Walking Away: The Formation of British Foreign Policy
Britain is to be led by Hammond and Rory Stewart to the leading-edge of a confrontation with Russia, almost before we are out of Afghanistan. Scandalously Douglas Alexander does not even attempt to mount an alternative view. John Warren investigates.
Libya is a failed state. Until recently Britain had much to say about the country, and combined its rhetoric with a long and difficult public (yet often cordial) relationship with the Libyan regime; or less publicly, to operate closely with the regime (or so it seemed when some of Britain’s less admirable activities allegedly and unexpectedly emerged out of windblown filing cabinets, that revealed secret memos rifled from abandoned government buildings in Tripoli [Guardian 4th September, 2011]).
Since 2014 Libya has effectively dropped off the ‘radar’ of British public debate in the media, and even ceased to be part of the common discourse of our politics, save recent grim reports of the incursions of IS into the country, brutally killing Egyptian nationals working in Libya: as a cruel reminder to us all that the Libyan State’s capacity to defend itself has now completely collapsed.
There is little attempt in Britain to place this disastrous outcome for Libya in any current British political or policy context, in spite of Britain’s recent involvement in the Libyan revolution (2011-12), which has now ended in such an unfortunate, if almost unnoticed way. The only other reminder to us that Libya has finally disappeared as a recognisable, modern country, is to note that its coastline has been reduced to serving as a launch pad for mass clandestine emigration for refugees fleeing North Africa for the uncertain ‘promise’ of safety in Europe; a hazardous journey across the Mediterranean by boat, facilitated by every crook and gangster who can exploit human misery, from bases in a country that has so recently and so quickly been reduced to utter ruin.
Let us therefore examine, as best we may, how Britain formed its Foreign Policy on Libya; what Britain has claimed for this policy, and what effect this policy has had on Libya, Africa, the Middle East; or even Europe.
The Libyan Revolution which eventually overthrew the Gaddafi regime came to world public attention when there were serious protests in Benghazi against the government in February, 2011. The Libyan government responded by sending tanks into Benghazi in March. By 17 March the UN Security Council had passed a resolution to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. A hastily organised coalition-of-the-willing, including France, Britain and the US enforced this no-fly zone.
There appeared to be some initial doubt that the US was as keen on both a no-fly zone or military action as Britain, followed by post-mission suggestions that Britain had interpreted the zone more aggressively than the UN intended, or the US desired. In any case this hasty coalition ‘in-the-air’, led to Britain bombing targets (probably air-defence systems) on 20 March.
On 24 March the Foreign Secretary, William Hague was reported by the Daily Telegraph as saying that Britain would continue “robust action” against the Gaddafi regime, and that the case for military strikes was “utterly compelling”.
On 26 April Hague reported to the House of Commons in the following terms:
“Britain has continued to take a leading role in international efforts to protect civilians in Libya and the case for action remains compelling: Qadhafi’s regime persists in attacking its own people, wilfully killing its own civilian population. Our strategy is to intensify the diplomatic, economic and military pressure on Qadhafi’s regime and since the House last met we have made progress on all those fronts” (Conservative Home, 26 April).
This is not quite a full or wholly informative explanation of the ‘timeline’ of Britain’s involvement. I have withheld something significant, because the British public were clearly not supposed to know anything about it at the time, or probably ever. How different the world looks when such a deft adjustment is accidentally discovered; especially if the official policy before the revelation of the withheld information may be contrasted with the outcome; such as the events as they unfolded towards August, 2014, and ever since with deepening, dark consequences for Libya. By then, of course Britain had gone; and replaced its “leading role” with silence.
Let us insert the missing item in the timeline. On 7 March, 2011 the Foreign Secretary was obliged to come to the House of Commons publicly to take “full responsibility” (his words) for a catastrophically botched clandestine military-secret service combined operation in Libya.
The Guardian Online reported that Hague was obliged to explain why a secret mission “had left Britain severely embarrassed when an eight-strong team including special forces were detained after landing in Libya by helicopter at night”. Hague confirmed that he had authorised the decision to send a team of MI6 officers and SAS soldiers into Libya, which was hastily withdrawn after “a serious misunderstanding about their role, leading to their temporary detention” by the Libyans.
The Foreign Secretary’s statement did not explain precisely the nature of the “misunderstanding” of the MI6 officers’ and soldiers’ role; but we need little help from imagination to speculate that the purpose of the mission was not likely to be to attack air-defence systems, or even less likely, simply to offer protection to Libyan citizens from the Libyan regime. Through this clumsily revealed operational blunder however, it seems reasonable to deduce that Britain was involved in this political revolution at close-quarters (or attempting to be), up to its neck.
While one mission was withdrawn, at the same time Hague said that the recently formed Interim National Council in Benghazi was in contact with British Ministers and Foreign Office officials, and had welcomed the idea of a British diplomatic mission to Libya. Notably, however the British Embassy was closed in March, 2011 (although its operations may have been suspended as early as February), after the British Ambassador Richard Northern had allegedly been discovered by Gaddafi to have been in contacts with the rebel Transitional Council in Benghazi. It is not difficult to figure out the broad, general direction of the British Government’s political strategy, or its aims; if we elicit these from the tenor of its deeds rather than its words.
Over the next six months the Libyan revolution spread and the regime began to disintegrate. On 17 October, 2011 Hague announced the reopening of the British Embassy in Tripoli. In his official announcement he said this;
“Today marks a watershed in the UK’s relations with Libya. Having been one of the first diplomatic Missions back into Tripoli after its liberation, we have now formally re-opened our Embassy and appointed an excellent new Ambassador to Libya Sir John Jenkins. This is further recognition of the great progress the National Transitional Council has made in stabilising Libya and re-establishing the country’s role as a full member of the international community”.
“The Libyan people’s decisive break with the past means we are now able to open a new era in UK-Libya relations, building on our military, political, diplomatic and humanitarian support to the Libyan people during their revolution.”
The “break” was the collapse of the regime. Gaddafi was killed at Sirte in the Libyan desert on 20 October, 2011.
On 16 July, 2012 Hague visited Tripoli, and while admitting that the country still faced some challenges with lawlessness and security, Libya was now what he described confidently as “a tremendous success story”, following the recent elections of a new Libyan government.
On 12 September, 2012 the US Ambassador, J Christopher Stevens was killed with three other Americans in an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi. Thereafter, Libya slowly disappeared from the political and media spotlight, and less was heard about Hague’s tremendous success. Benghazi became a dangerous place to visit.
On 21 January, 2013, following a terrorist attack on the remote Amenas Gas refinery in neighbouring Algeria in which 80 people were killed (including three British nationals), Hague reacted by denying that Britain’s intervention in Libya had fuelled extremism in the region.
On 2 August, 2014, following escalating fighting in Tripoli between militias that, it seems, had been ever-present since the Revolution; Britain closed its Embassy. These militias (or others like them) had been crucial in unseating Gaddafi, and had subsequently made it difficult for any central government to establish security. There was a security vacuum in Libya, just as there had been a security vacuum in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
On 4 August, 2014 HMS Enterprise was diverted to Libya (Daily Telegraph, 3 August) in a Royal Navy operation on Foreign Office advice; and took off at least 110 people from Tripoli, mainly British but including other nationalities, to take them to safety; in an operation that the BBC chose to describe as “not a rescue mission”, as “there were still commercial means to leave Libya”.
Darkness has descended over Libya. There are no nightly live TV news reports from either Benghazi or Tripoli in 2015. There are no glowing tributes to ‘success’. Libya has disappeared.
This ‘achievement’ in Libya is William Hague’s major contribution to diplomacy as Foreign Secretary. The one benefit to Hague and his colleagues of carrying out this policy without British ‘boots-on-the-ground’ was the consequent facility of everyone in Government so easily to wash their hands of all responsibility for the catastrophe that has befallen Libya: unlike Iraq or Afghanistan where British military presence on the ground has proved such an unfortunate, constant reminder of our political failure. Cameron thus felt able to describe Hague as a “first-class foreign secretary” when he sacked him.
The current outcome in Libya was quite obvious to many critics when Britain formed its fatal policy. For example, The Brookings Institute (Santini and Varvelli) ‘The Libyan Crisis seen from European Capitals’ (1 June, 2011) argued that:
“even if Qaddafi were to fall, the outcome might not be a peaceful transition to democracy but protracted instability or civil war that could have significant consequences for the region and for Europe. In the future the need for a process of national reconciliation in Libya, the creation of new institutions and a renewed balance between the various components of power will require a major commitment to “state building””.
There was no major commitment to “state building” in British policy, but then there was no plan; no grasping of full responsibility for what Britain had so ably helped to set in motion. We have neither the resources nor the planning capacity for such actions; nor indeed, from all recent evidence across the globe, do we possess the basic competence, still less the resolve: the proof is in the only evidence that ever matters – the outcome. Britain moved seamlessly from belligerent to bystander when Gaddafi fell. This was uncannily close to the Iraq model; there was no plan. We simply walked away.
This is Britain’s latest political legacy bequeathed both to the Middle East and to the British people. It follows inexorably Britain’s military defeat in Basra; Britain’s strategic failure in Afghanistan; and now disaster in Libya. All in a single decade, a prodigious achievement in futile logistics, lost life and treasure expended.
The only conceivable justification for any of these adventures, even in the morally flexible world of realpolitik, would be success. The only redeeming quality in realpolitik is that there is no excuse for failure; and it is scarcely a surrender to bias to claim that in Libya there is absolutely no success to show. Indeed, the consequences from Libya’s collapse have already spread out over the Mediterranean to Europe, in leaky vessels jammed with refugees; or it oozes slowly out of Libya over North Africa like a deadly virus. David Anderson, Professor of African Politics, University of Warwick, has suggested that the incursions of Boko Haram in Nigeria were at least in part enabled by the transfer of armaments from Libya, which fell into dangerous hands following the collapse of its central government.
Young girls disappear from northern Nigeria into unnamed forms of slavery; in seeking to understand this obscenity, we may look for links, to form the patterns, to make the connections; these, we may reasonably reflect, do not rely on discovering the source of such chain reactions in recondite, impenetrable origins; the beating of a butterfly’s wing. Britain has failed on any cold, independent, calculated measure of success in Libya, that has not been seduced into silence by Britain’s extraordinary political capacity for short-term memory loss, or geopolitical narcissism.
Britain has failed: and yet, this is Britain: we fail, we never admit it and therefore we never learn, and whether Conservative, Labour or LibDems are in government – the folly never, ever seems to end. To use words first used by Rory Stewart to describe our Foreign Policy failure in Iraq;
“we are crippled by what we are” (‘Occupational Hazards’, 2006: Epilogue, p.425-6).
How wise were his words; authenticated by his own experience. Unfortunately what cripples us runs very deep in the culture of the British State.
I would ask one simple question of the Foreign Office, that I believe highlights the degree to which our long history of international diplomacy is not necessarily a sign of the profound wisdom we too easily and gratuitously claim to possess in that loftily urbane indulgence of hubris to which we British are only too prone in the exercise of international power politics.
With reference to Afghanistan: how many fluent Pashtun speakers are there advising on policy formation in Whitehall? Here, I am not speaking of the native-born Afghan translators who have served the British Army on the ground in Afghanistan, and have since been poorly served by Britain in return; I am writing about the number of fluent Pashtun speakers permanently on the Afghanistan desk in the Foreign Office?
Having lost Basra, failed in Afghanistan and participated in the total demolition of the Libyan state; it now seems that, even before the last few agitated grains of swirling dust, blown into the arid air of a military compound by the last British helicopter lifting-off from Afghanistan, have yet had the opportunity to rise or settle back on the impervious, unforgiving ground of Helmand; Hammond, Stewart and Douglas Alexander have already moved on.
With that sophisticated insouciance that allows our politicians to move ever forward without a single backward glance at the lengthening trail of international political detritus left trailing aimlessly in our wake as so many numbed, broken casualties of our ‘interventions’ round the world; Hammond, Stewart and Alexander have advanced seamlessly to the next crisis in which Britain’s robust intervention, we can complacently rest assured, is going to make a decisive difference: in Ukraine.