John Baron is MP for Basildon and Billericay.
There are strange stirrings in No.10 and the FCO! The Prime Minister has been talking about the building-blocks of democracy and almost apologised when addressing the Kuwaiti Parliament in February for Britain having made calculated choices in the past between our interests and our values. Meanwhile, the Foreign Secretary on 16 March promised to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee to instigate a review [subject to Parliamentary scrutiny] of our policy on arms sales, having agreed the best place to preach about democracy is from the moral high ground.
And yet, here we are yet again intervening in another commodity rich Muslim country. This time the fig leaf is humanitarian aid – and this may well have been a consideration. But comments by Cabinet Ministers over the last week have made it clear that our targeting of military assets on the ground in Libya will only end with Gaddafi’s departure, despite UN Resolution 1973 only talking of a ceasefire and an end to attacks on civilians.
There can be little doubt now that regime change was a key, if not the key, reason for our intervention. If confirmation were needed, one only has to look at the last week’s events in the Yemen and Bahrain. Here we have brutal autocrats putting down popular uprisings often using weapons supplied by the West, and yet where is the no-fly zone (NFZ)? There will be no military intervention because both countries are allies of the West.
Further confirmation this week has come from the inaction of some of our Arab allies. When a NFZ was first being muted, one wondered why the Arabs themselves could not have instigated it. After all, the West has been selling them the capability for decades and they can better afford the costs – this is not a poor region. But the inaction of Egypt in particular is revealing.
Here we have an air force which boasts 240 F-16 fighter aircraft, the third largest fleet outside the US. By contrast, the Libyan air force boasts 109 Soviet-era MiG 23’s. There is simply no competition. In addition, Egypt has 8 E-2C Hawkeye (AWACS). Its military capability was untouched during the largely peaceful revolution and geographically it is perfectly placed to protect the civilians of Benghazi. Is Egypt’s inaction because both it and the West does not want to remind the world of its power and capability to enforce a NFZ? Perhaps we will never know.
So where does this leave us? If the West has its heart set yet again on regime change then the odds are this will be achieved, provided the public and our Arab allies stay on side. A stalemate is still possible, in which case the end-game remains unclear. But the last week has shown the West’s true hand. It appears the bombings will continue until the balance on the ground has been so decisively shifted that Gaddafi is removed. Whether our military leaders are completely happy with this is another matter.
And what of the longer term ramifications for our foreign policy. Some will perhaps claim that Libya is indeed at a turning point, and that our intervention draws inspiration from the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ obligation under international law which was recognised only relatively recently by a UN World Summit. This in effect encourages nations to act to prevent the massacre of civilians. The wider implications of such a policy on the basic tenets of national sovereignty, as enshrined in international treaties for centuries, have yet to be fully thought through.
However, others – myself included – believe this is yet another ill-thought through and ill-defined intervention motivated by national interest.
But whichever, our foreign policy is at a crossroads. We must either change and adopt a more ethical approach which consistently puts national values above interests – because, in the Prime Minister’s words when addressing the Kuwaiti Parliament, “denying people their basic rights does not preserve stability, rather the reverse.”
Or we must be more honest about our present policy and intent. It is quite clear from the facts that we have intervened in Libya to secure regime change – just as we did in Iraq. Although I believe this is folly, if such a policy was explained to the British public they just might agree to it – but the fact it hasn’t suggests they wouldn’t. Meanwhile, such dissembling undermines the UK’s international standing.
How Libya plays out and the approach we take in the rest of the region will indicate which choice the Government has made.
> Paul Goodman on ToryDiary earlier today: The Government's Libyan policy dare not speak its name