President Obama has at last acknowledged that Libya is a “mess”. An American President using a word like “distracted” to describe David Cameron’s contribution to the unfolding “mess” in Libya has now proved too much for the Government and Foreign Office, which have now wheeled out a Conservative ex-Foreign Secretary and a past ambassador to Libya (Malcolm Rifkind and Oliver Miles) to defend – what exactly? Failure. It would be more candid to acknowledge that Libya is a failed state, but for obvious reasons that is not an option.
I have written two articles for Bella Caledonia on Libya: ‘Walking Away: The Formation of British Foreign Policy’ (24th February, 2015); and ‘Deserting Libya: The Rhetoric of British Foreign Policy’ (28th September, 2015). Both were highly critical of British intervention, but attempted to make the case by presenting the British Government’s case for its actions and the consequences in Libya almost entirely in its own words; words that you will discover are surrounded by longer and longer silences. I believe that the Government accomplishment consists principally in revealing only the extent of its own failure. I invite the reader to read these articles, and I am content to leave the reader to make up his or her own mind, or to undertake their own further research.
In one of the articles cited above I quoted from the official British Government advice to travellers to Libya (26th September, 2015). Here is the advice the British Government is giving on Libya as ‘updated 15th January, 2016 ’ and ‘still current 13th March, 2016’:
“The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advise against all travel to Libya due to the ongoing fighting, threat of terrorist attacks and kidnap against foreigners, including from Daesh-affiliated extremists (formerly referred to as ISIL), and a dangerous security situation throughout the country.
British nationals still in Libya are strongly urged to leave immediately by commercial means. The British Embassy in Tripoli has temporarily closed, and is unable to provide consular assistance.
The situation throughout the country remains dangerous and unpredictable. Fighting continues in many parts of Libya. It can be unclear in some areas which faction has control. This fighting includes extremist groups such as Ansar Al Sharia and affiliates of Daesh and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQ-M).
There is a high threat from terrorism. See Terrorism. There are continued attacks across Libya including in major cities, leaving significant numbers of people dead or injured.
There is a high threat of kidnapping throughout Libya, There have been a number of kidnappings, including of British nationals. Foreign nationals, including from Ethiopia and Egypt, have been kidnapped and killed by Daesh”.
“Terrorism section – at least 50 people were killed by a Daesh truck bomb at a coastal guards training centre in Zliten, western Libya on 7 January; there was heavy fighting around oil facilities at the ports of Es Sider (Sidra) and Ras Lanuf on 4 and 5 January, after attacks by Daesh; Local travel – foreign nationals including journalists are vulnerable to mistreatment by armed groups in Libya”
What has changed in the intervening, approximate six months since the second article appeared? Nothing. Indeed everything in Libya appears to be either the same, or probably worse; Libya is overrun by Jihadists, infiltrated by Daesh and infested with people smugglers. Nevertheless the Foreign Office asks us to believe that nothing that happened in Libya could reasonably have been forecast; Britain did its best, and by implication of the contributions by Miles and Rifkind, matters have turned out in that unfortunate country at least no worse than any reasonable person could expect, if Britain had not intervened; what we did was “the right thing to do” (Miles, repeating knowingly or unknowingly the words of the PM on 2nd September, 2011, in Libya). Any failure therefore is, in effect that of Libyans, for it is entirely the responsibility of the Libyans to govern their country. This is I think a fair summary of the position the Foreign Office apologia has taken. The British embassy is closed: a fact that underscores the vacuous, meaningless nature of the rhetoric of “the right thing to do”, or Cameron’s words in September, 2011 insisting that there was “a very strong case for going ahead”: yet the Foreign Office now cannot even open an official office in Libya; Britain cannot show its face. That is some case they have made.
Notice how smoothly we both intervene and extricate ourselves, whatever unknown forces and terrors we may have unleashed upon Libya, the Mediterranean or Europe; as if the fact that the policy carried unintended consequences means that they were therefore unforeseeable. The devious, subtle logic of the FO is spurious. Notice that beside the soft, reasonable, urbane sophistries of Rifkind and Miles, the British public has been offered nothing to compare with their soothing balm; because the mainstream British media does not wish to remind the public of just what is happening to Libya, or report now in the detail it offered when the British Government was conducting its catastrophic military and public relations campaigns; the grim realities of a country now descending into the abyss, or focus on anything quite so embarrassing for the British Government as the exposure of its incompetence, or the total failure of British policy (it is now a great deal more dangerous for reporters to visit Libya now than then). The media are all too busy excitedly reporting, blow-by-blow a European Referendum in which the Conservative Party is running both sides of the campaign, and cannot lose: that is much more the kind of thing the British media thinks is newsworthy, and it seems thinks is how democracy is best conducted.
I beg to differ. Notice that the FO apologists are in effect claiming that however bad it is now, whatever the consequences of the intervention, implicitly it would have been worse if Britain had not intervened, and after the military campaign it was effectively up to the Libyans themselves to make it work. Of course, this is a case that can never be disproved, which no doubt is its purpose; it is intended to disarm criticism, but in effect the defence is nothing more than sophistry: but sophistry is what the FO seems to do best, although unfortunately it is a travesty carried through in all our names.
We need only examine British (and Allied) diplomatic and military policy and performance in Iraq (especially Basra), or Afghanistan, both of which events should have provided an insight into the contemporary dangers and limits of intervention of this kind, at this time, in this part of the world; to be able to draw some telling and uncomfortably similar lessons. We appear to have learned precisely nothing; except not to put ‘boots on the ground’, for that finesse allows easier extrication if it all goes wrong.
The most critical facts are a great deal less elusive or problematic than the Foreign Office apologists would wish everyone to believe. What is required to intervene with a high likelihood of success? I will leave to one side the legitimate political (or indeed moral) grounds for intervention, whatever their merits; for interventions that are likely to fail can have no justification whatsoever, of any kind.
The prospect of successful intervention requires access to and control over an overwhelming preponderance of power (in military terms in the air and on the ground), the resources to execute the chosen policy without any significant threat of decisive opposition, and requires that the policy has been planned in detail, with the capacity to execute a comprehensive economic reconstruction programme for the country targeted; with financial capacity to match, once the military threat has been defeated. This not only demands the possession of well-placed local people ‘on the ground’, and wide local public support, but should be informed by the intervening power also possessing significant resources of its own personnel who are highly knowledgeable of the langauge, culture and institutions of the country in which it is intended to intervene: all of these factors must be brought together to be delivered at the ‘decisive point’. In sum these factors as critical tests of the intervening power’s real military and civil capacity, competence and commitment to act effectively with global reach.
What is required is not merely military strategy (a Clauswitzian emphasis on military intervention as “a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means” and which Clauswitz emphasised required an overwhelming preponderance of numbers in theatre, which is also typically overlooked), but on the political and economic ‘commerce’ itself; the necessary forethought, planning and the massing of resources and their intelligent application beyond war itself, to the economic and political elements required for lasting success, peace, stability and prosperity to follow any decisive intervention (here, the international model Gold Standard is the post-1945 ‘Marshall Plan’). Military intervention entails a taking responsibility, and responsibility requires a result. The intervention of Britain in Libya failed because there had not been sufficient planning, investment and commitment to the long-haul of the aftermath – indeed to ensure we ever reach an ‘aftermath’; but we knew that from the Iraq debacle, and it is a failure we repeat time, after time, after time.
These tests are there to discover whether what the intervening power has prepared, and what it can deliver is ‘up to the job’. It is not an inducement to intervene that may be inspired by the derring-do of a David Stirling, or of his buccaneering approach to foreign relations: ‘who dares wins’, but rather who, finally pays the price of intevention? I do not believe the British policy in Libya would have passed any of these tests, or indeed serious, calculated reflection on the risks involved, but rather is the result either of wishful thinking or extremely poor judgement; or both. If a state proposing military intervention cannot pass every single one of these tests, then frankly it is not up to the job of executing geopolitical power politics in the 21st century world, and should not undertake intervention. We fail in Britain because we do not have the capacity to deliver; what we produce in Britain is invariably and most accurately described as a “mess”.