Libya: Fine, but why Britain?

David Cameron had earned generous tributes to his success in securing a tough Security Council resolution on Libya, authorising an air war against Gaddafi: but why did he (and most of the media and the chattering classes) think it necessary for Britain to play such a prominent part in it?  Come to that, why does everyone assume that if there’s to be an air war over Libya, British aircraft and their crews must play a prominent part in it?

When Mr Cameron first called so stridently for a Libyan no-fly zone, he was rightly criticised for imprudently getting ahead of our allies and partners, and laying himself open to the suspicion of dreaming of another Iraq – another western attack on a middle eastern Muslim country, unlikely to win the approval of the Security Council, liable to unite the Arab world against us, involving another open-ended military commitment that the country couldn’t afford.  Suspicion was intensified when Cameron and his supporters, bear-led by a raucous Malcolm Rifkind, started to claim, implausibly, that if the Security Council ‘failed’ to authorise a Libyan no-fly zone, it could still be set up legally under cover of some other alleged provision of international law unknown to the law books.  Serious and well-founded doubts were expressed about the chances of a no-fly zone having a decisive effect on the civil war now being fought in Libya:  the main threat posed to the rebels by Gaddafi’s forces comes from his tanks, artillery and other ground forces, much less so from his air force.  The fact that the only other voice calling loudly for a no-fly zone came from French President Sarkozy, enthusiastically advocating every kind of mayhem in response to the Libyan situation, did nothing to dispel doubts about the wisdom of the exposed position that Cameron had chosen to occupy.  Nor did it seem well judged to have committed Britain so early on to such a controversial, activist policy when there was so far no consensus in its favour either within the EU or NATO, or  even with the Americans, whose active participation would clearly be indispensable if ever a no-fly zone were to be established.

Then on Thursday after long days of negotiation in New York the United Nations Security Council adopted resolution 1973 (2011) of 17 March, adopted by ten votes in favour, none against and five abstentions.  The resolution, all 22 preambular and 29 operative paragraphs of it, duly authorises an air war against anyone in Libya whose actions threaten the safety of civilians.  (It does many other things too, but that’s the core of it.)  Cameron (and Sarkozy) could perhaps be forgiven, after the flak they had been taking, for claiming that with this UN decision they had been handsomely vindicated.  Both leaders instantly committed their countries to leading roles in the execution of the resolution, and started moving their fighters and bombers ready for the fray.

Despite the certainty of being accused of sour grapes, I suggest that a number of reservations need to be made and questions asked about the vindication theory, and about the justification for the praise heaped on Mr Cameron at the special session of the house of commons on Friday.

First, our the prime minister’s timing was seriously ill judged.  By jumping in with his call for a no-fly zone ahead of proper consultation with our principal allies and partners, he jeopardised President Obama’s canny strategy of waiting for an appeal by the middle east’s regional governments, represented by the Arab League, the African Union, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, and other associations, for UN action against Gaddafi, so as to avoid giving any impression that this was yet another US-led, western intervention against a sovereign, independent Arab Muslim state, on the pattern of Iraq and Afghanistan.  While Obama was patiently withholding any firm pronouncement for or against a no-fly zone, meanwhile encouraging the Arabs to call for one and consulting the Russians on the kind of UN resolution that they would not feel compelled to veto, Cameron was already noisily committed to a no-fly zone and to a prominent UK role in enforcing it.

Secondly, it never seemed likely that action confined to a no-fly zone would be enough to stem Gaddafi’s progress towards the recapture of Benghazi and the other areas still under rebel control.  This potentially lethal deficiency in the Cameron proposals is handsomely remedied in the Security Council resolution, which authorises (indeed actually imposes) a no-fly zone but also, much more significantly, permits air attacks on military targets on the ground — tanks, artillery, military vehicles or convoys, etc., and not just aircraft — if these are threatening civilians.

Thirdly, even resolution 1973, with its call for a cease-fire before anything else happens, carries with it the risk of committing the participants in the air war against Gaddafi indefinitely to increasingly controversial military activity with increasingly dubious prospects of anything resembling “success” if Gaddafi’s forces are fought to a standstill, declare and observe a cease-fire, and sit tight in a total stale-mate, with Gaddafi in secure control of Tripoli and perhaps the main oil installations.  What then?  Escalate to intervention with ground troops, with the only possible objective of régime change – a war aim that the Security Council could and would never authorise?  It’s all very well to say that “we” (who?) can’t stand idly by while thousands of Libyan civilians are slaughtered, and to brush off concerns about the very possible consequences of our actions with the tired old formula about crossing that bridge when we come to it:  but that was exactly the kind of lack of foresight and anticipatory planning that landed us all in such a comprehensive mess in Iraq.

Fourthly, perhaps most fundamentally (and most controversially), why should it be Britain which not only leaps into the lead in demanding military action, however sorely needed, against a middle eastern Muslim régime, however repressive, but also insists on playing a prominent part in the military action as soon as it has UN authority?  Britain has no special or unique responsibility for the protection of Libyan civilians, compared with (for example) Italy, whose colony Libya used to be, or France, which more than any other western country has apparently supplied Gaddafi with more and more sophisticated weaponry, including updating and modernising his Mystère jet fighters.  The logic of the situation suggests an Arab-led operation, with a few select and respectable western countries in discreet support.  Britain is more heavily engaged in Afghanistan than any other western country except the US, and undertaking yet another active military operation in yet another country in the region risks gross over-stretch of our defence resources.  Britain, more than almost any other western country apart from Greece and Ireland, has opted to tackle its international debt and budget deficit by ferocious cuts in almost all its social and welfare services, gratuitously adding to unemployment, smothering demand in the economy, and risking driving its economy into a second recession even more severe than the first:  what further swingeing cuts (or new borrowing) will be needed to pay for another military adventure in which no major national interests are at stake?  It would have been prudent to encourage two or three rich Arab states to play a prominent part in the air war that is now beginning.  It would have displayed political and diplomatic sensitivity for the country which played such a prominent role in the illegal attack on Iraq, and is still so prominently engaged in an increasingly unpopular war in Afghanistan, to leave it to others to force the pace over Libya and then to contribute their own airmen and women, and military hardware, to the combat.

There seems to be a strange kind of British love affair both with war and with the idea of leadership.  No doubt there are sound historical reasons for our subconscious association between war and glorious victory,  and a similarly deep-seated assumption that if there’s going to be a war, Britain must automatically be playing the “leading role” in it – an obvious imperial hangover.  It’s no coincidence that the country which had the most worried doubts about the call to arms in Libya, and which abstained from the vote on UNSCR 1973 on Thursday, was Germany, whose subconscious associations are doubtless very different.  In Friday’s parliamentary sitting on Libya, almost every fulsome tribute to the prime minister’s brilliant success referred to his, and Britain’s, “leading role” in securing the Security Council resolution.  (The tributes to the success of the British diplomats at the United Nations in New York who had taken part in the heavy lifting of negotiating the terms of the resolution were surely much better earned.)

In much the same way, those in politics and the media who argue against the immediate withdrawal of all British forces from Afghanistan, where their presence is fairly obviously doing more harm than good, almost invariably talk as if “our” withdrawal would be the same thing as the withdrawal of the Americans and all the other members of the coalition in Afghanistan, leaving the country defenceless against the return of the Taliban, with al-Qaida in tow.  The idea that the Americans and their other partners might soldier on without Britain never seems to occur to these arm-chair warriors.  Nor, it now appears, can the same proud patriots conceive of the enforcement of the Security Council resolution on Libya without Britain in a starring role.  They are seemingly quite impervious to the inconvenient facts that the nimble M. Sarkozy stole in front of Mr Cameron in campaigning for military action against Gaddafi and then stole Britain’s thunder again by ensuring that a French warplane would be the first to fire at a Libyan military vehicle.

Those of us who found Tony Blair’s itch for military intervention, and his obsession with British leadership, obnoxious and alarming were, it now seems, premature in celebrating his departure from UK politics.  Blairism rides again, personified in the strident and triumphant voices of Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Mr David Cameron.  They have taken a huge and above all a totally unnecessary gamble.  We can only hope that it will pay off.

Update (20 March 2011, 2300 hrs): An interesting discussion of some of the issues raised by the UN resolution is going on in comments on the same post at


9 Responses

  1. Oliver Miles says:

    John Masterman in “The Double-Cross System” quotes Lord Melbourne: “If I hear people saying that something must be done, I know that they contemplate doing something damn silly.”

    Brian writes: Thank you for this excellent remark. I’m also reminded of Thomas Babington Macaulay – “We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality.”

  2. John Miles says:

    We must do something.
    This is something.
    Therefore we must do this.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this irrefutable syllogism, John. You should pass it on to Mr Cameron.

  3. The sight of western countries again bombing the bejesus out of another Arab (OK, more Berber really, but the rhetoric is Arab) country is not going to endear us to many in the Middle East.  One pro-democracy twitterer (?) from Cairo just tweeted (!): “another coalition of the willing, another oil-rich Arab country.. another mad dictator.. ” If it continues for long, this will become the common opinion, whatever Cameron/Sarkozy/Obama would like to think.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. I’m very much afraid that you and the Cairo Tweeter are probably right. The longer this continues, the more it will be seen as just another western intervention to protect its oil supplies.

    I see that the Arab League is already denouncing the air strikes. And where are all the fighters and bombers we and everyone else has been selling to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, etc? A journalist-cum-academic on C-Span has just been saying that all this flash-bang over Libya is a distraction from the really serious looming problem which is Iran and its nuclear ambitions. I have a nasty feeling that she’s probably right, too, although Israel-Palestine is another really serious open wound that everyone seems afraid to attend to, and which may well become literally insoluble if and when Iran does acquire a nuclear weapon.

  4. A Friend says:

    Since (in my jaundiced view) a lot of Cameron’s (and Rifkind’s) behaviour in this is grounded in the arrogant self-importance of our House of Commons, I will simply say “Hear, Hear!”.  Or, in another familiar idiom, “You spoke well!”

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. (“You spoke well” is the formula used by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office to endorse and approve something said by one of its ambassadors overseas on her own authority and not on specific instructions, for example to the foreign minister of her host country.)

  5. Brian says:

    Here is my (edited) response to an interesting comment that has been posted on the same article at

    The UN resolution goes much further than merely setting up a no-fly zone, as current US-UK-French-Canadian etc. strikes are currently demonstrating. Personally I think this is right, since a no-fly zone on its own would almost certainly have been ineffectual in stopping the recapture of Benghazi — not that the present much wider mandate can be guaranteed to prevent that.

    An earlier comment observes that “The UN resolution effectively gives Britain, France and America the right to use any force they deem necessary as long as they don’t put troops on the ground,” which is certainly the impression given by UK ministers and by the Americans. But, as some commentators have spotted, that’s not quite what the resolution says. In operative paragraph 4 the resolution permits certain kinds of military measures to protect civilians from attack, but “excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory”. On the face of it, this would not necessarily bar the entry of foreign troops into Libya for any purpose other than as an occupation force, for example to protect supply routes for humanitarian relief supplies, or even in response to an appeal for military support by the rebels’ National Council. Another possibility might be the entry of an Egyptian military force from across the border, e.g. to reinforce the defences of Benghazi at the request of the anti-Gaddafi Council and thus not technically an “occupying force”. Of course any such entry of foreign troops would be denounced by Gaddafi as an occupation force and thus as a contravention of the resolution, but it would be up to the Security Council if necessary to provide an authoritative interpretation.

    The possibile significance of this is that it leaves the door slightly ajar for an escalation of the conflict into a ground war without the need for a new resolution of the Security Council (which would be vulnerable to a Russian and/or Chinese veto) if and when military action from the air and from ships doesn’t seem to be giving Libyan civilians adequate protection, or (equally likely) if the coalition’s intervention produces a military stalemate on the ground, with no apparent prospect of dislodging Gaddafi from Tripoli, and no serious possibility of Gaddafi capturing Benghazi. As a last resort in that situation, it might be possible to put together a ground force, predominantly from other Arab countries, not as an “occupation force” (banned by the resolution) but in support of the ‘rebels’ to enable them to break the stalemate and embark on an operation to capture Tripoli. As things stand, however, it seems extremely unlikely that the Americans would be willing to put troops on the ground in Libya, and it looks as if Cameron would be equally reluctant to commit British ground troops either, even if a legal case could be made for doing so. The French might be willing, but who else? It would really need an Arab force, and that would be extremely difficult to assemble.

    The hope must be that Gaddafi’s forces, including his mercenaries, will melt away, faced with the strength of the western forces arrayed against them, forcing Gaddafi to surrender. Well, it might happen.

  6. Peter Harvey says:

    May I add a few comments to your splendid analysis?
    I think that you answer your own question with your comment about Britain’s ‘love affair both with war and with the idea of leadership’ being ‘a subconscious association between war and glorious victory,  and a similarly deep-seated assumption that if there’s going to be a war, Britain must automatically be playing the “leading role” in it’. That this is ‘an obvious imperial hangover’ is clear. It is trite but none the less true that the UK has still, after more than 60 years, failed to identify its post-imperial nature. This is a matter that transcends parties; it strikes to the heart of the constitution of the country. And by that I do not mean reform of the House of Lords, though that is part of it; I mean the way in which the country is constituted in terms of its self-image, from which all else follows.
    It is striking that the Afghanistan operation is presented as the UK alone (with a little unwelcome assistance from the Americans) fighting the brown-skinned natives, while in Spain, where there is little controversy about the action, it is presented as a multinational humanitarian operation of assistance with the aim of building a stable nation in Afgahnistan. There is some spin in that but in a remarkable turnaround from how things were 30 years ago, the Spanish army is now the most highly respected institution in the country with the Guardia Civil (also involved in international peace-keeping operations) close behind.
    As for the UN abstentions, I can’t help wondering whether Russia and China abstained so as to give the West enough rope to hang themselves. What Germany thought it was doing is a different matter. By abstaining it gained nothing (it would have been committed to nothing had it voted in favour), but by abstaining it has abandoned its traditional foreign policy, divided the West and EU, raised suspicions that it might be moving away from France towards Russia (always a worry and a risk), and prejudiced any chance it might have of getting its own UN seat. That at least is the view of the liberal Süddeutsche Zeitung (German) in an article headlined ‘Germany sides with the dictators.’

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Peter. I have to say that I’m generally suspicious of theorising about Britain’s failure to find a new post-imperial national identity. We are who we are, and there’s little point in agonising about it. I certainly agree that many (but by no means all) Brits have an unhealthy obsession with the second world war, fed by endless television programmes and war films and by the personal interests of many school teachers. But many other nations also tend to dwell on past victories and successes — look at the names of Paris Metro stations, and streets named after dates! — and that’s only natural. The armed forces (not only the army) are generally highly respected here, too; some of their generals, air marshals and admirals rather less so. I welcome British scepticism about the war in Afghanistan, which seems to many of us pointless and counter-productive, but that’s not reflected at all in disregard for the ordinary British soldiers who are fighting it. The implication of your reference to the adversaries in Afghanistan being ‘brown-skinned’ seems to me completely wrong, and rather old-fashioned, if I may say so.

    I don’t think you need to construct quite such deep or complex motives for the Russian, Chinese and German abstentions on UNSCR 1973. Those three governments are clearly sceptical about the chances of success of the action authorised by the resolution, but not so strongly opposed to it as to feel it necessary to vote against the resolution (which of course in the case of the Russians and Chinese would have prevented its adoption). Mrs Merkel would probably have faced strong criticism at home if Germany had voted Yes, the Germans being for obvious reasons instinctively reluctant to support a resort to military force unless the need for it as a last resort is extremely compelling, even if German participation in the military campaign would not have been necessary just because of a German Yes vote. The German vote may also have been influenced in part by the memory of strong German opposition to the Iraq misadventure, a position well justified at the time and subsequently handsomely vindicated by events. And for Germany to have been the sole member of the Council to vote No would both have emphasised its isolation and also put an even harsher spotlight on the division within the EU and NATO. I doubt if it took the Germans long to decide to abstain: it was the obvious course for them.

  7. Another Friend says:

    Thank you for this, Brian, stimulating as ever.
    The desire for British leaders to have their ‘moment’ cannot be ignored as a trend that began before Blair in Kosovo.  Blair’s decision harked back to the events of 1982, when he was 29, and the UK sent a taskforce to the Southern Ocean in defence of the Falklands.  To do so, Thatcher cloaked herself in an identity that was directly drawn from Churchill and the second world war.  And doing so did her no political harm.
    Thatcher’s war was linked closely to her projection of the UK overseas through the decision to defend “Britishness” and British interests.    Blair wanted to project another identity for Britain in the world (the ethical foreign policy, and the liberal interventionism of Robert Cooper, as you well know).  However, I think in both cases, Thatcher and Blair had a coherent vision of how such intervention fitted into their concept of the British place in the world.  As exposed by the Strategic Defence Review, Cameron’s response to questions about the wisdom of taking arms dealers for a walk through a newly liberated Tahir Square and the nature of the decision-making over Libya, I’m not sure that this government yet has such a coherent vision of the British role abroad.  Nor am I certain it knows it needs one.

    Brian writes: Many thanks. I think you make a very valid point. David Cameron’s knee-jerk response to the Libyan crisis seems to have taken no account of the implications for Britain’s true and necessary role in the world as recalibrated by the coalition’s entrenched policies on the size of the state, the appropriate level of government spending and taxation, the size and shape of the armed forces as decided in the Strategic Defence Review (to which you rightly refer), the lessons reluctantly learned from Iraq and Afghanistan, public weariness with the continuing arrival of flag-draped coffins, and the low level of public trust in politicians — not just because of the expenses scandal, but in truth also because of the generally low calibre of the great majority of our political masters in all parties.

    All of this ought to point to a much more modest and above all more realistic view of ourselves in international affairs: still a big player (generally effective armed forces, a skilled diplomatic service, a major and exceptionally skilful aid donor, still at the intersection of the EU, the G8 and the Commonwealth, with widely respected institutions such as the BBC and the British Council, also respected for its language and culture — but a big player of the second rank whose ability to protect and advance its national interests depends increasingly on collective action with its European partners and trans-Atlantic allies. But this is nothing new: a decade ago I was arguing for acceptance of a much more realistic and less leadership-obsessed role for Britain in a long article in the Political Quarterly (see brief extract here). Thatcher’s and Blair’s visions were romantic and unrealistic: Thatcher was lucky to get away with it, Blair wasn’t, and didn’t. I’m not hopeful that Cameron, or indeed Ed Miliband, will do any better.

  8. Much has been made in the press of former President Clinton`s regrets on non intervention in Rwanda and the effects of that having been forcibly made to the current White House occupant.  Does this argument have any bearing on your opinion as above?

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. I agree that of course the fear of being accused subsequently of having been responsible for thousands of innocent people being killed when intervention might have saved them is bound to be a powerful incentive for wading in, despite misgivings. There is also the pressure from the world’s media, ever hungry for instant drama — it sells newspapers and television advertising slots, while inaction is boring. My impression, inevitably not backed by documentary evidence, is that in the case of the present Libyan crisis, President Obama was extremely reluctant to get involved: left it as late as possible to commit himself: and hoped that it could be handled either by the regional Arab and Muslim countries (or with their prominent participation) or, failing that, by the Europeans whose leaders, or two of them, were so keen on intervention. Once the Arab League had asked for a no-fly zone, and the European cheer-leaders had made it clear that it needed American leadership to happen at all (with the implication that Obama would be publicly reviled if he declined to supply it), he really ran out of options. But he still clearly wants to keep the US role to the minimum, and I would be surprised if he were not deeply troubled by the problem of bringing the whole messy business to a defensible conclusion.

    The New York Times piece on this today casts interesting light on American attitudes generally, and the President’s in particular, to this operation.

  1. 21 March, 2011


    So, just as in 1991 with the first Gulf War, a bunch of squabbling Arabs are causing problems for the rest of us. And just as in 1991 it will be the NATO countries that have to sort things out……