to set up a government based on a blueprint apparently already drawn up in Whitehall, but represent it all as home-grown Libyan, it will be obvious that having helped the rebels to get control of the country by means of NATO bombs and rockets, the west (principally Paris and London with Washington nervously providing indispensable back-up) is basically the post-civil-war Libyan government’s godfather and in a position to ensure that western oil and other interests are safeguarded by it. How that will play on the Arab street one can only guess.

    I believe that it was a huge mistake to ignore the resolution’s principal demand for an immediate cease-fire and an end to violence. We (the Americans, French, British and the rest of NATO) should have strongly supported the mediation efforts of the African Union, the Arab League and the UN Secretary-General, making it clear that military support to protect civilians was conditional on the rebels’ willingness to take part in talks leading to a conference under UN chairmanship at which all shades of Libyan opinion and clans would be represented, to agree a cease-fire for long enough to create a space and time for the Libyans themselves to work out a more durable modus vivendi, including eventual agreement among the Libyans on the future, if any, of Gaddafi, his family, supporters and clan. The fact that we frustrated the efforts of others to bring about a cease-fire as required by the resolution, preferring to provide the wherewithal for a rebel victory over the government, is bound to arouse the suspicion that our real objective was to produce a victorious pro-western government that would protect western interests — exactly as we tried ham-fistedly to do in Iraq. It’s almost impossible to think of any other explanation for western behaviour. We shamelessly exploited and then flouted UNSCR 1973 for our own purposes and preferred the loss of life and destruction of homes and infrastructure which accompanied the boosting of the armed rebellion to the alternative — international peace-making which could have saved much bloodshed and unnecessary suffering and destruction, leading to a genuinely independent Libyan government. I see nothing here to celebrate or on which to congratulate Messrs Cameron, Sarkozy or Hague.

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