The West’s intervention was always going to be a contentious issue. For those of us who opposed the government or expressed doubt, regime change rather than humanitarian aid was the real reason. But until fairly recently, the West could still claim the moral high ground with some credibility. The killing of three of Gaddafi’s grandchildren in a missile strike – a fact not disputed by NATO – and other recent events now lays bare that credibility. The humanitarian fig leaf has become ever more transparent with each twist and turn of this increasingly shabby affair.
In the fullness of time, the claim that the West’s intervention saved the citizens of Benghazi from slaughter will be properly scrutinised. The fact that Gaddafi was from the start having trouble taking the much smaller town of Misurata has been conveniently overlooked. But even if the claim was true, it does not explain why those Arab countries who called for a No Fly Zone (NFZ) could not have instigated one. Egypt alone, with its vastly superior air force untouched by a largely peaceful revolution, was ideally placed. But this was not the mission. Instead, regime change was – and the West was better placed to make it happen.
Why else was the West not putting in NFZs in those other countries where autocratic leaders were putting down their own people. After all, countries such as Yemen and Bahrain were smaller and there would have been a higher chance of success. But these leaders were friends.
However, whatever our suspicions, until recently there was at least some credibility to the humanitarian claim. The rebels continually reminded us of their thanks in coming to their defence, even as they sped west to attack Gaddafi’s forces. Images of casualties and the consequences of a civil war reinforced the message.
But recent events since the start of the Parliamentary recess have eroded that credibility to the point where it is now worse than useless. First we had the joint statement from the three leaders which made clear they will accept nothing less than Gaddafi’s removal. Then the African Union’s peace proposals were rejected despite these proposals largely mirroring the conditions set out in UN resolution 1973 – a ceasefire, protection of citizens and humanitarian aid to those who needed it. Military advisers on the ground followed. Now we have had a precision missile strike on the home of Gaddafi’s son resulting in the deaths of three children.
NATO is finding itself increasingly boxed in. With every increasingly desperate attempt to bring this intervention to a close, the true mission becomes clearer. Yet the more desperate the action by NATO, the more vocal the international chorus of opposition is becoming, and the more likely our allies will begin to question. Furthermore, our military leaders may not be completely happy with the mission as amended. The endgame in the case of stalemate was one of the questions the government was reluctant to answer when Parliament debated and voted on the matter.
But the real question no one seems willing to answer is why did Britain and France turn against Gaddafi so robustly? We know President Obama was reluctant to get involved and handed over command to NATO as soon as he could. We have known for some time that Gaddafi wasn’t going to win any human rights awards – but this didn’t stop us embracing him and then supplying his armed forces. We know that France’s initial reaction to the Arab Spring was to recommend the Tunisian leader put down the revolution. We know that Britain has not recently advocated armed intervention anywhere else where autocratic leaders were putting down popular uprisings.
So why Libya and why now? Is it political expediency by President Sarkozy? Could it be about oil – our recent interventions across the region have had a commodity bias? Or is there another reason as yet undisclosed – perhaps too sensitive for public consumption? Perhaps we will never find out. But the claim that we were encouraged to intervene by our Arab allies is a little shallow when one considers some of them were busy putting down their own uprisings at the time.
Whatever the answer, we have a choice to make in our foreign policy. The present dissembling undermines the UK’s international standing. Moreover, such dissembling will become increasingly dangerous and difficult to apply in a rapidly changing world where the relatively straightforward realities of statecraft and power are giving way to much more fluid geopolitical forces – both state and non-state. We must either adopt a more ethical approach which consistently puts national values above interests. Or we must be more honest about our intent. Whichever, our present approach is doing us no good.