Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, has revealed that plans are under discussion to adopt a more muscular stance towards the people traffickers shipping desperate people across the Mediterranean to Italy.
According to the Daily Mail, Special Forces will be deployed in an intelligence gathering capacity and may then be tasked with disrupting or destroying the boats in an attempt to “smash the trafficking gangs”.
The paper also reports plans for a so-called second phase of the operation which would entail: “putting a ‘policing force’ in to Libya that would be military-led and would include troops from the UK.”
It remains to be seen whether such a proposal will amount to anything more than talk: the public is warier than in recent decades of deploying force abroad, and some Tory MPs will suspect that this is merely an attempt to justify reclassifying some aid spending as part of the defence budget.
However, it does represent an evolution in official attitudes towards the deployment of the armed forces – a rather traditional one.
In the aftermath of the Cold War, the question of what to do with the military has been hotly debated.
The fall of the Soviet Union encouraged in many a sort of utopianism, a vision of a world where armies were increasingly irrelevant as power passed up to supranational and eventually global governance structures.
Others, like Tony Blair, bought into a different version whereby powerful Western armies performed a mopping up operation on history’s behalf and pro-actively spread the model of liberal democracy which was, in Fukuyama’s famous phrase, “the end of history”.
Neither of these have proven particularly effective. The unlimited strategic objectives of neo-conservatism have proven unfulfillable, whilst multi-national “peacekeeping” forces have been found limp-wristed and ineffective, most famously in Bosnia.
What Fallon proposes is, or at least could be, the sort of unfashionable military operation that might actually work: one with a practicable, limited strategic objective rooted clearly in the interests of those nations sending the troops.
A limited deployment, aimed at policing Libya’s coasts whilst the SAS et al launch targeted, aggressive strikes against the trafficker networks, might actually stand a chance of “stopping the boats”, as the Australians have it.
Moreover, unless Europe suddenly proves willing to accept the constant inflow of refugees from North Africa – and there’s no sign of that happening – such a deployment may be the only way to actually stem the crossings.
The status quo, with its mounting cost in human tragedy which does nothing to deter the next wave of boats, is unsustainable.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to such a plan, barring those inherent in coordinating a multi-national task force and operating in dangerous territory, would be resisting mission creep: the pressure to make the project grander, more generous-seeming, and less practical.
It remains to be seen whether Britain can rediscover its capacity for having functional outposts in dangerous places without trying to solve all their problems.