Hague, Cameron flounder as Gaddafi stands firm
As Hague falters on UK’s Libya policy, Robert Fox reveals the PM was warned not to back no-fly zone
Foreign secretary William Hague sounded unusually nervous as he tried to explain UK policy on Libya on the BBC's Today programme this morning. The aim of today's Qatar conference, he said, was to get Nato allies to provide more ground attack aircraft and to help "facilitate a special fund" to support the Libyan opposition.
Asked if the UK and French aim was nothing short of kicking out the Gaddafi clan, he repeatedly fluffed his lines. He said that the UN resolutions on Libya did not allow for regime change. Nonetheless it was not a question of 'if' but 'when' Gaddafi went.
An exasperated John Humphrys then accused Hague of not having much idea of where British policy was going, nor what outcome the UK really wanted in Libya. Hague's reply could well prove the epitaph for the Cameron-Clegg government's foreign and security policy - or lack of it.
"It doesn't mean," said Hague, "because you cannot forecast everything that will happen, you do not do anything to help at all - that would be profoundly wrong." In other words, the coalition government has signed up to the Tony Blair 'something must be done' school of liberal intervention, without a clue where it will end up.
It is this approach that has worried the cooler and more professional heads in the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence about the Libyan farrago.
I can reveal that David Cameron was given military advice that a no-fly strategy was unlikely to work on its own, and that he had to have a clear view of what he wanted action to achieve in terms of regime change in Tripoli.
"The prime minister just seems to have acted on impulse. And it is very difficult to work out whose advice he was taking," one Whitehall insider told me last week.
Number Ten was warned that a drawn-out campaign in Libya would be a distraction from Afghanistan and the Gulf, in which Britain has much greater national interests.
The Libyan crisis has now reached a tactical and diplomatic stalemate. Neither side can win outright on the ground. However much money and weaponry is thrown at the rebels, they seem unlikely to inflict outright defeat on Gaddafi. The Gaddafi clan shows every sign of withstanding the siege in Tripoli and the west for at least the rest of the year.
The problem with the UK-French led military action, however limited so far, is that they have picked sides in a Libyan civil war. Moreover, the side they have picked is still largely an unknown quantity, albeit with some highly dubious elements.
The withdrawal of the Americans from offensive air operations may already have been a real game-changer for world politics. For without the US forces, Nato is very much less than the sum of its powers. The alliance has no world-class air force without the US. This is already giving pause for thought in Washington, with strong support for cutting loose from Europe, and telling most European allies to make their own alliance through the EU.
Meanwhile the European allies are quarrelling as much in the EU as they are in the Nato forum. Germany has told Italy it is not prepared to help out with the surge of refugees into Italy from Libya and Tunisia. With a touch of Machiavelli, Silvio Berlusconi is issuing temporary "humanitarian" residence visas to refugees that can support themselves; and this means they can travel to many European countries, including France and Germany, under the Schengen open border arrangement.
Meanwhile Gaddafi and his gang remain in Tripoli. This week we have heard William Hague waxing eloquent on Radio 4 about William Pitt the Younger's prowess as war leader.
It's a pity he didn't heed the words of a more recent master of international guile, Francois Mitterrand, who said during the crisis with Gaddafi over Chad in the 1980s: "You can poke him in the eye, you can bomb him even, but Gaddafi somehow will always still be there." ·
Comments are now closed on this article