On Wednesday, the UK parliament's Foreign Affairs Select Committee delivered a damning verdict on the 2011 military intervention in Libya. Only three months after Britain's historic Brexit vote, the report is yet another blemish on David Cameron's foreign policy record.
The Select Committee concluded that no proper intelligence analysis was carried out before the intervention, that the mission became regime change midway through the operation, and that the UK shirked its responsibility for post-conflict reconstruction. Finally, the report holds David Cameron 'ultimately responsible for the failure to deliver a coherent Libya strategy'.
The state of Libya today certainly does not strengthen Cameron's claim 'that Libya is better off without Gaddafi'. Forces under control of General Khalifa Haftar (who opposes the UN-backed Libyan government in Tripoli and supports the rival government in Tobruk) have seized the country's main oil terminals, a victory that could possibly seal the fate of the UN-backed government. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of refugees are transiting through Libya to Europe.
There has been plenty of analysis in the last five years of the intervention in Libya. The more interesting question, however, is perhaps not whether and how the UK should have intervened in Libya, but why a man who had always been critical of Tony Blair's interventionist policy went to war in Libya within a year of becoming prime minister?
In 2006, in a speech to the British American Project, Cameron said:
I am a liberal conservative, rather than a neo-conservative. Liberal – because I support the aim of spreading freedom and democracy, and support humanitarian intervention. Conservative – because I recognise the complexities of human nature, and am sceptical of grand schemes to remake the world.
More poignantly, in Cairo in 2011, Cameron stated:
I am not a naive neocon who thinks you can drop democracy out of an aeroplane at 40,000 feet or that, simply by holding an election, you have satisfied the needs of democracy.
The problem with the intervention in Libya was that this was effectively what Cameron tried. That is why the most incisive charge, as Simon Jenkins from the Guardian rightly argues, is that Cameron let the mission drift into regime change. With that came not so much a moral responsibility (captured by Colin Powell's famous 'Pottery Barn' rule; you break it, you own it) but a functional need for stabilisation and reconstruction that Cameron had acknowledged in Cairo only a month before the Libya intervention, but never actually delivered on.
In this respect, the Select Committee's report rightly scrutinises the role of the UK's National Security Council. This body was set up in 2010 precisely to avoid the pitfalls in high-level decision-making that led to the Iraq War in 2003. According to the Chilcot Inquiry:
Most decisions on Iraq pre-conflict were taken either bilaterally between Mr Blair and the relevant Secretary of State or in meetings between Mr Blair, Mr Straw [Foreign Secretary] and Mr Hoon [Defence Secretary], with No.10 officials and, as appropriate, Mr John Scarlett (Chairman of the JIC), Sir Richard Dearlove and Admiral Boyce. Some of those meetings were minuted; some were not.
While the new mechanism is an improvement, it has failed to bring well-founded concerns of various intelligence and defence officials regarding strategy to the attention of the cabinet.
The report may not just have repercussions in the UK. In the coming days the debate will likely shift across the Atlantic, where Donald Trump may seize upon the report in attempt to undermine Hillary Clinton's foreign policy credentials. While Trump will do so purely for electoral reasons, such an exercise could well serve a larger purpose. It would flesh out the thinking of Hillary Clinton at the time of the intervention, something she has not discussed in detail yet. With Libya on the brink of another crisis, and Hillary Clinton likely to be in charge by early next year, this does not seem like an unnecessary luxury.
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