Britain's Catch-22

Print edition : April 22, 2011

Opinion is divided in Britain on the intervention in Libya, with even the ruling coalition's MPs voicing fears about an Iraq in the making.

in London

A British Tornado GR4 aircraft preparing to take off for a combat mission over Libya on March 19, at RAF Marham in Norfolk, eastern England.-SAC LISA CONWAY/MOD/HANDOUT/AFP

WHY Libya? Why now? Why not Yemen? Why not Syria? And where does this all end? Is Libya, in effect, Britain's Iraq-Mark II under a new management?

The unease over Britain's military intervention in Libya its third major military action in a Muslim-majority country in a decade, as The New Statesman noted is growing, with only 43 per cent of Britons in support of it, according to an opinion poll, and the number is likely to climb if the crisis drags on. Many of those who initially supported it have started to have second thoughts.

Among other things, the government has been accused of double standards in singling out Libya for intervention while ignoring the actions of friendly regimes in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. Prominent rights campaigner Bianca Jagger, while reluctantly backing the move against Libya, has called for similar action against other governments which are trying to put down popular revolts with force. Whatever be the official reason for not intervening in other countries, the question of double standards remained, she said in a BBC debate.

Besides, there is increasing wariness about where the mission is headed, with the ruling coalition's own Members of Parliament voicing fears about another Iraq in the making. Rory Stewart, a prominent Tory MP who had served in Afghanistan as a soldier and diplomat, has warned that the mission is fraught with risks. Although he voted for it in Parliament, he is concerned that Britain could easily get sucked into a long-drawn-out conflict and wants the government to remember Iraq and Afghanistan.

Don't get sucked into Libya. I think the no-fly zone is the correct thing to do, but this is a 20- to 30-year marathon with a very complicated region, he pointed out, speaking in the House of Commons.

Another Tory MP, John Baron, wanted to know whether the government had an exit strategy.

What is the exit strategy? he asked, warning that Britain risked being drawn into an ill-defined mission whilst civilian casualties rise.

Not satisfied with the answers, Baron voted against his own party.

Rising concerns

The government has failed to satisfy concerns about the exact purpose of the operation (Is it oil? Is it regime change?) or how long it is likely to last. Defence Minister Nick Harvey, a Liberal Democrat, was all over the place when asked for an estimate. How long is a piece of string? he rhetorically asked before admitting, We don't know how long this is going to go on. We don't know if this is going to result in a stalemate. We don't know if his [Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi's] capabilities are going to be degraded quickly. Ask me again in a week.

Foreign Secretary William Hague had no clue either; he said it was too early to speculate. His lame argument, reminiscent of the then Labour government's pre-Iraq claims, was: It depends what happens one way or another. I don't think you can put a deadline or a time objective to that. We need to do those things as long as it is necessary, and that will depend on how people react in Libya, the reaction of the Qaddafi regime, on so many factors.

In a sign of confusion at the highest level, an embarrassing public rift has opened up between the government and the army top brass over the purpose of the military operation and the legality of regime change or targeting Qaddafi. The row erupted after Defence Secretary Liam Fox, a Tory hawk, suggested that taking out Qaddafi was potentially a possibility. His remarks in a BBC interview that there was a difference between someone being a legitimate target and whether you would go ahead with targeting brought a quick and sharp rebuttal from the chief of the armed forces, Gen. Sir David Richards, who said the Libyan leader was absolutely not a target.

Across the Atlantic, Fox's contention was questioned by United States Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who said targeting Qaddafi would not only be unwise but contrary to the United Nations mandate.

A PROTESTER OUTSIDE Downing Street in London on March 21. Among other things, the government has been accused of "`double standards" in singling out Libya for intervention while ignoring the actions of "`friendly" regimes in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain.-TOBY MELVILLE/REUTERS

I think that it's important that we operate within the mandate of the U.N. Security Council resolution (authorising military action), he said.

Deeply divided

It is no secret, despite attempts to put on a united front, that the so-called coalition of the willing is deeply divided on the issue. Britain's own ruling coalition is not on the same page, with most Lib Dems opposed to targeting Qaddafi. Menzies Campbell, veteran Lib Dem MP and former party leader, has said neither the resolution nor international law would justify the specific targeting or, in truth, assassination of Colonel Qaddafi, while his current boss and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has called for iron self-restraint.

No wonder, the government has been deliberately evasive, with Ministers, from Prime Minister David Cameron downwards, appearing to waffle whenever the question is posed. While insisting that any military action will be consistent with the U.N. mandate, they refuse to rule out an attack on Qaddafi under any circumstances. Typically, Cameron said in the Commons: Targets must be fully consistent with the U.N. Security Council resolution. We choose our targets to stop attacks on civilians and to implement the no-fly zone. But we should not give a running commentary on targeting.

Ditto his Foreign Secretary. The targeting that we do in these kind of strikes will always be in accordance with the U.N. resolution, with an emphasis on protecting civilians. I'm not going to get into details of who or what might be targeted... all the things that are allowed depends on how people behave, he told the BBC in what one critic described as a classic case of waffling.

Yet, regime change whether by killing Qaddafi or forcing him into exile remains the implicit objective of the coalition forces. It is the elephant in the room nobody wants to talk about, openly hoping, as defence expert Max Hastings pointed out in The Financial Times, that Qaddafi faced with the attrition of his forces will opt for exile. Hence, clearly inspired speculation in Western capitals is that he is looking for a bolt-hole abroad despite his repeated denials.

Hague famously claimed, in the very first week of the revolt, that he had seen some information suggesting that Qaddafi was on his way to Venezuela at this moment. Cameron never tires of exhorting Qaddafi loyalists to desert him. In his most recent message, he said: Don't obey his order. Walk away from your tanks. Leave the command and control that you're doing. Give up on his regime.

Safe passage?

Alliance leaders, who met in London (March 29) for an international conference on the crisis, hammered in the message that Qaddafi must go. In a resolution, the conference attended by representatives of the Arab League and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference authorised continued military action until the Libyan leader was forced to throw in the towel. There was also talk of arming the rebels amid media reports that moves were afoot to offer him a safe passage (even help him find refuge in an African country) if he agreed to leave.

PRIME MINISTERS DAVID Cameron of Britain and Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani of Qatar in London on March 29.-STEFAN ROUSSEAU/REUTERS

The Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani gave a glimpse of the thinking inside the alliance camps when, asked about the possibility of arming the anti-Qaddafi forces, he said with a touch of menace: We urge Qaddafi and his people to leave. I think this is the only solution to sort out this problem as soon as possible. Right now we don't see any indication of that [arming the rebels]. But this hope which we offer now might not be on the table after a few days. I'm not warning anybody here, but I am trying to stop the bloodshed as soon as possible.

But what if Qaddafi decides to hang on?

The answer, analysts fear, could be a protracted stalemate, including an ugly partition, with Western forces getting bogged down. Kenneth Clarke, a senior Tory Cabinet Minister, has warned that a wounded Qaddafi, still in power, could instigate a Lockerbie-style terror attack against Britain, recalling the 1988 bombing of an American passenger plane over Lockerbie in Scotland which killed 270 people.

The British people have reason to remember the curse of Qaddafi Qaddafi back in power, the old Qaddafi looking for revenge, we have a real interest in preventing that, he told The Guardian, echoing similar warnings from security experts.

The problem, critics say, is of the coalition's own making, which in a bid to be seen to be doing something to address the humanitarian crisis jumped in without setting out clear and attainable objectives. Right from the start, the British approach has been dogged by controversy, most embarrassingly over the botched Foreign Office spy mission to Benghazi, eastern Libya, to help anti-Qaddafi forces.

In a farcical turn, the members of the mission (six men from the elite Special Air Service and two junior diplomats) were seized by the very people they had been sent to help. They were held on a military base reportedly in handcuffs, and their helicopter, weapons and telephones were confiscated. Rebel leaders were reported to be furious as they feared that it would be seized by the Qaddafi regime as evidence of Western interference.

But beyond the quibbling over tactics and the legality of the intervention is the question of its moral legitimacy, given Britain's cosy relationship with the Qaddafi regime over the past decade when British businesses, especially oil companies, thrived on lucrative deals with Tripoli and some of Britain's top universities bent over backwards to attract Libyan funding. Commentators say there is nothing moral about the intervention, but having dived in, the greatest good we can do the region would be to save the lives we're there to save, then get the hell out, as a Times columnist put it.

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