2007 - 2022

Another Fine Mess

bush_obama_nope_06President 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”.


Comments (15)

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  1. Blair paterson says:

    You would think Rifkind would have the decency to stay quiet with his and Straws past record

  2. Mike Edwards says:

    Great article. However, it does frustrate me that critical analysis of UK foreign policy often does not go further than comparing the officially stated motivations and objectives vs the results on the ground.

    Time and time again we see horrific and expensive “intervention” failures. But isn’t it strange that the establishment never seem to learn the lessons and that the alternative media fills up with vast amounts of detailed commentary bemoaning the outcomes, but hardly ever questioning deeper?

    It is very possible, that in formulating these intervention strategies, the political/military campaign directors develop a set of political, economic and/or humanitarian stated objectives that it hopes to “sell” to the public. While at the same time they keep their true objectives out of the public eye – this kind of use of information is after all what the military is trained to do.

    It looks to me like a “mess” is exactly what our interventions are supposed to achieve. To create a “fog of war” for our corporations to set to work extracting resources, while at the same time neutralise the possibility of any effective local response to incoming Western interests.

    And it also looks like destruction of Middle Eastern society is part of a longer term agenda to transform the culture, social fabric, patterns of ownership and human relationships with in the region – much like the effect WW1 & WW2 had in Europe.

    Without the destruction of the established societal order and rebuilding of society with finace and technology at its heart, the process of putting financial and technology advantages to work for those that control them, is a slow and uncertain process. Better to wipe the board clean and rebuild as required!

  3. Brian says:

    And if we didn’t already know that the current UK Govt is hollow to the core, along comes the greedy, grasping chancer, Malcolm Rifkind to prove it.

  4. john young says:

    We have no foreign policy we are lackeys to the USA/Israel neo-con nut cases,we do their bidding whenever/whatever is called upon,no matter how heinous.

    1. John S Warren says:

      Not really all down to the US here; almost wholly a UK project. Cameron had to persuade Obama contra US better judgement on the matter; unfortunately Obama should just have laughed at Cameron’s sheer folly, followed by “NO”! Why not: who knows?

      There, all done and no lower-case ”I” needed; but my comment reads badly! I am not very good at such matters – the French author Georges Perec (1936-82) wrote a whole novel ‘LA DISPARITION’ (1969) that does not possess even one letter “e”. So. So?

      1. John S Warren says:

        Actually Perec’s prose appears to suggest what may not actually be there, and may be forgotten.

      2. Bill Ramsay says:

        A good article. However I tend to agree with John Young. USA ” leadership” may have been at arms length but approval by US , as you say, was critical.

        At one level rationales for our early 21st century constant expeditionary warfare mode has an absurdity about it, as far as I am aware, no one “examines” the “Bavarian rationale” of between 20 and 30k of Bavarians “invading” Russia in the summer of 1812.

        It had nothing to do with Bavaria’s relationship with Russian and everything to do with Bavaria’s relationship with France vis a vis the other early 19th Century German states. Where Imperial France trod so to did the auxiliaries. Where 21cent USA treads , so to does the auxiliaries. A perspective the British establishment and the BBC would find offensdive.

        1. John S Warren says:

          The “i” problem appears fixed?

          A fair point made, but the US was not proposing to “tread” on Libya. I think the British drew the US into a bad decision (Britain was supposed have established knowledge of the country; but like so much of Britain’s foreign policy pretensions, it is all something of an illusion) and I think Obama’s Presidentially relatively intemperate remarks on the subject betray an underlying truth, and real disappointment. It should be a reminder that Britain overtrades on a “special relationship” that is much less critical to the US than it is to Britain.

  5. Helen Scott says:

    Thank you for this article and bringing the current situation into the forefront for me.

  6. JohnEdgar says:

    Another gallipollean mess by the post imperial etonians. At least, no one has proposed “cold steel” or “send in the ghurkas”!
    Cameron’s approach “we have to do something” does not mean you do the first thing that comes up and when it goes wrong you say it would have been worse if we had not done anything.
    The msm and the BBC have done very little to “thunder at the government” for such failure.
    Still, I suppose someone in Whitehall will come up with a “new strategy”. Send a gunboat and “don’t shoot till you see the whites of their eyes.” Perhaps the word “fuzzy wuzzies” should have been put in there?

  7. willie says:

    As Donald Trump says, let us punch his face, let’s beat the crap out of him, let them leave in a stretcher. It’s the way we do it. Don’t let’s kid ourselves about this democracy thing. Force, brute strength, aggression, that’s the way we do it. Iraq was no mistake. It was standard policy, and we’ll do it again if need be. We are after all a world power.

  8. willie says:

    Aye and it’s time they rounded up the Pinkos and Nats infesting this site with their spineless wishy washy nonsense. Who gives them the right to even speak. Any more nonsense and we’ll show em what’s what and who’s who. Bloody Pinkos, think they’ve got a right to speak, to spout their claptrap. Well we showed thatthat Sheridan one how the establishment works. Big police hit on his house, lift the wife for illegal miniatures, give em the works. Make sure the wee one knew too that Mum and Dad wete gettong turned over too. Ah well Bella Caledonia next – I mean how can any democracy put up with this claptrap. Vote RISE!

  9. al says:

    can’t get the links working on either of the articles cited at the start of this essay?

    1. John S Warren says:

      Thank you for that. I do not know why. I am glad you wish to read them. May I suggest you just google Bella Caledonia and the article titles? I appreciate it is a clumsy solution but I checked and it worked for me. It is all I can suggest.

      1. al says:

        I shall, and indeed should have already. Just thought I would mention it though.

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